In which our heroine learns to park the heads on a Kaypro “portable,” experiences word processing on a dumb terminal, and figures out how to keep her IBM XT from being rude to her.
Last week Slate published a fascinating longish excerpt from Kevin Driscoll’s latest book The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media. In the excerpt, which Slate titled “The Birth of the Modem World,” Driscoll goes back to the days when modems weren’t something that got you connected to the fiber or coax running to your door, but to the copper wires from the phone company.
We’re talking about old school dial-up modems here. Really old school.
If you’re envisioning the old dial-up modems we had in the early days of the World Wide Web, which occupied a slot on your motherboard so you could plug the computer directly into the phone systems connector box, you’re thinking way too modern. We’re talking about external modems, that coupled to your telephone sonically, through a cradle upon which you set the handset of your old wired to the wall telephone receiver.
But the Slate article wasn’t about modems, it was about what people were doing with them, which according to Driscoll was pre-internet bulletin boards that people ran out of their homes and to which people could connect by telephone, but only one user at a time. We’re talking ’70s or early ’80s here, back when the little private internets such as Prodigy and Compuserve were still the stuff of some future science fiction world.
Reading Driscoll’s book excerpt got me thinking about how this is a whole part of computer history that predates my involvement in computer tech.
I saw my first consumer-focused computer around 1977, when the Radio Shack in Oildale, California where I shopped for audio stuff started selling them. One day I went in and they had a TRS-80, with a cassette player for storage, set up in place of a cash register as a way to show off their capabilities.
I wanted one — immediately and badly — but at $599 dollars (that would be $2,870 today), they were way out of my price range, although I did spend about three days trying to figure out a way to convince the San Francisco owner of the family portrait studio I ran to purchase one for the business. Having no experience with computers or their capabilities, however, the only use I could come up with was the use I’d seen — as a really expensive cash register — so I never pitched him on buying one.
It wasn’t until the ’80s that I had my first hands-on experiences with computers, which really didn’t amount to much. Around 1980, the small family portrait company that employed me branched into a non-related business that required me to lug a suitcase sized Kaypro (a “portable” CP/M-based computer from that era) to set up in exhibition buildings at county fairs, as well as at concourses in shopping malls (which were a fairly new thing at the time). About the only computery things I learned from that experience was how to plug in a dot matrix printer and the necessity for parking the computer’s heads before shutting down, because not doing so would almost always necessitate an expensive head replacement.
About the same time, I was writing theater reviews for the Monterey Peninsula Herald (now the Monterey County Herald), which about a year after I started suddenly switched from being an afternoon to a morning newspaper, which meant that after seeing a play, I had to rush to the newspaper, check with the two sports guys in the back waiting for the final West Coast scores to come over the wire, who would tell me how much space my editor had left for my review, and then sit at a dumb terminal to write the review directly into the paper’s computer system against an 11:00 p.m. deadline.
This was my first experience with modern word processing. Previously, I wrote my reviews on the morning after seeing a play, at home on my manual portable typewriter, then hand delivered the copy to the newsroom, with a deadline of something like 11 a.m.
I didn’t own a computer of my own until 1991, the year I turned 40, when I inherited my father’s early ’80s model IBM XP when he died. By this time, I was back in my home state of North Carolina and was supporting myself as a part-time utility hitter at an AM talk radio station, where I’d fill-in and host somebody else’s talk show, do the morning local news during Max Meeks morning show, or write ad copy for “creative services,” so mainly filling in for whomever was sick or on vacation.
The XT I inherited was a brick when I got it. My mother — trusting neither my father nor me — took the machine to some computer guy she knew after Dad died and had the hard drive wiped. It seems that Mom was worried that Dad, who had been laid up in bed as a partial quadriplegic for 15 years due to a brain injury incurred while horseback riding, might have written something about her that wouldn’t sit well with the neighbors, and so had the evidence destroyed.
That boneheaded move by my mom (sorry, Mom) is probably what turned me into the computer enthusiast I became.
You see, to get the computer running I took it to the chief engineer at the radio station, who installed some version of MS-DOS and WordPerfect on it. He also gave me a half-hour tutorial on computer use and books on DOS and WordPerfect. In addition, he set the command prompt to read, “What do you want, a**hole” (but without the asterisks).
“I did that because I want you to learn to use your computer,” he said. “That’s going to bug the crap out of you, and when you get tired of it, you’re going to open up that DOS book and figure out how to remove it to get a proper command prompt.”
As I drove home with my now operational computer, I was doubtful, but that night I removed the offensive remark using edlin, a clunky line editor that was included with earlier versions of MS-DOS. It turned out that was about the most difficult way to remove the text, but that didn’t matter to me. I had figured it out. I knew I could master this computer thing.
Next Monday: What all this has to do with modems and bulletin boards.