February 23, 2010

They Don’t Make Computer Manuals Like They Used To

My family’s first computer was a Franklin Ace 1000. I think we got it in 1983. Franklin Ace computers were clones of Apple II computers, which eventually prompted a lawsuit from Apple and a court ruling that operating systems can be protected by copyright. The computers may have been clones, but the Franklin manuals were definitely original.

I recently found copies of manuals for the Franklin Ace 1000 and its predecessor the Ace 100. They were similar computers, so the manuals share a lot of content in common. Both are pretty incredible.

For example, the manual for the Franklin Ace 100 begins with about 40 pages of computer basics (What are they? What can they do? etc). And then, on page 40, two thirds of the way down the page, there is a chapter heading called “The Ancestral Territorial Imperatives of the Trumpeter Swan.” Here’s how the chapter begins:

I like how low-tech the manual is. The whole thing is done in a Courier typeface, with chapter headings in all-caps. Here’s how the same chapter heading appeared in the manual for the later Franklin Ace 1000:

You can see that this manual is more designed. There are friendlier fonts. There are cute cartoons of Benjamin Franklin throughout. But some of the written humor is lost. Gone is the reference to a “disgustingly cute phrase.” The chapter heading is cushioned with “A good title for this section might be…” This version of the joke is a bit too on-the-nose for me.

But the Ace 1000 manual isn’t just a watered down version of the Ace 100 manual. It has its own jokes, including several humorous glossary entries. For example, the first chapter of the manual lists things you can do with a computer, including “get a list of recommendations for wines to serve with Terrine Maison.” In the glossary, you’ll find Terrine Maison helpfully defined between entries for source and utility program:

Reading through the Ace 100 manual, I came across a section so shocking that I can’t imagine a modern computer company even considering putting it in a manual. In this section, you are advised to circumvent copy protection to make personal backups of programs you lawfully purchased:

And it still hasn’t happened.

The Ace 100 manual goes on to describe three categories of crooks in the computer world. The first category is “Them,” the computer salespeople who overhype their products with advertising gimmicks. The second category is “You.” Franklin isn’t actually calling you a crook, but they say that software manufacturers will treat you like one:

The last category of crooks is “US”:

Well they weren’t, technically, until the court ruling.

Most of the “Crooks” section is omitted from the Ace 1000 manual. A condensed version still appears in the section about copy protection.

Both manuals make 80s pop culture references, explaining the concept of computer programs by comparing them to TV programs like Hill Street Blues, The Dukes of Hazzard, or Live at the Met with Itzhak Perlman (who the glossary helpfully defines as “a violinist”). Former Good Morning America host David Hartman is described as “nothing but reconfigured electronic signals [you watch] over coffee in the morning.”

In both manuals, the author tries to explain what kinds of programs are useful and which to stay away from. He states that “the sole purpose of many of these wonders in programming is to separate you from your money.” And then he gives this warning:

This strikes me as a reference to Damon Runyon, whose stories of 1930s New York hustlers were the basis for the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls. Damon Runyon wrote, “One of these days in your travels, a guy is going to come up to you and show you a nice brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken, and this guy is going to offer to bet you that he can make the Jack of Spades jump out of the deck and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not bet this man, for as sure as you are standing there, you are going to end up with an earful of cider.”

I wondered what other inside jokes the manual has that I wouldn’t know about. The manuals are uncredited, but I figured out that they were written by a guy named Sal Manetta, who later went on to work for Unisys and Intel. He is now retired. I couldn’t reach him, but I did get hold of Bob Applegate, a programmer who was at Franklin at the time.

