This is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report: 25 Microchips That Shook the World.
On 14 November 1999, an episode of ”Futurama,” the animated sci-fi comedy series conceived by ”The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening, jolted computer geeks with a display of technological acumen absolutely unprecedented in prime-time entertainment. In the episode, ”Fry and the Slurm Factory,” a character named Professor Farnsworth points his F-ray at the head of the show’s famously ill-tempered robot, Bender. It reveals a little rectangle, apparently a chip, labeled ”6502.”
The 6502 was a beloved--at least by geeks--8-bit microprocessor created by MOS Technology in 1975. It was the chip that the scruffy-bearded, sandal-wearing Steve Wozniak used to build the Apple II in 1977--”The Machine That Changed Everything,” as PC World once put it. It was also used in the Commodore PET, the BBC Micro, and a host of other systems that fomented the personal computer revolution.
The chip’s cameo on ”Futurama” rocked the nerdosphere, prompting a burst of commentary in online forums (the nerd equivalent of cocktail party chatter). There was also a description on Wikipedia, in the site’s entry about the 6502. But we here at IEEE Spectrum had a few questions that somehow didn’t come up amid all the noise. For starters: Why the 6502? And also: Is it possible that Bender’s maker, Mom’s Friendly Robot Co., somehow obtained Bender’s design from a scruffy-bearded, sandal-wearing computer geek who lived in northern California circa the late 20th century?
To get to the truth, Associate Editor Erico Guizzo sought the brain behind Bender’s brain. That’d be David X. Cohen, executive producer and head writer of ”Futurama,” who, as it turns out, is quite a geek himself. Here’s Cohen’s response:
I spent a good percentage of my high school years programming the Apple II Plus in 6502 assembly language, so I have fond memories of long nights alone with this chip. My greatest 6502 achievement was a video game I called Zoid that was played heavily by me and my father and no one else. Incidentally, Zoid incorporated digitized speech (me saying the word ” Zoid ,” slowed down to make it mightier), which was pretty rare at the time. The digital audio for that single syllable used much more memory than the entire program. I tried to sell the game to Broderbund Software, but I knew I was in for bad news when the return letter they sent me started with a misspelling of my name.
From a programming perspective, a more impressive feat was the creation of an actual working computer language (”FLEET”) for the Apple II Plus that I developed with two high school friends, David Borden and David Schiminovich. We called ourselves ”The Glitchmasters.” This language was intended to make it easy to write high-speed graphics programs (that is, video games) for the Apple. None of us knew anything about compilers, yet using no references on the subject and working entirely in 6502 assembly, we somehow wrote a working compiler. It is even more impressive when you consider that virtually no comments appeared in the program--just page after page of assembly language.