Friday, 1 April 2011

What was your first personal computer?

It changed how we did work and taught us how to “learn a living”.
By Tom Thorne
The first  computer I bought with discretionary budget in 1977was an Apple II. At that time I worked for TVOntario. One day a Computerland store opened in our building. We were all surprised that anyone would expect to make a living actually selling personal computers.  
Naturally we all went to see what they were offering and we discovered the Apple II. We listened to a sales pitch and after one short meeting we bought one and had it delivered to our office. It had two 5.25” floppy disk drives, and it also sported a 16 Kb RAM card inside. It was the most memory you could get and we had it. And with the eight Kb on the motherboard we had a whopping 24 Kb of RAM to play with. It didn’t have a hard drive. All applications were run from floppy disk into memory.  We also bought a printer a great clunky thing that had a footprint of a small refrigerator.
Spreadsheets are discovered
The machine came with a word processor and we had a copy  on floppy disk of the delightfully elegant VisiCalc one of the early spread sheets. We immediately put our budget numbers up on VisiCalc. This meant we didn’t have to send in our numbers for data entry to the Information Processing Department. If we had to do a report we simply printed it out and sent to my boss. Life was simple and fun without the Information Services Department and my boss thought our reports were “very timely and useful”.
Next we started to do word processing and since we were an editorial office we could see the virtue of “capturing our own keystrokes” because we now could take a floppy disk down to Monolino and get them to print off a perfectly edited version of our typesetting to paste up. We saved time and big bucks having to endlessly proof typesetting galleys for all the publications we were doing. We soon realized that our typewriters were passé. Our innovation pleased Monolino who lionized us as the “perfect customer already well advanced into the Information Age.” 
Trouble looms...turf wars
One day we had a visit from the Information Processing Department’s manager who was quite annoyed with us.”You don’t send us any work to enter into the computer system?” he whined. We explained that we now did it ourselves on the Apple II. He was not amused. “We are the processors of company can’t do our work on that thing”, (indicating our Apple II with an accusing finger). We tried to reason with him. His answer: “I’ll have to take this up with higher authority”.
He did take it up with a higher authority. The chief accountant was equally unamused with us. My boss came to our defence but the advocates for centralized authority of data finally won. The compromise: we could keep the word processing part of our “personal computing” but numbers for budgets and sales had to still go to the Information Systems Department. 
Learning a living1
However the rot had set in.We still did our spreadsheets for our daily use. Other managers came to see our innovation and before long more personal computers began to be seen everywhere in the office. We advanced our editorial systems with another Apple II and very soon our IBM Selectric typewriters began to gather dust.
Before we moved to even more advanced systems from Apple in 1980 we had begun to work with HyperText and Educational Authoring software packages as part of our commitment to developing our personal computing skills. This took us into exploring early videotext and teletext services at BBC and by 1982 we were deep into the experimental application of Canada’s Telidon technology which of course led us ultimately to on-line experiments which led us on a very intriguing trail towards the World Wide Web. Truly we were “learning a living”.
© Copyright 2011, Tom Thorne, All Rights Reserved
  1. “Learning a living”: Marshall McLuhan used this term for the first time in 1964 in his seminal book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man as the title of his chapter on education in an Information age.

1 comment: