Beemer (dr_tectonic) wrote,

Retro-future computing

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."

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