I’ll be the first to admit that for the past ten years or so, I’ve been wandering – lost and confused — in the jungle of emerging technology. And no matter how I hack away, the thick undergrowth of gadgets and accessories continues to coil around my wrists and ankles, pulling me down and threatening to choke the virtual breath right out of me.
Okay, maybe that was a little melodramatic. I tried to portray myself there as some kind of fearless explorer, forging a path for others to follow, and that isn’t quite accurate. Let’s forget the jungle analogy. It’s more like I was on the train, got off at a station to use the bathroom, and the train left without me. This part is true. I was riding along, up in one of the front cars. The terrain was bumpy, and there was a lot of junk on the tracks, but we were inching forward.
It was 1982. I had a Radio Shack computer, a massive desktop model, silver and black, with sixty-four kilobytes of memory and those huge floppy disks that you had to insert with two hands. The disks were called diskettes, which made them sound small and cute. They weren’t. Baseball teams could have used them to cover the infield during a rain delay. There were no ultra-thin monitors or wireless keyboards back then. The computer weighed as much as a stand-alone freezer filled with boxes of spinach and cans of orange juice with extra pulp.*
Connected to the computer by a flat, gray ribbon cable was something called a daisy-wheel printer. It was enormous. Had this printer been floating down the Mississippi, it could have been mistaken for a barge. Had it dropped to Earth from outer space and hit land, it would have wiped out all life forms worth worrying about.
With the aid of an acoustic coupler – a modem that required you to insert the telephone handset into the device – I could communicate with another computer six blocks away. I also joined a network called CompuServe, which allowed you to be in groups and clubs, where you could type messages to other people and trade information. Mostly, we discussed settings and baud rates, and the problems we were having with our acoustic couplers.
Not long after, I got a modem that plugged directly into the phone jack in the wall. It made a hideous squealing sound that reminded me of an old man clearing his throat, but it had cool switches on the front and operated at blazing speed. Blazing, that is, for 1984 – incoming messages crawled across the screen, one letter at a time. The connection would often freeze for minutes, then restore itself, with whole words bursting into view behind the racing cursor. Usually, though, one of us would have to re-dial the phone, wait for the throat-clearing noise, and start again. But sooner or later it would work, and it was thrilling, like how the pioneers must have felt when they finally learned how to make a canoe that didn’t leak.
The faster modem helped me buy an expansion bay, ordered through CompuServe and delivered two weeks later right to my front door. The bay had slots for three more diskettes, so I was now able to back up my files in a single step. This gave me something to say whenever anyone showed up and asked what I was doing on the computer. “I’m backing up my files,” I’d tell them, and that would make them go away, because they had no idea what I was talking about.
I bought my first microwave oven the same way. This was a large appliance, equal in bulk to the expansion bay, but much heavier. The microwave was big enough to reheat all of my leftovers at the same time and, between meals, provided a handy place to store luggage. Its most impressive feature was that it would boil a cup of water in fifty seconds. I wasn’t fond of leftovers, and was never in that much of a hurry for boiled water, but the chance to tell everyone how I’d acquired the thing made it seem worthwhile. And just as I’d expected, they were all stunned by my bold and visionary step.
Using the microwave was another matter. It made us nervous, because it seemed like magic the way food would suddenly start bubbling away in there. I worried that the baked potatoes were becoming radioactive, and that later, in bed, I would see my stomach glowing in the dark right through the blankets. The owner’s manual advised us not to stand too close to the microwave while it was running, but it was hard to resist – something pulled you in and forced you to look, like the way you’re not supposed to look at an eclipse, but some part of you wants to anyway, or how Niagara Falls makes some people want to jump over the railing. It was the risk that came with glimpsing into the future.
By the way, the computer and printer totaled more than seven thousand dollars. I purchased them at the exact moment that interest rates reached their highest level in recorded history. The equipment itself became obsolete around 1990, and stopped functioning a couple of years later. Nevertheless, I fully expect to have it paid off by the end of this decade.
*I don’t eat spinach. I realize it’s jam-packed with vital nutrients, but it’s gross. And I hate pulp, because I generally don’t drink solids, and also the word pulp makes me think of wet recycled paper. My reason for mentioning spinach and orange juice was that I was trying to get you to appreciate how heavy that computer was. If I confused or distracted you, I’m sorry. If this is going to lead us into a debate about the kinds of foods I should incorporate into my diet, or about how delicious cooked vegetables can be if prepared properly and topped with a little melted cheese, I’m even sorrier.
Train station is at the Elmira Railway Museum in PEI
Tandy Model II from http://www.old-computers.com
Acoustic coupler from http://www.computinghistory.org.uk
Modem II from http://www.trs-80.com
Original cartoon artwork by Ron Leishman