Bob wrote:

We hired this tech writer guy who knew nothing about personal computers named Sal Manetta. He was the manager of the Publication group. Sal hired a funky artist [Frank someone-or-other] who did most of the drawings of Ben Franklin in the user manual. Sal was supposed to learn about computers like an average person back then, such as reading magazines, talking to salesmen at stores, etc. Sometimes Dave and I would head over to a local place where I used to work (where Franklin discovered me), would “introduce” ourselves to Sal and give him advice on buying his first computer, much to the annoyance of the sales staff there. Sal would get back to the office and tell us what the sales folks said about us once Dave and I left :)

Bob mentioned that many of the cartoons are based on real events and people Sal encountered at Franklin. Here are some of the cartoons along with Bob’s comments:

“Engineering was in a long, narrow building with no windows, nicknamed ‘the cave’. Sal was never exposed to engineers before Franklin, and we sometimes overwhelmed him. He often said ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter’ to people on their first visit to our building.”

“Look for the one of the boy soldering with an evil looking computer… that’s me… I wore Converse sneakers to work back then; look at the star on the side of his sneaker.”

“The computer salesman speaking BASIC code was my old boss at a local computer store.”

“The guy smoking a cigarette and dumping ashes onto the computer is a repair guy from the same local store.”

And where did the trumpeter swans come from?

“The ‘Territorial Imperatives of the Trumpeter Swan’ was also real. Resumes came pouring into Franklin, and we’d all look through them. One guy had written a research paper with that crazy title, and we all thought it was pretty interesting. So, Sal worked it into the manual as a chapter title.”

After Franklin lost their lawsuit with Apple, they continued to sell computers that were similar to Apple’s, but without any infringing code. I found the manual for one of those computers, the Franklin Ace 500. Sadly, there is nothing creative to be found within. It reads like stereo instructions. I was disappointed to see there’s even a chapter with the disgustingly cute name “Getting Started.”

Want to read the manuals in full? Here they are:

Franklin Ace 100 (PDF) - via
Franklin Ace 1000 (PDF) - via
Franklin Ace 500 (PDF) - via

That last “via” link also has the original Apple II manuals, for comparison.

Update 3/21/10: Sal has weighed in, leaving a lengthy comment here


I’ll add some more comments about the manual, but first, Franklin Computer was the first company I worked fore, hired as a 19 year old from a local computer store. They gave me a lot of unique experiences in my life and introduced me to a lot of very interesting an intelligent people, such as Sal Manetta.

Okay, on to comments…

“You’re not a programmer, It’s a dirty job” Sal sat in the office next to Dave Warker (Sr Software Engineer) and I (Software Engineer). Sal would sometimes watch us write 6502 assembly language and would walk away asking why anyone in their right mind would want to do that for a living (usually while laughing).

“I Don’t Do Windows” Pretty funny in hindsight, eh?

The picture of the computer in the shopping cart came from Dave Warker, I think. I seem to remember a hallway discussion with Sal about things computers weren’t good at, and shopping lists was one of them (although I now keep several on my iPhone).

The printer making all the noise was about me and my apartment. REmember, an Epson MX80 was the norm back then, and they were noisy. I told Sal I’d wait until mid-morning on weekends to print stuff so as not to annoy my neighbors.

“Reset Switches Are Your Worst Enemy” came from me. I had an early ACE-1000 (replaced my ACE-100). I was working on some code when someone wanted to look at my machine. As they were moving it around, tipping to look at different angles, etc, they hit the reset button on the front. So much for my project. Dave Warker had a look of horror on his face as my computer reloaded DOS.

“An elephant never forgets, but you didn’t buy an elephant.” I seem to remember that being a Dave line. Same for “You can’t fix it, but you can make it worse.”

The guy in the trench coat selling software is definitely Dave. He’d poke his head into Sal’s office and say things like “Psst… Mister, you wanna buy some software?”

I’m pretty sure the dead computer with Ben and the gun came from Dave. If things went badly, he’d point his finger at the computer and pretend to pull a trigger. No, real guns were never involved.


The COPY program was written by me, but Dave McWherter later did a ***MUCH*** better/faster version.

FUD (Franklin Utility for Diskettes) was Dave Warker and I, which explains the totally inconsistent user interface. Some sections were very wordy (mine) while others were more terse (Dave’s). I had easier pieces of it, while Dave had a lot more complicated scenarios to deal with. All the “Oops…” errors sounds like Dave :)

In the Glossary…

Computer Calisthenics… this was taken from Dr Dobb’s Journal of Computer Calisthenics and Orthodontia, which was a magazine all the software people read.

