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Retro-future computing [Mar. 23rd, 2006|12:23 am]
So, as I mentioned before, one of the things I found in that box of books was a pile of Analog magazines. I have to share some great bits from an article entitled "Home Computers Now!", published in 1977. (And to convey sufficient incredulity at the difference 30 years makes, you should pretend that I've put a (!) after everything quoted.)

The article starts with a description of how Frank Future's computer helps him out. For example, it acts as an alarm clock, and will automatically turn on the TV at certain times! It also lets him use a powerful "texteditor" program (those quotes are in the original) that can do amazing things like right-justify text. He prints his completed file on a converted electric typewriter. Oh! and when it's time for bed, "The system says quietly in its Swedish accent, 'Good night, sir. Sleep well,' and turns its attention to the home's smoke detectors and burglar alarms."

So how much does this wondrous device cost?

Well, for $1600 dollars (and those are 1977 dollars, note, which are worth about 3 times as much as a dollar today) you would get a kit containing:
  • a mainframe with a 4MHz processor and 16 Kbytes of RAM
  • "a combination I/O and cassette interface card"
  • a video display card (which you would hook up to your television -- no monitors yet!)
  • an operating system and BASIC interpreter on cassette (that's right, no hard drive means you have to load the OS manually)

"You purchase the kit off the shelf from a computer store in the next state. It takes you about forty hours, several weeks of spare time, for you and your daughter to assemble the system."

It's actually a pretty good article, and has a buch of well-written information about how computers work. Near the end, it makes some prognostications that are remarkably prescient... mostly. (My commentary in italics.)

"The personal computer tied to an optical communications net i.e., the internet can:
  • replace most retail stores with remote access to and ordering from catalogues; although e-commerce is indeed cool, as shown by, say, ebay, amazon, and netflix, it's not quite the death knell of brick-and-mortar shopping in general. Still, a pretty good prediction.
  • eliminate or greatly weaken commercial radio, television, and advertising, conventional newspapers, the postal service, banks, schools, and universities; again, a big over-estimate, but I think the web has changed journalism and publishing in significant ways, and is continuing to do so.
  • enable millions to do most of their work at home; maybe not millions, but I've certainly done my share of telecommuting now and again in the last couple years
  • enable direct access to government data banks covered by the Freedom of Information Act, and electronic impeachment of officials by their constituents. ... uh, whut? Did I miss something? Where's my "impeach the bastards" desktop widget, dammit??

I think one of my favorite bits is the letter printed a few months later in the letters column, where someone writes in to say "I may sound like a spoilsport, but is there any real use for a home computer? All the activities on page 62 can be duplicated by an alarm clock or clock radio, a desk calendar, a game board or two for the children, a typewriter, and a telephone.... Face it -- the so-called usefulness is just an excuse for the hobby. The home computer is the model railroad of the future -- nothing more."

I want to write a letter to 30 years ago, saying, "Dude. You have no idea."

[User Picture]From: arcticturtle
2006-03-23 12:52 am (UTC)
The funny thing (OK, one of the funny things) is that I pretty much agreed with the naysayer, then and even 12 years later. I thought computers were incredibly cool, but when I was thinking about a career, I thought I should get a real job instead of counting on making my living with a toy, no matter how fun. In my defense, I lived in a backwater town with no contact with actual technical people.
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[User Picture]From: zalena
2006-03-23 06:25 am (UTC)
I love this! I wish my dad had built a mainframe with me. Instead we were constantly fixing the family's lime green Chevy Vega.
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[User Picture]From: melted_snowball
2006-03-23 06:42 am (UTC)
My 2 thoughts. First, I'm happy to hear that he was making the computer with his daughter. And second, that's actually pretty fast for the time period, no?

I guess it would have been just a year or two before Commodore introduced the VIC, and suddenly costs plummeted with proper automation.

Neat article.
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[User Picture]From: da_lj
2006-03-23 08:39 am (UTC)
Even better, it was just after Commodore introduced the PET at CES in Chicago.

That page is almost as much fun as:
which brings back too many memories of those old computer magazines. :)

The sad thing to me is that my dad still says the same things as that letter-writer.

"What's wrong with using the telephone and a phone book?"

Then he has my mom send email for him. ;)

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[User Picture]From: melted_snowball
2006-03-23 08:48 am (UTC)
I had forgotten that the syntax parser for the Commodore machines' BASIC didn't mind if you didn't bother putting spaces between tokens. IFX>0THENA=1

Oy. Maybe that's where perl comes from.
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[User Picture]From: da_lj
2006-03-23 11:15 am (UTC)
I had forgotten about that. Oy indeed.
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[User Picture]From: earthling177
2006-03-24 08:02 pm (UTC)
Hm... dunno how to tell you, but unless BASIC has changed very recently (I avoid it as much as I can, I'll admit it), it never was supposed to mind spaces. BASIC came straight from FORTRAN, and FORTRAN (again, unless it has changed in the last 10 years or so) *discards* all blanks, well, that's not totally true either, FORTRAN only looks at blanks to decide if your current "card" is a continuation "card" from the previous command. After the compiler has decided what the supposedly complete line is, it discards all blanks before trying to parse the line. Makes it for very interesting reading, when the humans are confused if something is a variable name or a command or something else. Still, people who were used to it complained bitterly about all the "newfangled" languages that had reserved keywords and were strict about white space.

And, yes, before I forget, PERL came straight from BASIC, FORTRAN and a couple of shells. Then, not satisfied with that, it wandered among a few other languages a few years later and picked up more stuff as if it was Katamari Damacy (sp?). And no, I don't say that because I don't like PERL, I like PERL *despite* that. ("PERL is the swiss army chainsaw, the wrong tool for everything.") I actually find PERL incredibly useful, which just means if someone actually comes up with an interesting programming language that can do what PERL does and has a decent and consistent grammar, it would be wonderful.
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