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July 12, 2007

The Goode Olde Days

The Atlantic republishes a 1982 James Fallows article on what it's like to live with a personal computer. Here's how it works:

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.

When I've finished with such a chunk, I press another series of buttons and store what I have written on my disk drive. This is a cigar-box-shaped unit that sits next to my computer, connected through a shocking-pink ribbon cable containing thirty-four separate strands. Inside the drive is the floppy disk, which is essentially magnetic recording tape pressed into the shape of a small record and then enclosed in a square cardboard envelope, 5 1/4 inches on each side. The system transfers data from the computer to the disk, or vice versa, at about 1,000 words per second, so it is no nuisance to pause after each fifteen or twenty minutes of writing to store what I've just done. Each of the disks in my system can hold about 100K of information, or more than twice as much as a full load from the computer memory. If one disk is full, I pull it out and snap another in.

But what if you get eaten by a sabretooth tiger?

July 12, 2007 | Permalink


Back in those days we killed sabretooth tigers with our bare hands. I can understand that such effective anti-sabretooth measures are virtually incomprehensible to today's fragile young pundits, who are all, "Oh, boo-hoo-hoo! Do I have to wear a tie to my mother's funeral? It's hot out!"

Posted by: mds | Jul 12, 2007 11:37:14 AM

And back in *my* day, we wrestled sabretooth tigers into submission and made them act as our stenographers! We didn't even have these fancy "phonemes" and "morphemes" that clutter up kids' language today: we just screamed incomprehensibly, and when the tigers didn't get it down properly, we hit 'em with rocks!

Don't even start me on the Great Binary Drought of Nineteen Tickety-Two, when we ran out of ones and had to use not-zeros. Ever try lugging a pailful o' zeros in from the pump on a hot Nebraska day? Didn't think so!

Posted by: twb | Jul 12, 2007 11:54:52 AM

I remember when I got my first ever word processing programme, for the BBC Micro. It came on a ROM.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Jul 12, 2007 2:49:22 PM

Ever try lugging a pailful o' zeros in from the pump on a hot Nebraska day?


You had zeros? We had to use the letter "O".


And screaming incomprehensibly wasn't an option, since Dolby of Akkad hadn't invented sound yet.

(Okay, I'll confess. My first experience with a personal computer was merely an Apple ][. But at least I wore ties. Sometimes they were bolo ties, but in Arizona those still count.)

Posted by: mds | Jul 12, 2007 3:39:35 PM

You're missing the real danger here - what if your candles go out and you're eaten by a grue?

Posted by: SDM | Jul 12, 2007 3:52:09 PM

Wanna chill with a sabertooth tiger
Wear a loincloth, natural fiber
Be the first Rolling Stone subscriber
Got a pterodactyl for a windshield wiper!

Posted by: Wareq | Jul 12, 2007 10:55:47 PM

A tremendous reminder of how little technology was required to provide a tremendous boost to the process of writing effectively. The only computer I ever owned that could not be used as a useful word processor was a 16Kbyte RAM Timex-Sinclair ... everything else, from the Commodore 64 to every two-generations-behind PC that I have owned, have been able to effectively support word processing.

Posted by: BruceMcF | Jul 13, 2007 9:10:12 AM

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