Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Time capsule: from punch cards to iPhones

Forty years ago on September 2, 1969—when I was just beginning junior high school—Internet pioneer Len Kleinrock led an Arpanet experiment in which essentially meaningless data was passed through a 15-foot gray cable linking two UCLA computers. Arpanet, or the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, was actually a military experiment, although Kleinrock and his team hoped there eventually would develop an open network for the free exchange of information. Less than a month later, the first two letters of the word “logon” were exchanged between two computers at different sites—UCLA and the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, California. By the end of the year, the Arpanet network had extended to a third site, the University of California-Santa Barbara.

By the time I was in high school during the early 1970s—largely unaware of the beginnings of a technology I am using today to write this blog post—the first computer programming classes were being offered at my school. While I sat through advanced German, chemistry and Honors English classes,  Ray Tomlinson introduced the @ symbol for e-mail addresses belonging to other systems, or what we call domains today. When I graduated in 1974 and began attending college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn developed a communications technique called TCP, which allowed multiple networks to communicate with each other. This, then, was the true beginning of the Internet. But I was still ignorant of its existence, although my boyfriend (now my husband) shared some of that early excitement (and frustration) as he sifted through stacks of punch cards in the wee hours of the morning in the computer science building across from Rust House, the co-op where he resided.

When I graduated from Mount Mary College-Milwaukee in 1978 with a degree in English and communication, I worked at a publishing company. The accounting department had just begun using a Wang computer to process its work, but I was still typing my daily correspondence on an IBM Selectric typewriter. I was thrilled, in fact, to be able to choose typefaces beyond the traditional Pica and Elite because of the interchangeable golf ball-type elements that made this possible.  Of course, those metal golf balls often cracked because of metal fatigue! The president of the company would slide a flexible black plastic belt off his Dictaphone machine and pass it to me, marking with a wax pencil the spot where he had finished recording his dictation. He was a thrifty man who was convinced we would save dollars by layering sheets of stationery and carbon paper, and wrapping them around the typewriter platen to make copies, rather than wasting the toner in the Xerox photocopy machine one floor below me. When the head of the accounting department told the president that one day I would use a computer for correspondence, he scoffed at the notion. Today that same publisher maintains multiple Web sites, and I daresay the Selectrics have been retired.

Fast forward to the early 1980s, when the business sector exploded with increased applications of computer technology. Electronic typewriters with a small amount of built-in memory were popular. Exxon launched its “office of the future” campaign, and sold such products as the Qyx word processor and the QWIP fax machine. I worked for a commercial-industrial real estate developer at the time. He bought a Qyx and literally fused it to my mahogany desk with a heat application to prevent theft. I wonder what became of it! We both walked across the street to use the QWIP at the nearby data processing facility to transmit facsimile messages via a telephone modem. The typewriter stored the equivalent of about 3-6 letters, and I can still hear the ka-CHUNK-ah of the paper-wrapped fax cylinder as it rotated during message transmission. You needed to use a photocopy of your message, since the paper was sometimes rather dog-eared by the time the message was sent.

Clunky dedicated word processing machines and personal computers were not far behind electronic typewriters. By 1983, such names as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Lanier, Xerox, CPT, Wang, Sun Microsystems, Apple, Compaq, Brother and more populated the market. My husband and I lived in California, where new developments in computer technology were everyday happenings. As a software support training specialist, I was part of the office automation world, encouraging my clients not to fear the use of a monitor, CPU (central processing unit), keyboard and daisywheel printer. I saw the entrance of the dot matrix, laser and inkjet printers. I still remember gaining access to Vandenberg Air Force Base and NSWSES (Naval Ship Weapon Systems Engineering Station, pronounced “nemesis”) in Port Hueneme, California, where I drove from site to site, providing CPT training support to civilians and military personnel. We were excited about each new technology advance, and celebrated the entry of Harvard Graphics, Ventura Publishing and WordPerfect software into the market. When it was announced that the CPT Phoenix could be partitioned to support both its own software and that of the IBM-PC, we were amazed. When the CPT SRS (Shared Resource System) that could share one hard drive between multiple word processors was introduced, we were thrilled. This was also when a domain system for the Internet was proposed, followed by the use of such suffixes as “.com,” “.gov,” and “.edu.”

By the early 1980s, people began using the Internet for personal use. CompuServe served the e-mail, e-commerce and gaming industries. Remember Atari? I can recall the first Commodore 64 computer that John and I owned. We bought a small television set to use as a monitor, and slid single-sided 5-1/4 inch floppy disks (back when disks actually were flexible) into a standalone rectangular disk drive. These were the days of Zork, a text-based interactive fantasy game that has since evolved into a graphic-based version. Not long after our first computer purchase, we became the proud owners of our first PC-clone, the XT. Since that day, our household has never been without at least two computers in the house!

When our son was a preschooler during the early 1990s, we began using the computer—much as others did—to pursue leisure interests. We had relocated to central Iowa, and I longed to share with others my passion for sewing, quilting, needlework and crafts. GEnie (General Electric Network for Information Exchange), an ASCII text-based system developed in 1985, was perfect for my purposes. It sported a round table (RT) posting system that enabled you to send electronic messages to an interest group. The messages were later read offline. I can recall swapping patterns and tips, and participating in quilt block exchanges. GEnie gave way to Prodigy, a system which purported ease-of-use for inexperienced computer users as its biggest advantage, and finally to AOL, which at one point was one of the largest online subscription services, but today is a company in transition, as it has many competitors.

Since those early days of the Internet, when governmental and academic use were most prevalent, the Internet has likely expanded beyond what Len Kleinrock originally envisioned. While much information can openly be shared, other information is locked behind doors, available only for a price, or through a secure password. People with no programming or coding background (such as myself) can communicate, sell and educate ourselves via e-mail, file sharing, blogs, photos, videos, online shops, social networks and much more. But at the same time, others can abuse the Internet with pornography, e-stalking, viruses, terrorism—and the list continues.

Today’s tots slide a mouse across a pad or their fingers across a touch pad long before they read, while their older teen siblings and 20-somethings tote electronic notebooks in their backpacks and messenger bags. They text messages, send photos, share videos, and surf the Net on their iPhones at all times of the day. It’s not surprising that they might expect  “old people” (in their 30s and 40s!) to be less technically proficient than they are—and in some cases they are correct—but those in their 50s and beyond share a historical perspective about how the Internet began. Happy birthday, Arpanet!

If you are interested in learning more about the history of the Internet, you may wish to visit the following sites:
© 2009 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.


The Filigree Garden said...

Great post Judy! Very informative and stirred some memories too. I kind of miss those old typewriters some days (those times when I am cursing the computer for losing files or running slowly). :-) How the technology has changed in such a short time.

ZudaGay said...

Pretty amazing! Thanks for the history lesson, Judy! Wow! You've been doing your research!

I was at home being a housewife, so I really didn't know what was going on with technology. Danny, of course, kept up on everything. We got a Vic20 when they fist came out and I typed in educational pre-school games from computer magazines for our girls to play. We upgraded to a Comodor64 when they came out and then ZOOM! everything changed so fast. Technology was obsolete as soon as it was produced. I appreciate the internet so much and it's been a great ride so far. :)

Beth said...

Wow, we have really come a long way! Thanks for the interesting post! Great blog. And welcome to EtsyBloggers Street Team!!