The HTML Editor That Never Was

A long time ago, (what feels like a lifetime to be honest), I really wanted to be a computer programmer. I remember plunking away at the keys of my Commodore 64, writing programs in BASIC. I would’ve been around 9 years old at the time, and the programs were all “Choose Your Own Adventure” style games. Just walls of text with basic graphics drawn from the ASCII characters available to me. Of course I didn’t know what ASCII was at the time, or how to write a program that consisted of more than print and goto statements.

My dad recognized this passion and started picking up programming books for me. These were hardcover books full of code, that you’d transcribe by hand into your computer, and voila! you have a working program. I’d spend hours meticulously copying each line, character for character. I loved every minute of it.

Then, one day, lightning struck. Not in the metaphorical inspirational way – no, we’re talking about literal lightning. As fate would have it, we were all home for lunch that day, which was a rarity for us. A large bolt of lightning struck a tree near the house, traveled underground on the hydro lines, and into the house before jumping to my parent’s car. A squirrel that was hanging out in the tree that’d been hit was blasted 30 feet across the yard. Telephone lines were reduced to ash inside the walls, and the electrical outlets shot sparks. It’s safe to say at that moment we were terrified. When the dust settled, we realized what’d happened and took stock of the damage. The bolt had been so aggressive that a concrete slab located between the tree and the house had been split open. None of the electronics in the car worked. And the beloved C64 that we’d spent so many hours writing programs on, was dead.

After endless negotiations with the insurance company, we ended up with a new computer. I was assured that we were getting a better computer than the C64, and when the new computer arrived at my home I saw my first IBM XT. Compared to the Commodore it felt like taking a giant step backward. It had a monochrome monitor, a giant clunky case, and a very, very loud keyboard. But it had something that the C64 never did – a 20MB hard drive. This meant for the first time our programs could be stored in one location, instead of looking for 5.25″ floppy disks or blank cassette tapes to write our software to.

Eventually, the XT was replaced with an IBM 386dx40, and the color monitor finally returned. I can’t remember the exact hard drive size, but I believe it was around 100 megabytes. My dad had also sprung for an upgrade when he purchased the new PC and opted for 2MB of RAM. At the time, this was the pinnacle of home computing. The 386 was where my real passion for computers started to take hold, as my brother and I realized that this system could be tinkered with. We could open it up, move components around, and upgrade them as needed. Over time, we ended up with a dial-up modem and a terminal program, and we could start exploring the ‘online’ world, through local BBS systems.

I can’t remember exactly the year it happened, but my brother ended up starting a bulletin board system of his own and eventually became a SWAG distribution node. SWAG stood for “SourceWare Archive Group” and it was a way for people to distribute chunks of programming code across a network of bulletin boards. This was my introduction to the Pascal and (eventually) Turbo Pascal programming language, and I was in love.

As it turns out our high school was also a huge champion of the Pascal languages, thanks to a teacher at the school who had the unique gift of being truly passionate about the topic he was teaching. He believed in the Pascal so much, that when textbooks appropriate for high-school skill levels didn’t exist, he wrote his own. This wasn’t a college professor’s way to make some additional cash by mandating the students buy the texts. I’m fairly certain that he paid for every copy out of his own pocket, and I know I never had to pay a cent for one of his texts.

Fast forward a few years and in 1997 I was in grade 12, which should have been my last full year of high school. We had the option at the time of coming back for an additional year to gain some additional credits or make up for lost ones but I never had the option to skip any of my final year because to put it honestly, I wasn’t a great student. I suffered from a lack of motivation in topics that didn’t interest me, which is a trait I recognize in my own children. Another trait I recognize in my kids is an extreme passion for the topics which do interest me. And for me in grade 12, my passion was computers. The one class I excelled in was my senior computer programming course which was centered around Borland’s Delphi, the Windows version of Turbo Pascal.

What set this class apart was at the time, anyone who was in the senior programming class really wanted to be there. We were the computer whiz-kids of the school and it was an awesome opportunity to use the school’s high-end computers. What really interested the kids in this class the most however was the final exam. Instead of a formal test at the end of the year, we were tasked with creating our own program in Delphi over the course of the semester. We could ask for as much help as needed and were expected to do all of the code writing in class. Our teacher would act as a guide, and we’d work out solutions to complex problems together. It felt like a true collaborative effort, as when a student’s particularly difficult coding hurdle was overcome, our teacher would pause our programming work and we’d all discuss this exciting new development.

It’s hard to imagine now, but at the time the Internet and World Wide Web as we know it was in its infancy. The Internet itself had existed for years by this point, but it was inaccessible to the vast majority of the population. Things weren’t as simple as just connecting to WiFi (which didn’t exist), and opening a browser or email client. Anyone who was online in any capacity had put in some effort to do so. There were already companies trying to make the web a more accessible place however, companies like Geocities, Angelfire, and Tripod. These were sites that allowed you to host small simple websites you created from scratch. In 1996, almost a year before starting my senior year computer programming project, I created my first website.

