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The Smalltalk Balloon
Last updated at 5:06 pm UTC on 7 October 2003
For many years a page about the Smalltalk Balloon has been posted at UIUC purporting to explain why a hot-air balloon is the symbol of Smalltalk. While that link explains how Robert Tinney's cover for Byte's 1981 issue on Smalltalk came to be the logo of Smalltalk-80, it never properly explained where the hot air balloon came from in the first place. The time has come to tie up that loose end. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, and

The Real Story About the Smalltalk Balloon

by Dan Ingalls

Everyone in our group wanted to challenge the "ivory tower" image of Smalltalk in Byte's special issue on Pascal because, in fact, we were all working very hard at the time to get Smalltalk-80 out the door from Xerox. The cover of that issue depicted the "land of Smalltalk" as a remote island, and that triggered a connection for me out of which was born the fanstasy of liberating Smalltalk from the ivory tower by balloon ascent.

My favorite book from youth was The Mysterious Island, by Jules Verne. It is the story of an engineer, Cyrus Harding, who escapes from Richmond during the Civil War in a hot air balloon. He ends up stranded on an island but, through ingenuity and a bit of luck, he manages to recreate most of the accomplishments and comforts of civilization on his own (with help from his friends, an amiable orangutan, and an unseen benefactor). Cyrus Harding became my childhood standard for resourcefulness and the conviction that anything can be accomplished if you are clever and persistent.

The island connection made me think of a balloon as the vehicle for Smalltalk's release. When the opportunity came to design the cover for the Byte issue on Smalltalk, I made the suggestion of a balloon lifting off from the island shown on the Pascal cover, and everyone liked it. Robert Tinney executed the wonderful graphic that we know so well, and the rest is history.

There is a further coincidence in this particular literary allusion: It is revealed at the end of The Mysterious Island that the island is actually a retreat for a more well-known Verne character, and that character happens also to be the childhood hero of a more well-known figure in the history of Smalltalk.