A Mixed Bag of Tech Then and Now by
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(94 Stories)

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Author’s note: Computers, or more accurately, computing power, is everywhere in 2020. With powerful microchips, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things, most of what we touch can be considered a computer, or is driven by one. During this pandemic, our new communication tools have been a godsend. There is much to appreciate in this time “after” computers, but there are a few obsolete things I miss. When we can congregate and travel, I’d encourage anyone coming to the San Francisco Bay Area to stop in at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, for a fascinating look at all aspects of computing and software. You’ll enjoy the trip!

Our phone number was CE9-2609. CE stood for the Center exchange. No area code.

I was about five years old. “Mrs. Comisky’s talking, Mom,” I shouted, after having lifted the phone receiver. My mother was putting dinner in the oven, having lit the gas with a match. I kept looking at the grandfather clock, with its pendulum swinging, and the hands slowly moving. Mrs. Comisky was a prolific talker, so I gave up on the phone and put a yellow 78 rpm record on my record player. My dad was outside working on our car, a 1952 Ford. He could tell what was wrong by looking at the mechanical parts under the hood. A few years later, he’d have a little red transistor radio in his shirt pocket and listen to the baseball game while he worked.

In the late 1950s, we had a party line with our neighbor and used one black phone attached to the kitchen wall. Sometimes my little fingers had difficulty dialing it. Our phone number was CE9-2609. CE stood for the Center exchange. No area code. I don’t miss the party line or the dialing, but I loved that phone number, so simple. Now, I can’t fathom how we operated without voicemail, with just a message note if we were lucky and someone happened to answer the phone. It seems miraculous that anyone connected at all, but we did! The downside now? We are always connected and reachable; no escape from our mobile phones.

Today’s digital clocks and watches are convenient, but I understand that many children don’t know how to tell time on a clock with hands, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. While I still use my oven occasionally, I’d gladly pick a microwave over it if forced to choose, perhaps because I’m domestically challenged.

In college I spent a weekend with a few classmates taking apart the engine of our RA’s husband’s Ford pickup truck. It was terrifying and very greasy, but I learned enough about how cars operate to put me in a better position with the (male) auto mechanics of that era. Today’s cars thankfully are a lot more reliable (my niece looked at me quizzically when I mentioned that cars used to break down often), but are close to impossible to maintain, let alone repair, without hooking them up to the auto shop’s computer. This has leveled the playing field between women and men, since the guys no longer have a big advantage when it comes to cars.

The biggest impact of computers for me was the transition from typewriters to word processing. In the eighth grade I took a required typing class on a manual typewriter, and although I hated practicing, I’m eternally grateful for my touch typing ability. In my sophomore year of high school, I received a portable Smith Corona typewriter. It was big and heavy for a portable by today’s standards, but robust enough to last for almost 15 years. One of my difficult experiences was having to type a term paper that required footnotes on the bottom. A lot of guesswork and retyping went into it!

Remember when the keys got tangled?

The ultimate typewriter trauma occurred in my junior year of high school when I worked for a CPA after school and tried to master a special machine for accounting. It had rows of ruler-like strips and levers for setting decimal tabs so that columns of numbers aligned. Try as I might, I just couldn’t get it, and the CPA put me back on doing ledger work with a fountain pen. I’ll take Excel, despite my novice ability, any day. And, while I no longer use a fountain pen, my boomer colleagues at work have joked that we are the only ones who can write with a pen. And, once we retire for good, no one will edit with a red pen anymore, and I’ll miss that a bit.

When I started working after college, I used an IBM Executive model typewriter. Everyone hated them because, although the proportional spacing looked great, errors were maddening to correct–backspacing by whole spaces and halves, inserting correction tape or using wite-out, and then retyping. So, when I went to my next job and had an IBM Correcting Selectric, I was in heaven. Proportional spacing was gone, and the keys replaced by a typing ball. The correction tape was incorporated, so no more fumbling with tapes or liquids.

In 1983 I got my first PC when I started my freelance business, a portable that I called a luggable, and despite how primitive it seems today, at the time I was thrilled to leave typewriters behind. But last year, before the pandemic, I walked into a store in an upscale shopping area called Beta. The store was really a showcase to allow companies to display new products to consumers.

A young man was standing next to a tablet-style computer that had a typewriter-like keyboard that made clacking noises when you pressed the keys. I had to smile when I saw the carriage return lever, placed just for show. In conversation with the young man, I discovered that he didn’t know what it was for, so I went into a detailed explanation of how a typewriter actually worked. He had no idea how you would insert paper (remember the platen?) or how to advance the lines, or that a bell dinged a warning at the end of the line. I laughed for days afterward!

