Phlogiston Software

Seeing an outline font recently reminded me of my first business cards, on which I was president of a not-quite fictitious company called Phlogiston Software.  At the time (early 80s) I was freelancing and writing educational software on Apple IIs.  My experience in the PLATO project had taught me a lot about the minimum requirements for educational software.  Most microcomputer software at the time violated all these tenets — for example, it let users get stuck with no way to retreat or move on, providing neither hints nor help nor a way to retreat to a table of contents.  My basic goal was to produce software that established a baseline for usability and educational utility.  (The end product, co-authored with the late Stan Smith, was called “Introduction to General Chemistry”, published by a company initially called COMPress and later Falcon Software.  It ended up doing significantly better than setting a baseline, winning one of the first EDUCOM  / ENCRIPTAL Higher Education Software Awards.)

I invented Phlogiston Software when I discovered that nobody in the Bay Area, where I was living, would give me the time of day if I tried to explain that I was freelancing, but my background was…  On the other hand, “This is Ruth Chabay from Phlogiston Software” was a magical phrase that opened doors and provided invitations to talk to AI researchers, participate in university seminar series, and embark on new projects.  I filed for a fictitious business name, so the “company” was actually legit, but I remained bemused by the power of a corporate name.

One of my favorite incidents was an encounter with a well-known science educator at a conference.   Peering at my nametag, he said “Oh yes, of course, that’s where you are.”   I managed to keep a straight face, despite having made up the name only the previous day.

I still keep a few of the business cards, to remind me how much perceived status plays a role in success, not just in business, but in higher education and the scientific research community.  Getting a chance to tell your story matters.