The history of BostonCHI

It’s not surprising that the first local chapter of SIGCHI was formed in the Boston area. Two of the first five national CHI meetings were held here, in 1982 and 1986. During that period the manufacturing of minicomputer hardware and software was largely focused in the local area. Companies such as Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), Wang, Data General, and Prime were developing minicomputers with proprietary operating systems and applications software. Lotus Development Corp. had released 1-2-3 in 1983 and had a growing facility in Cambridge on the Charles River. The MIT Media Lab opened in 1985.

Working in these organizations was a talented group of pioneers of the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) movement. A large group at DEC were proselytizing about human centered development, including Harry Hersh, Dick Rubinstein, Dennis Wixon, Karen Holtzblatt, and Michael Good. The first book length discussion of HCI, The Human Factor, was published by Harry and Dick in 1984. Joe Dumas was writing his book, Designing User Interfaces for Software, which would be published in 1987.

It is interesting to look back at the HCI issues these people were working on. Dennis was part of a DEC group working on the relative usability of command, menu, and GUI interfaces. Deborah Mayhew was at Wang working on a new GUI to its suite of office automation software. Gary Perlman was teaching software engineering at the Wang Institute. Joe Dumas was working on a contract with the Air Force studying how dictating equipment, fax machines, and optical scanners were enhancing productivity. Kate Ehrlick was working on human factors guidelines at Honeywell.

The 1986 CHI conference was the stimulus for a group of us to get together to share ideas more often. Why wait a whole year when we had so many local people doing human-computer interaction work? Some groups had been meeting informally but we felt that there was enough interest for a local chapter. A small group of about 8-10 of us started to get together for dinner to plan how to organize. There were no local SIGCHI chapters, but the national organization was encouraging and several of us were involved in SIGCHI activities.
When the group had a plan of action, it gathered together a mailing list of local people who were members of either SIGCHI or Human Factors Society. There was no email at the time. A meeting was held in Cambridge at a company called Thinking Machines. Kate Ehrlich and Wendy Mackay chaired the meeting, explained how it came about and asked whether the group would be interested in forming a local chapter to be called Greater Boston SIGCHI.

Here are Joe Dumas’ recollections of that meeting, “At the first meeting, I did something very unusual for me. I volunteered to participate in the formation of the chapter. I became the “Program Chair”, which meant that I invited speakers and hosted them at each meeting. The person, by chance, I sat beside at that first meeting was Dennis Wixon. We have been colleagues since.”

Harry Hersh and Gary Perlman designed a logo for the new chapter:

That evening and the first few years of the chapter were special for all of us. Friendships were formed that still are active. Sharon Smith and Linda Evers, who are still great friends met and started writing and snail mailing our newsletter. Deborah Mayhew has this to add, “I made so many professional friends through my involvement with GBSIGCHI over the years. Not to mention the great opportunity to share experiences and learn from others.” . Deborah later became part of the organizing committee for the 1986 CHI conference in Boston. At that same meeting, Gary Perlman was the student volunteer chair, which he says was his “last management position.” Dennis became the program co-chair of the 2000 CHI meeting and Wendy Mackay later became Chair of the national SIGCHI and Kate was secretary/treasurer of the executive committee 1985-1987.
A final thought from Dennis, “It was the start of a life long career and a series of close friendships that have lasted 30 years. I think we all can consider ourselves most fortunate to have been there at the beginning. As the song says “thanks for the memories”.

Harry Hersh and Dick Rubinstein
Deborah Mayhew
Kate Ehrlick
Joe Dumas

The Human Side of Tech