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.


Characterizations: funny, well written

Comments

  1. Laurie Levy says:

    Your memories of life in the 50s really resonated with me, Marian. And that transition from typewriters to word processing was so amazing for me. The first thing I wrote on my son’s Apple IIc was my masters thesis, which disappeared. I had no idea that it should have been backed p on one of those floppy disks. But nevertheless, I persisted and, like you, I love the ease of word processing. It’s odd to think that young people have no idea what the sound of the carriage return and that bell are, though.

  2. Yep Marian, how did we Boomers get through college with only those bulky old typewriters?!?

    The generation after us tells time digitally, velcros their sneakers closed, and can’t touch type. What’s next in our brave new techie world? Driverless cars? (Oops I think they’re here already!)

  3. John Shutkin says:

    Plenty of points in your great story resonated with me, Marian. Particularly those relating to the agonies of typing. That said, like me, you obviously remember that the typewriter roller was called a “platen.” And I love your final, ironic anecdote about the poor young guy who had no idea how a typewriter actually worked, despite the fact that he was exhibiting a computer made to seem like a typewriter (a perfect Retro symbol for us in the Retro tribe).

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    First, I love the brightly colored photo that your use as your Featured photo, Marian. Then, I can relate to learning to touch type on an old Royal typewriter (10th grade for me), getting a Smith-Corona electric typewriter in high school, but what a drag to have to correct errors! As I’ve mentioned before, my first job out of college was doing data entry (see, that typing class paid off), both key punching and with word editors (which was easier), but the job was SO BORING! But reading about trying to do clerical work is something else entirely!

    I think I’ve told you that we’ve been to your Computer Museum, which derived lots of its material from the Boston Computer Museum (now closed, so it shipped its inventory west). I even knew one of its founders: Ike Nassi. We worked together on my first job (his first after his PhD). I gather he’s done well professionally. I haven’t seen him in over 40 years, so was pleasantly surprised to see his name in bold face at the museum.

    Great closing anecdote about the man in the hip shop who didn’t understand how typewriters work. It is a lost art now. Only we Boomers remember.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Betsy, I didn’t know Ike but figured you might have been to the computer museum out here, with the close Boston connection. There was something fun about the sounds of typewriters and how they worked, although I’d have to pick the convenience of word processors.

  5. Ah, party lines…but why was the conversation I was snooping on always sooo boring?!? And the phone attached to the kitchen wall…our number was HO- (for Hollywood) 54888, and I would stand there like a stork, one foot resting on the opposite knee, jabbering away, entwining and untwining my finger in the coiled cord. And yes, tangled typewriter keys! Just saying it I can actually feel what it felt like to disentangle them and have them clunk back into position. And yes, those sounds…the platen, the ding! Wonderfully evocative story, Mare…such great details and images! Thank you!!

    • Marian says:

      Perfect, Barb. I remember playing with the phone cord. And yes, I was bored by those conversations I heard. Soon after my recollection we got a private line and party lines vanished. You had a great phone number.

  6. Suzy says:

    Never had a party line, but I do miss those old exchanges. My number was PL (for Plymouth) 9-1237. It was a lot easier to remember phone numbers in those days, when part of it was the exchange – but now nobody remembers anyone’s number anyway because they are stored in your phone. Then if you lose your phone, you can’t contact anyone!

    Everything you wrote resonated with me! And I love your hilarious story about the salesperson at the store called Beta. I also love your colorful images, although I never played a record on one of those old gramophones, and I bet you didn’t either. When we get together after the pandemic, you can show me around the Computer History Museum.

    • Marian says:

      Would love to tour the museum, Suzy, in the future. I laughed and cried the last time I was there because in a new exhibit was a product for which I had written the user manual. Did I ever feel like a fossil.

  7. Reading not only your submission but several of the previous comments, I am so glad not to be alone in recalling my original phone number: BR (for Broadway) 6597. Yes only four numbers were needed in central Indiana. Later on an extra one was inserted and the letters changes to numbers: 255-6597. My parents still had that till they died in recent years.
    You went through so many technology changes in your opening paragraphs so quickly, triggering so many memories of my own, that you left my head swimming! Very evocative writing! Like others, I found your ending so profound: a company trying to capitalize on a product by imbuing it with elements of an earlier era, but failing to orient their staff to the underlying premise.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Dale. Funny how so many of us remember our original phone number. The CE in mine went to “23,” and then later the 201 area code was added. Not very evocative. Amazing how your parents retained that phone number! Paper is nearly foreign to the Gen Z folks in that store, so small wonder that the fellow didn’t have even an intuitive understanding of a typewriter.

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