À la recherche du technologie perdu [Part 1]

By | May 1, 2014

Contrary to popular opinion, I did not actually write my PhD dissertation on parchment with a quill, although it was so many generations of technology ago that I might as well have. There is something quite sobering about realizing that one’s cherished moments of technological innovativeness feature devices now enshrined in the Permanent Collections of the Smithsonian. But since the new cutting edge of technology is not hardware but software, how will we inflict such moments on our offspring? How will the first tweet in history be memorialized?


Back in the infancy of technology, I trotted off to college with a neat little Hermes portable typewriter (yes, ribbons and everything), quite suitable for the one-finger typist I had become. After a year, I upgraded to two fingers (a style I still maintain). Twice the productivity, in no more than about twice the time. By the time I had to write my undergraduate thesis, I had gone all the way up to a Smith-Corona portable electric (but with manual carriage return – “typa-typa-typa-CHING-typa-typa-typa-CHING-typa-typa-typa-CHING…”).

Despite this, I was still seen as some sort of advanced-IT guru when I went to work. You see, in those days, professional of any sort, particularly males, simply Did Not Type. Secretaries typed. But as it turned out, my first job out of college was as a secretary, for the University of Michigan. Even in those far-off days, gender ambiguity. Actually, I embraced the idea of typing, even though I couldn’t really do it as I was supposed to – I had come to the horrific realization that as bad a typist as I was, my handwriting was even worse. With lots of practice, I can manage nearly 40-45 wpm with two fingers for short periods. The problem is that I have to actually watch the keyboard to be sure I’m getting the fingers placed right. Nothing is funnier than a segment of text in which my fingers have been off exactly one key to the right – lomf pg ;olr yjod/

So I typed. I realized that I was looked down upon for this, but I learned to live with it. It didn’t really become a problem as long as I was only doing minimum-wage work. But when I passed the exams and joined the Department of Health Education and Welfare as a GS-9 Management Intern, fast-tracked to upper middle management, I suddenly discovered that not only were my paltry typing skills unhelpful – they were actually dangerous to my career prospects. More than one supervisor solemnly cautioned me against being seen sitting at a typewriter, lest me professional standing be called into question.

Despite all the warnings, by my third year with the department I had scored one of the real prizes that sometimes fall to Federal employees – a piece of equipment that for one reason or another had fallen off the Federal property registers. It had a sticker and a number, but was on no one’s list, so I could take it with me from position to position. Lo and behold, it was my old friend a Smith-Corona electric! We traveled through at least four different jobs all around the DC area.

Despite the possibilities, I didn’t feel that I could take it with me when I left the government to return to grad school. Accordingly, I arranged a formal transfer ceremony in which I solemnly passed it on to a junior colleague. I had wanted to give it to my assistant, but she pointed out that given all the trouble I’d had moving her from the secretarial ranks into the professional position she ought to have had all along (and it was an amazing nightmare – but a story for another day), it would be worth her career prospects to ever be seen in the company of a typewriter again. So I had to find another guy who was willing to embrace his inner geek.

Oddly enough, it was even then OK for grad students to type, as long as they didn’t do it very well. I fit right in immediately. In fact, there was a certain cachet to wandering around campus with a portable typewriter case firmly in hand. When in 1977 it came time to write my dissertation, it was as though information technology time had stood still for the last 13 years – here I was again with the same SC typewriter, same “typa-typa-typa-CHING-typa-typa-typa-CHING-typa-typa-typa-CHING…”

But everything was about to change…

[Stay tuned for Part 2 – exciting stuff!]