À la recherche du technologie perdu [Part 2]

By | May 3, 2014
teletype copy

Reminiscences on lost technologies continue…with a whole lot of great links to things and stuff. Check them out!

In 1971-72, I was working with the Public Health Service to implement the National Health Service Corps. We were getting bombarded with letters from communities around the country that thought they ought to have one of our doctors – eventually, each of us senior staff were being handed a sheaf of 15-20 letters each morning to answer on behalf of the Director (who was without doubt one of the dimmest bulbs ever screwed into the Federal executive socket, but that’s another story.) One of our secretaries (we still had them then) had a typewriter that connected to a cassette tape drive; she could record snippets and play them back onto paper. On my suggestion, we put together a list of standard paragraphs that could be managed with minimal tailoring and coded onto snippets for her writer. So when we walked in and got our morning sheaf, we’d read them and answer by writing onto a yellow pad something like:

[address]
[dear…..]
[1]
[4]
[6]
[7]
[sincerely, HMR MD].

We each generally managed to handle a whole day’s correspondence in about half an hour. That was one of my first experiences innovating technology – the foundation of my whole subsequent career.

When I started grad school at Michigan in the fall of 1972, I was taking one of the first statistics classes to be taught with the heavy inclusion of online computer assistance. Of course, the access points weren’t quite up to par then. At the end of the first week, I had to go online for the first time to run my first assignment. I knew what I was going to do, but it was still a big moment. On that memorable Friday night, we went out to dinner, and then over to the basement of the LSA building, where there was a public access terminal down in the basement – an old 1930s-vintage teletype machine, of all things. But as I sat down in front of it and turned it on preparing to have my interactive session, I thought to myself – and I remember this with particular clarity – “Nothing is ever going to be the same again.” It was my own personal turning point on the Road to Damascus in terms of IT – I was instantaneously a convert. And that single moment served to define my entry into the following 40+ years of my life.

After I’d finished my PhD and was teaching at Eastern Michigan University, one of my students inadvertently hooked me on my first computer game – the classic “Colossal Cave” text adventure. It was an amazing experience. In odd hours at the university, I used to slip over into the IS Department’s small computer lab and sign onto the game (it was being hosted on a PDP-12, as I recall). On weekends, I’d check out a Digilog – a 150-baud analog modem to connect to the school’s line; fortunately, it was a local call. It took the better part of a year, but I eventually solved it. I was happy; my small group of compadre fanatics were pleased; and the university was undoubtedly pleased to have their Digilog back. This experience was a major push for us to acquire our first personal computer – an Apple ][+ – in the summer of 1979, soon after I’d gone to NSF.

At NSF that summer, we got DECWriters - gigantic things about the size of refrigerators, and the daisy-wheel printer was the accompanying coffin/freezer. They used 9” floppy disks. When about 1983, we got the first IBM PCs - with only a double 5.25 floppy drive (the 10-MG hard drives came along about 18 months later, and we wondered how we were ever going to fill up all that space.) When I left NSF in Jan. 1985, there were about 12 PCs total in the entire Foundation, and I had one of them in my office – I’d traded my section head for it with the executive office chair that I’d stolen from one our previous colleagues after he returned to his university (he’d stolen it from OSTP, where he used to work.) Obtaining it entailed coming into work very early on the Monday after he’d left on Friday; by 7:30, the chair was safe in my office, barely ahead of my colleagues who began trickling in about 7:45, only to find it had already been Liberated. (This was how Real Bureaucrats handled office furniture, à la Zorba the Greek, back in the Old Days.)

When we first got the PCs, the IT staff went through an elaborate selection process to choose NSF’s official word processor. They standardized on MultiMate. You may not remember it; its only advantage was that it was a pretty fair reproduction of the keyboard of a Wang dedicated word processor. My own favorite was Volkswriter - a wonderful little program. But I bridled at MultiMate, and with my usual due regard for authority, I brought into the office and began to use WordPerfect instead of MultiMate. People kept coming into my office and admiring what it could do. By the time I left NSF, a good 80% of the Foundation’s people who used computers (not all that many) were using WordPerfect, and a year later they re-standardized on it. Never underestimate the power of the innovator! It wasn’t for nothing that I’d spent all that time with Ev Rogers.

One final note here. At NSF, our section had been part of the Division of Industrial Science and Technological Innovation – largely staffed by old-line mechanical engineers, whose basic concept of technology was anything that dripped oil on the floor. Great guys, but without a lot of head – or use – for information technology. I had to bootleg most of my support for IT research disguised as something else (yet another story for the future.) Shortly after I left, NSF undertook a major push toward computerization of work (spurred in part by the highly positive results of the “office automation” research projects I’d funded earlier and that NSF had reported to Congress the previous year in major budget bullets.) In early 1986, I returned to NSF for a visit, and found my former division director, one of my greatest former hecklers, quietly punching away on his computer. When I remarked that it seemed odd for him to be so engaged with his machine, he claimed that he’d always supported IT use in white-collar work, and couldn’t remember that he ever expressed any skepticism about it. Quite a little exercise in “editing the past”!

Ah, memory lane…good for the soul on occasion, as we strive to understand our own lives in preparation for the Storytelling…