Early days of the computer revolution

Posted in Hacking at 3:39 pm by ducky

I was talking to a friend of mine who I’m guessing was born in the late 1970s, and mentioned that I had been using computers since 1968ish and email since 1974.  (Yes, really.)

I saw a lightbulb go off over his head.  He knew I was in my mid-forties, and knew I was a computer geek, but hadn’t ever really put two and two together.  “Oh!  You were around for the start of the personal computer revolution?  What was that like?  That must have been totally *COOL*!!!

I said, “Not really.”

He was stunned.  How could it have possibly not been totally cool and awesome?  I could see him struggling with trying to figure out how to express his confusion, how to figure out what question to even ask.

I said, “Look.  You are old enough that you were around for the start of the mobile phone revolution, right?  That must have been totally *COOL*!!!

“Oh”, he said.  “I get it.”

Mobile phones, when they first started out were kind of cool, I guess, but they weren’t “magic” then: they took real effort and patience.  They were wickedly expensive, heavy, had lousy user interfaces, and you had to constantly worry about whether you had enough battery life for the call.  The reception was frequently (usually?) poor, so even if you could make a connection, your call frequently got dropped.  The signal quality was poor, so you had to TALK LOUDLY to be heard and really concentrate to understand the other person.  And they didn’t do much.  It took a long time for mobile phones to become “magic”, and they only got better incrementally.

When they first came out, personal computers were kind of cool, I guess, but they weren’t “magic” then: they took real effort and patience.  They were wickedly expensive.  They crashed frequently enough that you always had to worry about saving your work.  They had so little disk space that managing your storage was a constant struggle (and why floppies held on for so very long after the introduction of the hard drive).

When I started my first job out of college (working at a DRAM factory for Intel in 1984), they had only recently put in place two  data-entry clerks to input information about the materials (“lots”) as the lots traversed the manufacturing plant. (When did the lot arrive at a processing step?  When did it get processed?  Who processed it?  What were the settings and reading on the machine?)  However, to get at that information, engineers like me had to get a signature from higher level of management to authorize a request to MIS (which might get turned down!) for that information.

A few months after I started, they bought three IBM PC XTs and put them in a cramped little room for us engineers to use.  I believe the only programs on them were a word processor and a spreadsheet.  There was no storage available to us.  They had hard drives, but we were not allowed to leave anything on the hard drive; we had to take our work away on floppies.  The PCs were not networked, so not only was there no email (and of course no Web), but no way to access the data that was collected out on the manufacturing floor.

If I wanted to make a spreadsheet analyzing e.g. the relationship between measured thickness of the aluminum layer, the measured sputtering voltage, and how long it had been since the raw materials had been replenished, I would go to the factory floor, walk around to find different lots in different stages of processing, copy the information to a piece of paper, take the piece of paper and a floppy disk to the computer room (hoping that there was a free computer), copy the data from the piece of paper into the spreadsheet, print the spreadsheet (maybe making a graph, but that was a little advanced), and copy the data onto my floppy if I wanted to look at it again.

Even though we “had computers”, we had no network, no email, and no wiki.  The way I shared information was still:

  • make a bunch of photocopies and put them in people’s (physical) mailboxes,
  • make a bunch of photocopies and walk around putting them on people’s desks,
  • make a bunch of photocopies and pass them out at a meeting where I presented my results, or
  • make one photocopy, write a routing list on it (a list of names with checkboxes), and put it on the first person’s desk.  They would read it, check their name off, and pass it to someone else on the list.

At the next company I worked at (1985-7), I got a PC on my desk because I was implementing the materials tracking system (because I had bitched about how stupid it was not to have one — yeah!!).  Our company had a network, but it was expensive and complicated enough that my desktop computer wasn’t on the network, nor were the two machines on the floor.  Ethernet used a coax cable and (if I recall correctly) you had to make a physical connection by puncturing the cable just right.  The configuration was tricky and not very fault-tolerant: if one computer on the network was misconfigured, it would mess up the entire network AND it was difficult even for a skilled network technician to figure out which computer was misconfigured.

At the next company I worked for (1987), I had a Sun workstation on my desk, and we had a network file servers, but I don’t think we used email, even internally.

At my next company (1988-90), I had a Wyse 50 “glass teletype” on my desktop and full email capability.  The Wyse 50 didn’t have any graphics, but that wasn’t a real big deal because no programs I would ever want to use at work had graphics of any sort. My department used email heavily, but there were some departments in the company that did not use email, so there were lots of memos that were still issued on paper.  They would go either into my (physical) mailbox, or would be pinned to cubicle corridor walls.

While I had the theoretical ability to send email to the outside world then, almost nobody I knew outside the company had email, and figuring out how to address messages to get to the outside was difficult: you had to specify all the intermediate computers, e.g. sun!ubc!decwrl!decshr!slaney.

It wasn’t until that company imploded in about 1990 and my colleagues scattered to other computer companies that I had anyone outside my company to correspond with.  (Fortunately, at about the same time, it got easier to address external email messages.)

It wasn’t until 1991 that I stopped seeing paper memos — a full twenty fifteen years after the introduction of the Apple II computer.  My husband reports that he also stopped seeing paper memos in about 1991.

I would contend that computers didn’t really start to become “magic” until about 1996 or so, when the World Wide Web had been absorbed by the masses and various Web services were available.  Only after about 1996 could you pretty reliably assume that anyone (well, those born after WW2 started, at least) used computers or had an email address.

So when personal computers first came out, they were not totally cool.  The idea of personal computers was totally cool.  The potential was totally cool.  But that potential was unrealized for many many years.


  1. Jeff Powell said,

    January 3, 2010 at 9:50 am

    I, too, was there at the start of the PC revolution, and you’re quite right. I would almost go so far as to call it rather boring. I owned a TRS-80, but there wasn’t that much to do with it. There were Apple IIs in school, but I knew BASIC better than the teachers and the machines were rather boring to play with. While in college the IBM PC came out, and I remember being told that the IBM sales guys had no idea what to do with them.

    In about 1986 the PC-AT was in use, there was some networking, and things were improving, but the local network of VAXes that talked on what became the Internet was a lot more interesting in a number of ways.

    Even today, though, I think what makes a computer interesting to most of us is content, and it took a long time for enough of that to get created and be made available over the Internet.

    Oh, and I too stopped seeing paper memos sometime around 1991. Now, if only I could get people to stop sending emails containong only PDF files of enormous size, but that contain just a few sentences of text. What a waste and irritation.

  2. Tamfang said,

    December 2, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    1991 … — a full twenty years after the introduction of the Apple II computer.

    Well, a full fifteen years anyway.

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