Dixie, Itzhak Perlman (Sal joked me about being a country bumpkin because I grew up on a farm and had little knowledge of “the arts”), jug of cider, Terrine Maison, and zap. Go look ‘em up.

Look in the index for PRETTY PATTERN.

Hey, Franklin provided some of the most fun 26 months of my life!

More things crossed my mind. We (engineering) were pretty much unhappy about copy protection. A future Franklin engineer (Bob Alleger) and I had written a disk copy program for the Atari before I was at Franklin, so Sal was certainly surrounded by people who disliked copy protection. I suspect the lawyers wanted the manuals toned down a bit ;)

I stated we hired a guy who knew nothing about personal computers, but that wasn’t an insult to Sal, it was BY DESIGN. The VP of Engineering, Dave McWherter (an amazing programmer) wanted manuals written for first-time computer owners, so he wanted someone who had to learn from the ground up and could explain what he learned. Dave passed over guys with personal computer experience in favor of Sal, which was an excellent move. Sal is a very intelligent fellow, as were the other people he brought on staff.

Yes, but where are the beagle bros. ascii pinups with all the hires colors and memory map and peeks and pokes?

Oh, here they are.

Great post. Not many people would have gotten the Damon Runyon reference, I suspect.

Also, nice “Beetlejuice” allusion.

Great stuff - I wish they still did make computer manuals like that…

I came across this readme file yesterday which is similarly leftfield:


I am “just” a stay at home mom (who also works from home) and I randomly (in every sense of the word) found your blog and was laughing at this post. I feel like Sal Manelle- a writer with no computer knowledge, so I LOVED his style and obvious sense of humor.

I wish I had something more interesting to say, to give you a laugh in return, but you must forgive me that I have 2 small children running around (1 of whom is roaring at a pretend dinosaur), as well as the fact that I am in Scotland (currently), so we are 6 hrs ahead of you, thus noticeably more tired and deserving of mercy. Thanks for the good read, tho!


Nice post, David. Thanks.

Awesome article. I remember my first computer, a 386DX from a small manufacturer called “APLUS”, had similarly in-the-know humor for its instruction manual… Too bad the growing ubiquity of computers in the 2000s means less and less fun for geeks like us. I remember hating Gateway 2000 back in the 90s because it just didn’t feel like a computer company, more of an appliance for rich people to use Win95 and the Internet.

Bizarre CAPTCHA code: “letin Stoeitzing”

Ghouls. Unsound Mind. Bird Fixation. Diabolical. OF COURSE these words belong in a computer manual. GREAT post!

Imperatives of the

It’s always nice to know of companies who never forgot they were composed of people.

Thank you.

The cave sign “Abandon hope all ye who enter” is clearly citing Dante Alighieri’s Inferno (Lasciate ogni speranza o voi ch’entrate). In particular, this was the very sign written on Inferno’s gate! Sal Manetta could not pay a better tribute to his Italian ancestor ;)

Regards from Italy,

I imagine Franklin could barely refrain from hiring someone named Applegate.

It’s even better. For a while, the Manager of Software’s first name was Frank, but the company always listed his name as Franklin. My middle name (Frank) would sometimes be expanded to Franklin.

My brother has been with Franklin since ‘83. Yeah, they still exist.

I remember seeing my first personal computers when I was about 15 and my Dad took me to some Kodak engineer’s house who had a (my apologies) Apple IIe, on which he did two especially cool things: 1) controlled his HO model train layout, and 2) could play about 2 seconds of cassette-quality sound (the opening to John Williams’orchestral _Theme from Star Wars_). The thing that especially impressed me was that the Apple apparently came with manuals that included the assembly source code listings of the operating system. Five years (!) later I finally got a computer of my own — the Atari 800, which I was already familiar with as a consequence of a scholarship program at my first college (I didn’t get the scholarship, but a girl who did became my girlfriend). I was DISTINCTLY disappointed in the Atari for two things: it didn’t come with source code, and BASIC wasn’t built in (you had to buy a cartridge). I later came to appreciate the latter and to obtain copies of the former. One thing I DID like was that the Atari BASIC manual simply sat you down and told you all the keywords of the (BASIC) language and what they did, thoroughly and in plain English. I’ve never seen another computer manual or book that lived up to that standard.

