Stone Age Computing
In this Atlantic article from 1982, James Fallows tells readers about his new modern marvel, an Optek rigged to a 12-inch TV screen, two tape recorders for mass storage and running Electric Pencil, the whole held together by yards of cable. "I'd sell my computer before I'd sell my children. But the kids better watch their step. When have the children helped me meet a deadline? When has the computer dragged in a dead cat it found in the back yard?"
The process works this way. When I sit down to write a letter or start the first draft of an article, I simply type on the keyboard and the words appear on the screen. For six months, I found it awkward to compose first drafts on the computer. Now I can hardly do it any other way. It is faster to type this way than with a normal typewriter, because you don't need to stop at the end of the line for a carriage return (the computer automatically "wraps" the words onto the next line when you reach the right-hand margin), and you never come to the end of the page, because the material on the screen keeps sliding up to make room for each new line. It is also more satisfying to the soul, because each maimed and misconceived passage can be made to vanish instantly, by the word or by the paragraph, leaving a pristine green field on which to make the next attempt.
My computer has a 48K memory. Since each K represents 1,024 bytes of information—each byte representing one character or digit—the machine can manipulate more than 49,000 items of information at a time. In practice, after allowing for the space that The Electric Pencil's programming instructions occupy in the computer's memory, the machine can handle documents 6,500 to 7,500 words long, or a little longer than this article. I break anything longer into chunks or chapters and work with them one at a time.
My own memories of the dawn of personal computing revolving around the original IBM PC running an integrated set of programs one of which called Peachtree something. I was conscious of being late to the party and often came across what seemed to be incomprehensible equipment, all of which had the faint aura (then) of science fiction. There were 8-inch floppy disks. Single line LED displays. Acoustic couplers that fit telephone handsets in an era when most handsets were enough alike that they could fit a coupler. There were terminals on which one typed and awaited a response from the actual and remote computer. And occasionally you would encounter punched cards. These were paper objects processed produced on wonderfully smooth mechanical consoles which contained data and computer instructions on a pattern of holes which you submitted to a compiler. The more savvy scrawled drawings on the side of the stack to create a visual cue to enable reconstructing the pile in the event you tripped and fell on the way to submitting it the computer, which was often tended by priestly acolytes wearing white coats in a glassed-in, airconditioned room. There were Diablo printers and lineprinters. And scads of documentation in huge binders on the wall.
It was all very primitive, yet that early computing scene was charged with an excitement akin to the discovery of first love; something you can only see with the eyes of innocence and for all its wonder, tinged with a sense of loss.
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific - and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise -
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.