Most of my website development was done using a text editor such as notepad, which I’d cut and paste into the editor on the website. There was no hand-holding at all, everything had to be done from scratch. So when it came time to pick a topic for my final project, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Over the course of the semester, I put every bit of effort into my project, a text-based HTML editor I’d affectionally named HTML Scribe.

The software had HTML website templates built-in – just click a button and fill in the blanks. If you wanted to make the text bold, highlight it and click a button and the appropriate tags would appear surrounding the text. If you weren’t sure of a color, use a color picker and the corresponding hexadecimal color code would be selected and inserted. Honestly, if I had to pick one thing I was proudest of in my entire high school career, I would have to say it was HTML Scribe. My teacher was so impressed with my efforts that he asked if he could include my code in the next printing of his Delphi textbook for the class. I eagerly agreed and went on my summer vacation. My report card was a myriad of barely passing grades, with one flawless victory: Grade 12 Computer Programming.

As they tend to do rather quickly in the computer age, over the summer things changed. People as a whole were starting to recognize that the web was where things were moving, and they wanted to get online. I once again found myself in a computers class, but this one wasn’t focused on programming, this one was more about creating web pages. I worked with a handful of elementary school classes and teachers to help make their first website, and at the end of the year, my high school career was over. I never got to see the reprinted textbook in which HTML Scribe had made an appearance, and to be honest, by the end of the year I didn’t care. Things had leapfrogged past me so quickly that WYSIWYG editors were the new craze. Nobody wanted to create web pages with text anymore, they wanted to click and drag elements and see what their webpage looked like in real-time. In my spare time, I’d been working on HTML Scribe as a side project, but I realized I’d been beaten by the graphical editors. HTML Scribe was no more, just a failed high school hobby project.

Another venture I’d undertaken during this time was web hosting. Keeping with the trend of being fashionably ahead of the curve, our dial-up internet connection had been upgraded to 10MB cable, with a handful of static IP addresses. ISP’s at the time were giving away static addresses all over the place, and I believe we had 10 of them at one point. I’d built a fairly robust Red Hat Linux system with an Apache webserver with the assistance of a BBS friend, and this is where my new passion was going to be focused. The goal was to make a modest profit but when your core user group consists of struggling artists, a lot of space and bandwidth was given up for free, in trade for “exposure”. As it turns out, free exposure isn’t worth much as the people exposure brings are also generally looking for a similar handout.

Since I lacked the incoming funds to purchase WYSIWYG editors like DreamWeaver, I kept using HTML Scribe to create my websites. At one point in the late 1990’s to early 2000’s, instead of a blog, neoncrayon (then called Neoncrayon Multimedia) was a web hosting provider and design studio. I’d created the entire front page drawn with crayon line-art, which I scanned and sliced into a web usable format. As was the custom at the time, the technology used to create the web page was proudly exclaimed front and center, and so I even included a tiny “Created with HTML Scribe” icon, drawn by hand in crayon. Not my proudest moment.

(yes, this was actually a logo for neoncrayon at one point. I can assure you the cringe is real.)

Over time, things started to eventually grow into what could’ve been considered a viable web hosting business until I found myself living out from under my parent’s roof for the first time. Trying to sustain rent and colocation fees wasn’t feasible, so I gifted the hosting business to a friend who kept the lights on for a year or so before transitioning the existing client-base to his own hosting company, under a new name.

And so neoncrayon sat dark for many years before I finally decided I wanted to revisit the name, one of my oldest possessions. One that I’d lost once or twice for various reasons, but somehow always managed to come home. In regaining, I visited the wayback machine archive for nostalgia purposes, and there it was:

One of the last remaining pieces of evidence that at one point I’d created an HTML editor from scratch. There was one more place that I knew HTML Scribe still existed and after some serious searching, I purchased a copy of my grade 12 computer textbook, 2nd edition. It honestly wasn’t easy to find, and I’d had to purchase a used copy that had somehow made its way to Arizona. When it arrived, I eagerly flipped through the book that I knew contained a chapter dedicated to my editor, and to my surprise, it had been diluted to two pages. My high school ears had heard that I was going to be a featured part of the text, but in the end it wasn’t quite what I expected. A lesson in the dangers of nostalgia, I suppose.

And so, here are my two pages of fame, one of which isn’t even a full page. I’m hoping that the teacher who published this doesn’t seek copyright claims; as it technically was my work he’d published, and the content is almost 25 years old. If he sees this, please reach out to me instead – it’s been quite some time!

Also; as a footnote – it would seem that I was ahead of my time with a text-based editor. WYSIWYG programs were a fad for a while, but things eventually came full circle and text is king now. Text-based editors like VSCode, Sublime Text, Atom, and Brackets reign supreme. Perhaps if I’d been more dedicated to the project, HTML Scribe could’ve been included on that list. We’ll never know for sure, but I like to think it might’ve been.

Author: Greg
Middle-aged father of two - still a kid at heart! Lover of all things geeky, trivia, factoids, craft beers, and procrastination. #SnorlaxIsMySpiritAnimal. #CanadianEh! "I don't know. Fly casual."

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