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Three little lines on a home page can give you access to a lot of info. For computer designers, it looks like a hamburger, which you can see here. Learn more about some computer history.

A walk down computer memory lane

When we use our computers there's a lot we take for granted, but were do some of those cool ideas come from - like the hamburger menu?

We rely so much on our computers these days that many of us who started out in the very early days of high-tech kind of forget stuff. As our resident agnerd I move through technology news and updates pretty regularly, but recently we added something to the Farm Industry News website redesign that needs a little explanation; and perhaps some historical perspective.

In the top left of the home page you'll find three little lines that when you click on them brings a long list of information to access on the site.

But where did those lines come from? Whose idea was it to use three lines to signify menu access? Yes, we agnerds ask interesting questions, but sometimes the answers are just fascinating. And they bring back other memories from the early days of desktop computing.

That three-line menu, which has a name I'll get to in a moment, first came about due to limited space in some of the earliest graphical user interfaces developed for computers. The Xerox Star computer - remember Xerox? - was an early user of a more graphical screen approach. At that time computer monitors were black with green or amber text, and the idea of pictures on the screen was a dream for many. It was the Dark Ages.

But over at the Xerox PARC, which stands for the Palo Alto Research Center, designers and programmers were working on ways to make the computer screen look more like a blank sheet of paper and provide you with a more natural look - that graphical user interface or GUI. Norm Cox was one of those early designers (and he's still providing design consulting services today).

PARC was as interesting for computer design as the old Bell Labs was for telecommunications innovation a couple decades before that. It was at PARC that Apple got its graphical ideas for the first Macintosh computer. That unique machine with its "stunning" 9-inch white monitor, was one of the first consumer-focused graphical computers. Yep, it was a game changer.

But before that, Cox and others had to come up with ways to navigate around this new graphical interface. Yet monitors back then were limited in size and scope (remember that 9-inch Mac). To save space, but give you access to deeper information, Cox came up with a "button" designated by three little lines that are supposed to tell you there's "more under here to check out."

That button - with its three lines - looked like a hamburger to many. And in a world where nerd shorthand is the rule of the day, that's what that button became - the hamburger menu. We've added it to our sites to give you access to more information without having a giant list at the top of the home page. And there's another reason that menu approach has become more popular again: mobile.

When you have no screen real estate - like a 6-inch phone screen - shortcuts like hamburger menus make sense. So there you have it, a little bit of computer history. I won't go into the debate about whether the hamburger menu is a good idea for users - it's what we're relying on to provide you a deeper, richer experience online.

So next time you see those three little lines (sometimes with the word menu beside it) think about hamburgers, think about Norm Cox who wanted some way to get more information accessible without going to another screen to find things. It's a great innovation that even after more than 35 years (which is a long time in computer years) still have value. Thanks Norm.

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