Archive for December 18th, 2009

Computer Memory

My memory of computers, that is.   This week I’ve been splitting my time between grading final papers and preparing for a web based course that begins December 28th.   Not having taught an online course before, I’ve been spending a lot of time making sure the structure is clear, the infrastructure on “Blackboard” is set, and hoping things are uncomplicated and user friendly for the students.   In a couple weeks I’ll find out if I succeeded.   Meanwhile I’m grading more and more papers sent via e-mail.  Some professors go virtually paperless.  I suspect I’ll end up there too.

One good thing about being my age is that I’ve witnessed the growth of the computer from some fancy gizmo only big companies or universities had to an integral part of every aspect of our life.   It’s pretty amazing how fast things have developed.

When I was six, the same age as my eldest son now, my dad would take us to his office, a computer service company called Data, Inc.   We’d love to roam the place, looking at the punch card machines (often staffed with ‘punch card girls’ who worked even after the 9-5 shift), the big computers with huge roles of tape and lighted raised buttons.   The company did payrolls and other sorts of services since back in the sixties owning a computer was a big deal!

In my first year of college (1978) my then girlfriend was taking computer science, and I recall going to the “computer room” of Augustana College.   There were about four computers in a side room in the then Social Science building, actually a converted barracks.  They were big, old and bulky; there was no operating system and I would have to type in commands using the “basic” language.   It was time consuming, but once I spent hours programming a fake psychological test, where you answered questions and based on the answers you were given a profile.    In my sophomore year my roommate had a Tandy computer that also lacked an operating system and saved programs on cassettes (you could hook a normal cassette player to the computer).   There was a cool Star Trek game you could play.   By my senior year Augie had a real computer center in the corner of the Gilbert Science Center, with over a dozen computers, and a new bred of human: the computer nerd.    When I visited some years later, the dorm basements were all well stocked with computers.

In 1983 I took a job in Washington working for a Senator.   I started in the CMS division, which used computers to keep data bases of voters, divided by issue interest, cities, and other things.   We’d send letters to be printed, and be in charge of sending out the form letters.   If, say, a post card campaign about an issue came in, they’d go straight to us to arrange for the form letter response.   The Senator would never even know those cards came and went.   It was still big computers, a green screen, and very limited functionality.   I could use it as a word processor, but otherwise had to stay within the parameters of my job.   When I moved to assistant Press Secretary I did get to operate a cool machine that would send images of letters and newspaper articles back to South Dakota.    We called it a “telecopier;” now it gets called a fax.   It stood three feet high, and had a strange smooth paper.

While working there I also entered the world of personal computing, buying a Commodore 64.   No operating system, but you could buy software.   The software wasn’t stored on the computer (I’d load “Paperclip” word processing software every time I used it), and the printer was a daisy wheel (the best quality — better than the yucky dot matrix or the typewriter style that got stuck all the time).   Cool.  For three or four years that machine served me as I got my MA, quit the job with the Senator, and then headed off to Minnesota to work on my Ph.D.

The computer lab at Minnesota was impressive for the late eighties.   They had a laser printer, which everyone considered to be awesome.   It wasn’t until the third year that I started using it, as I realized that Wordperfect was a much better software than Paperclip.   We also could play games like Tetris and Simcity (some got addicted to the point they never finished their dissertations).    Then in 1989 I got a Mellon Grant to go to Germany.   That led to my first laptop.

It cost only $500, and was an Olivetti with two disk ports.   That was important; it had no hard drive, so if I wanted to use Wordperfect I’d have to have the Wordperfect disk in one port and the disk I’d save my files to in the other.   Its screen was not back lit, so it was hard to read (blackish on greenish).   It was also heavy.   But for the price, it couldn’t be beat.  It  was my companion in Germany in the summer of 1989.   Before leaving on that trip our computer guru told me about “bitnet,” or the ability to send instantaneous messages from one university to another.   It was, of course, e-mail — and to use it I would have to go to a university and have their computer department send it.   Too complex, I thought.

After that trip my Olivetti served me until I got my DAAD scholarship to go to Germany in the fall of ’91.  Before leaving I plopped down $1600 to buy a new Zeos laptop.  It was luxury!  A backlit screen so I could see clearly the words (no graphics, to be sure), a 286 processor, and something my Olivetti didn’t have — a hard drive.  I could keep Wordperfect on the computer, and even save files.   That machine served me in Germany, and was what I wrote my dissertation on.  After I got back from Germany I found that we had all been assigned e-mail addresses:  mine was  From school, or from my office at St. Olaf when I taught there, I could use e-mail.   I also could go to usenet discussion groups and debate politics and science, an experience I’ll write a whole blog entry about later.   I even started to go to the world wide web, though it still was hard to navigate and lacked interesting content.

Up until this point computers were tools for what I was working on — papers, resumes, stories, dream journals, etc.  Now it was becoming a mode of communication with connections to the outside world.  The revolution was beginning!

In the Fall of 1995 I started work at UMF and finally got a real state of the art desktop computer.   A Packard Bell Legend 406C,  Pentium 75 with an 850 MG harddrive  and 8 MG RAM.   Wow!  It even had a modem, and I could call up and get on line from my apartment.  I also was able to get E-mail on a program called Eudora, which made e-mail communication easier to manage.   Usenet group debates grew as well, and the internet got interesting, with even CNN and other news organizations posting things on line.   One faculty member started his own webpage, and by 1997 when Frontpage software meant no longer having to learn html, I started mine as well.   During the Kosovo war in 1999, a war which I opposed, I started posting daily entries talking about the war.   I stopped after a few months, but I had posted my first blog — even though the term “blog” was not yet in use.

Now I have a Dell Latitude E6400 laptop, 2GB RAM, and a hard drive with 150 GB.   Yet as students text, twitter, and colleagues use blackberries and Kindles, I realize that the pace of technological advancement just keeps growing.   Back in 1995 most students still didn’t actively use e-mail; now it is a primary means of communications and students are required to have it and pay attention to it.

There is something really cool about being able to live through the growth of this technology, using it as it changes, and experiencing how it changes my life and our culture.   When I was in college I dreaded aging — not just physical discomfort, but the idea that the glorious set of future possibilities would fade.   Yet possibilities for the future still abound, the present is where one exists, and the past offers a reach set of memories that give life a sense of meaning and depth.

So from punch cards to wireless high speed home internet, what a trip this computer era has been…and still is.