Cover of the first issue of Creative Computing in 1974
While working at Digital Equipment Corporation, David Ahl edited EDU, a newsletter aimed at educational users of Digital Equipment’s computers. (This was also when he first published his book 101 BASIC Computer Games). EDU became quite successful as the use of computers in education expanded. But Ahl envisioned a more generic magazine for educational users of all computers, not just those sold by Digital Equipment. When Ahl left Digital Equipment in July 1974, he developed this idea into Creative Computing.
After unsuccessful attempts to obtain funding from educational foundations, Ahl decided to publish Creative Computing using his own money. He mailed out 11,000 flyers to promote the magazine and received 850 subscriptions in response. Here is a description of the magazine from an early subscription form:
Creative Computing is a lively new magazine for students and teachers using computers in colleges, junior colleges, secondary schools, and even the lower grades. It contains games, simulations, problems, exercises, curriculum materials, and idea directly usable in the classroom.
Creative Computing deals with the use of computers and computer related devices in mathematics, science, social science, ecology, computer familiarization, computer science, and career education. The content of Creative Computing reflects the view that computers can make learning fun!
The first issue of Creative Computing (November/December 1974) was published in October 19741. With the early issues, Ahl pursued an interesting strategy. Instead of printing only enough copies for the 800-plus subscribers, he printed 8,000 copies and mailed the remainder to schools and libraries around the country. Those extra copies helped build interest in Creative Computing and he continued the overprinting for the next three issues.
Cover of the January 1979 issue of Creative Computing
Creative Computing took a slightly different direction after the MITS Altair 8800, one of the first hobbyist computers, was introduced in January 1975. Ahl felt that microcomputers like the Altair might be a good choice for schools (rather than the minicomputers in use at the time), and Creative Computing began publishing articles for hobbyists. It also began publishing more games, including the famous Hunt the Wumpus in the September/October 1975 issue.
The November/December 1976 issue was the first printed on coated stock (rather than the newsprint of earlier issues) and the first to accept advertising. By 1978, the subscriber base was two-thirds hobbyists and one-third educators and this was reflected in the article topics.
Creative Computing continued to expand. In August 1978, Ahl bought ROM magazine and its subscription base. The January 1979 issue of Creative Computing was the first to be published monthly. Also in 1979, Ahl took over Computer Notes, the newsletter from MITS, and Popular Computing2, a TRS‑80 newsletter. Creative Computing Press published many computer-related books, including The Creative TRS‑80 and BASIC Computer Games. Creative Computing also had its own Creative Computing SIG (PCS-22) on CompuServe
One of the most popular features of Creative Computing were the columns devoted to individual computers. The first of these columns began in the November/December 1978 issue:
- “TRS‑80 Strings” by Stephen B. Gray covered the TRS‑80. It was renamed to “Tandy Gram” with the December 1984 issue and taken over by Jake Commander. (With the exception of the October 1985 column, which was written by Ed Juge, at the time director of market planning at Tandy.)
- “The Apple Cart” by Richard Milewski covered the Apple II. It was later written by Owen Linzmayer and others.
- “Personal Electronics Transactions” by Gregory Yob covered the Commodore PET. It was renamed “Commodore’s Port” in 1983 after the focus had changed to the Commodore 64.
Two other columns were added later:
- “Outpost: Atari” began July 1980. It covered the Atari computers and was written by George Blank and later David and Sandy Small.
- “IBM Images” began January 1982. It covered the IBM PC and was written by Will Fastie and later Susan Glinert-Cole.
One of my favorite parts of Creative Computing were the articles, reviews, and columns by John J. Anderson, at the time Associate Editor of Creative Computing. He had a very engaging writing style and was my favorite computer writer of the era. In between permanent columnists, he wrote quite a few installments of the columns “Apple Cart,” “Commodore’s Port,” and “Outpost: Atari.” His tragic death in 1989 was a great loss to the computer world.
Cover of the final issue of Creative Computing in December 1985
By 1981, Creative Computing circulation had reached 120,000. David Ahl sold Creative Computing to Ziff-Davis Publishing that same year. Ziff-Davis kept Ahl as Editor-in-Chief and mostly retained the same feel for the magazine, although with more emphasis on business. The largest issue ever published was December 1982 at 430 pages
Creative Computing continued to be successful as a general computer magazine at a time when most other magazines were narrowing their focus to one system: the IBM PC. Oddly, it was this very success which led Ziff-Davis to end Creative Computing. It was thought that only machine-specific (meaning IBM PC-specific) magazines would be capable of large subscriber growth in the future. From their press release announcing the decision:
In the last two years, the microcomputer market has become increasingly segmented and business-oriented, and the market for large circulation, general interest microcomputer magazines has failed to expand.
The final issue of Creative Computing was December 19853. David Ahl’s final editorial, titled “Great While It Lasted,” had this to say about the end:
Creative isn’t the first magazine to disappear, and it certainly won’t be the last. In a sense, the demise of various computer magazines simply reflects what is happening to the industry as a whole.
- The exact date was given as either October 7 or October 31 in different accounts. ↩
- Some sources confuse the Popular Computing newsletter with the McGraw-Hill magazine Popular Computing (originally known as onComputing), which published at the same time. This is especially confusing because McGraw-Hill ended Popular Computing the same month that Ziff-Davis ended Creative Computing. This gives the misleading impression that Popular Computing content was included within Creative Computing and ended with it. ↩
- The final issue was December 1985, not October 1985 as is sometimes stated. ↩