Author, Publisher, Developer, Stitchcoder


How The Elements came to be

For various reasons I'm writing here for the first time a true account of how the app The Elements: A Visual Exploration came to exist on the iPad.

Just about everything to do with the The Elements was either a misunderstanding or an indefensibly poor decision, right up to and including the posting of this story. My fascination with elements started in 2002 because I misunderstood what Oliver Sacks wrote in a book called Uncle Tungsten, and as a result ended up building a wooden periodic table table. Confused, by a primitive website about this table, into thinking that I was a science writer, Popular Science Magazine asked me to write a column for them, which I did for ten years straight. As my questionable obsession with elements developed into hiding eBay purchases from my wife, I slowly built up the material needed to publish a book, The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe, the writing of which my family did not appreciate. (The fact that this book now has over a million copies in print in no way excuses the foolishness of having written it in the first place.) 

The print book, released in late 2009, was nice, but I knew that I had the raw material for an amazing interactive book, if only there were a platform to deploy it on. This left the stage perfectly set for Steve Jobs' early 2010 descent from a higher plane holding a tablet. Now I should mention that I knew Jobs reasonably well at the time, having been on stage with him in three Keynotes over the years. As his Macintosh-fanatic mole within Wolfram Research, I had hosted multiple bits of prototype hardware, and we had never, ever been the source of a leak, not even when Mathematica shipped bundled with the first NeXT computer in 1988, or when we ported Mathematica to Intel processors ahead of the announcement. Still, it was quite the thrill to find out on the day of the iPad announcement that, the next day, a pair of trusted Apple employees would be showing up in a backwater of Illinois with a prototype iPad literally locked in an impenetrable security case, which I was required to literally chain to a desk using a lock for which they took the only key. (Having no suitable desk in the super-secret supply closet we kept it in, they accepted as ballast the hundred and fifty pound iron wrecking ball I did happen to have in my office.) 

Giving me the prototype was of course a misunderstanding on the part of Apple. They were under the misguided impression that I was going to do up some kind of Mathematica or Wolfram|Alpha app for them to use when the iPad actually shipped two months later. (And in fairness, we did make them such an App, and they were happy. But it wasn't me that made it. I delegated because (a) I'm not an App developer and (b) I had another plan.) What I realized within seconds of the announcement was that the iPad was the exactly perfect thing I'd been waiting for to make a proper ebook version of my Elements book.

I immediately called my friend Max Whitby and asked him if he'd like to have no life for the next couple of months. He called his long-time colleague John Cromie and posed the same question. In the mean time I asked my photographer Nick Mann if he too could drop everything to re-shoot some objects that needed work. Having between them no more sense than me, they all agreed, and we started working on The Elements: A Visual Exploration for iPad. With an absolute deadline of 8 weeks. Oh, and I was strictly forbidden from telling any of them that I had an iPad. The very existence of a prototype program was to be kept secret. (And this is the point where even the posting of this story may be a mistake: That secrecy order has never been lifted, and the only person authorized to do so very sadly died far too young. So officially I think I'm still not supposed to tell anyone we ever had that prototype.) 

We were pushing the performance limits of these devices, and the person (John) doing the actual software development (on the other side of the Atlantic) had only the iPad simulator and a first generation iPod Touch running the app in miniature. His big fear was that the iPad with its much larger screen would not be able to handle the graphics. Well, I was able to run his code on a real device, measuring real performance, but I wasn't allowed to tell him that I had such a device, let alone what its performance specs were! Hm. I settled on a story that I had a "friend" inside Apple, an Oracle of Infinite Wisdom, who could produce performance figures magically when sent builds of the software. When I sent John the first reports from the mythical iPad that I didn't have, he simply did not believe it. That may well have been the point we all realised what the iPad was truly capable of.

Over the course of several weeks I slowly, gently introduced Apple to the idea that, while we would of course produce a Wolfram App, I had this other thing they might just want to take a peek at.... Around week 6 they really started to perk up when I showed them a very cool app, and showed them how it could introduce the notion of an ebook that was fundamentally better than anything that could possibly ever exist on a Kindle. They could talk about the quality of ebooks on their platform, not the quantity (a losing message for iPad).

The end result was that The Elements was included in the dozen or so apps that were bundled on the few dozen iPads shipped to prominent journalists a couple of days before the public launch of the device. That resulted in such things as Stephen Fry tweeting "Alone worth the price of an iPad!". I will leave you to imagine the feeling that gave me, to realize that my stupid little hobby had resulted, through no discernibly rational process, in something so beautiful it took my own breath away. The App our little band created was exactly the thing I had imagined in my mind about two months before the iPad was announced, but decided could not be done because there was no platform on which to do it.

Steve Jobs created the platform, Max, John, Nick and I made the app, and the months around that release are among my fondest memories, and always will be. The world of Apps may have gone in a different direction, but in those months we together made a thing of real beauty, and that's a rare and precious experience.

Theodore Gray
As told, 31 July, 2014