I could go on and on, into both the future AND the past from those days.

This brings back memories. I remember our first computer, an IBM XT and all the compulsive backups to avoid ruining the originals. I also remember all the odd forms of copy protection as well. Various versions of Sierra games like Kings Quest asked about what word was on what page in the manual. What like you couldn’t copy the manual as well?

Unfortunately these days anything that makes documentation interesting and memorable has be drained out of the manual writing by corporate execs and overly stuff editors.
Occasionally something slips past, like this topic on MSDN for VB 6.0
Check the 4 section heading down. Gollum makes his way into the docs.

Wow this article was great! It really brought me back in time, reminding me of my teen years, and what inspired my love of computers and the culture. Thanks!

I love this article! As someone who loves old computing stuffs this is great. And also thanks so much to W for sharing the Beagle Bros. with us. I’m starting a masters in the history of design and am very interested in tech and graphic design. This may be a good place to start!

Great article. I had the IMMENSE pleasure to work with Sal at a little company in NJ called Dialogic, which was later acquired by Intel, from where we both finally escaped. As Director of the Support Services organization, I had a vested interest in the quality of our manuals, as there was a direct correlation with how busy my application engineers would be when a new product or s/w release came out. Sal is a kindred spirit, who understood the necessity of looking at things from the customers’ perspective. And we had more than a little fun from time to time by annoying the Marketing hypsters and the Engineering elitists.

Thanks for a great reminder of the halcyon days when “real” men spoke assembler & machine code, or they didn’t speak at all …

I worked with Mr Manetta at Unisys in the late 80’s/early 90’s. (I an engineering manager, Sal in his documentation role.)

A little unusual, somewhat eccentric, definitely marching to his own drum. Sal is, to this day, one of my closest friends.

Thanks for the great walk down memory lane. I had the great pleasure of working with Sal Manetta at Intel. He is not only a writer of extraordinary talent and a wonderful human being, but also a creature of infinite wit - when wit was actually allowed in the computer industry.

The story that best encapsulated Sal, for me, was when we were both sentenced to attend one of those canned “management development” events. The participants were divided into teams. Sal and I were on the same team.

One of the tasks that the team was assigned was to produce a skit for the final night. I was “volunteered” to write the skit. I said that if I was going to write one that was sufficiently wacky, I’d need a lot of props.

Sal asked what I needed.

I started to write and said, “I’ll need a hazmat suit.”

“Got it in the trunk of my car,” Sal said.

I found it preposterous that he would just happen to have such an item in the trunk of his car so, to test him, I came up with wilder and wilder items such as “I’ll need a scuba diver outfit.”

“Got it in the trunk of my car,” Sal would invaribaly answer for item after item.

Finally I said, “Bull! No one has all that kind of stuff in the trunk of their car.”

Sal took me out to his car, an auto as big as a tugboat, opened the trunk, and, sure enough, every single item I’d listed was there!

THAT’s Sal!!!

He’s one of a kind.

What a wonderful story. No, manuals are quite boring and if it weren’t for search functions quite incomprehensible and useless.

The first computer I worked with in 1983 also, was a “something” 64 which we juiced up to 96.

When our government department finally computerized a few years later, the IT section kept all the manuals in a vault so no one could use them. Ownership of a manual meant ownership of the program in those days.

I still have the manuals for my ACE 1000 that I bought back in 1980 (Actually, I still have the machine, too!). Thanks for the the inside story of the manuals - I had always thought that the guys at Franklin had a blast putting that manual together. Thanks also for the ‘trip down memory lane’!

Wow, my husband had the distributorship for Franklin Ace 1000 while he was in college. We sold hundreds of them.

Wow! This is quite a surprise and very flattering to boot. I haven’t looked this far back in a while…

It’s hard to argue with any of Bob Applegate’s comments: lots of folks at Franklin contributed in special, sometimes peculiar ways to making those manuals what they were. It was no orderly process by any stretch. When Apple failed to get a preliminary injunction against Franklin in federal court, concerns about Franklin’s viability seemed to vanish. Demand for the product was as enormous as it was immediate. Unfortunately, there were a lot of things that still needed to be buttoned up to ship something that was consumer-ready. One of them was a production-level manual.

I wasn’t just new to computers, I was new to the area, just in from Colorado. I started with the company the day before Franklin won its first battle in court. When I arrived in Dave McWherter’s office that first day, he told me that I had to get that manual done. He also informed me that, in the few weeks since I’d been hired, I’d been promoted from technical writer to publications manager. I knew enough to know that meant arranging for typesetting, printing, binders, inventory control, staffing, and a whole lot more than writing. I also knew that I HAD to find an illustrator. That became high priority: I knew that what I wanted was not going to be easy to find: a cartoonist who could also do technical illustrations.

I don’t remember how I found Deborah Wolfe, but it wasn’t right out of the chute. She herself was a photographer, but she was also a photographer’s and illustrator’s rep. I saw Frank Williams’ work in the portfolio she brought to the office and, unlike the other illustrators, Frank seemed to have multiple and highly diverse styles. I met him the next day, and I sensed that we would work well together. He also knew how to design books, so we wrote a contract and got to work.

I’m struck by Bob’s remarkable memory of the period. To say that Franklin’s engineering group could be overwhelming is something of an understatement—sometimes working with them was mind-numbing, seemingly simple questions sparking endless debates or long and incomprehensible (to me, that is) explanations—but it was fun, and I’m sure that it would have been more fun if there’d been less time pressure. Thanks to Soul of a New Machine, I came to learn that a fair degree of chaos coupled with impossible schedules were part of the industry’s signature. The next 25 years of my life bore that out.

At that point, however, personal computers were just emerging from the hobbyists’ exclusive domain, and all of Franklin’s engineers were hobbyists to varying degrees. Today, Steve Godin would call them a tribe or a cult, a group with a passion for some special interest, their own language, norms, and sets of acceptable behaviors. The programmer’s culture of the day was as rich for them as it was arcane to the outsider. Although I never joined their club, they made sure that I joined in their escapades, whether it was throwing toast at the midnight showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show, sushi or calzones for lunch, injury-inducing sky diving lessons, drunken camping in NJ’s Pine Barrens, or skiing in the Poconos or New Hampshire. I guess I was a social member of their group.

Although programming is mostly mainstream now (an ongoing romance with vending machines and long, odd hours perhaps the only remaining vestiges of the earlier culture), working with those guys was tremendous fun, albeit frustrating at times. I believe that the ACE 1000 manual reflects both the fun and the frustration of the transition from the hobbyist’s obsessive fascination to the utilitarian office tool running VisiCalc. Ironically, games may have smoothed the transition for many on both sides of the divide.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about looking back this way is the opportunity to see progress. Technical progress aside—God knows, it’s awesome—the technology is so much more accessible now than I ever thought it would be then. It’s revolutionized the way we work, think, socialize, entertain ourselves, and communicate. I feel very lucky to have been a tiny part of it, but more, to have had it be such a large part of who I am.


Thanks for sharing — we mentioned the post on episode #152 of RetroMacCast and interviewing Bob Applegate for Episode #154.

Im kinda glad they dont make computer manuals….if they would be anything like most electrical manuals….ie written by someonhe in china who’s grash of English is somwhat wanting!

While I don’t have the manual I am selling a franklin ace 100, if anyone is interested…

franklin ace 100

Thanks for this posting man. So whatever happened to franklin Ace?