Computer Age by
(303 Stories)

Prompted By My First Computer

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As it happens, I have been interested in computers since the early days. In college I took a computer course called Nat Sci 110 just for fun, where we learned a few programming languages, like Basic, Fortran, Cobol, and Snobol. The computer was as big as a room, and we used punch cards that we fed into it. That’s all I remember about the course, and I doubt that anything I learned then would be applicable to computers now anyway.

To help us become proficient in using a mouse, Solitaire was installed on all our computers.

After taking that course, I never gave computers another thought until they arrived at my office some time in the ’80s. First it was just the secretarial pool that had them, although they were called “word processors.” My assigned secretary was still using a typewriter at that point, but if a brief went to the pool instead, that was great, because they could make corrections easily on their machines, and then print out the corrected pages. In contrast, if my secretary had to make a correction, she used White-Out if she could fit the new text in the same space that the old text had occupied, and otherwise she had to retype the whole page, or if it caused a change in where the page breaks came, she would have to retype all the following pages as well. Needless to say, that was a real disincentive to making improvements after the initial draft was typed, although I did become adept at figuring out a new phrase that had exactly the same number of characters as the one I was replacing.

At some point, all the secretaries got computers, and later all the attorneys did too. It happened while I was on one of my maternity leaves, and I came back to discover that I had a computer in my office and I was expected to use it for some purposes, although not to type my own briefs. (That didn’t come until later – I continued to write mine in pen on yellow legal pads for quite some time.) That must have been in 1986, since my first child was born in 1985, and I took a year of maternity leave.

I do remember learning keystrokes to do various functions, and in fact there was a card that we placed at the top of the keyboard that told us what each F key did in conjunction with the Alt, Control, or Shift key. Later on we got mice, so we could click for functions instead of using the F keys. To help us become proficient in using a mouse, Solitaire was installed on all our computers. We had to practice clicking and dragging the cards to play the game. That was a lot of fun, and I’m sure we played a lot more than was required to master the mouse. At some point we also got Battleship and Tetris. Those games could keep us entertained for hours! Eventually I think they uninstalled them because people weren’t getting their work done.

When I came back from my second maternity leave in 1989, there was another innovation – interoffice electronic mail. This was an internal system that enabled us to communicate with the hundreds of other Attorney General’s Office employees in all four offices around the state, long before there was the internet type of email that we know today. Each person had a four-letter ID, consisting first of the letter of their office (S for Sacramento, F for San Francisco, L for Los Angeles, and D for San Diego) followed by their three initials. If someone didn’t have a middle name, they got an X in between their first and last initial. I remember needing my secretary to coach me a few times on how to use it before I got the hang of it, but soon it became much more practical than leaving a message on someone’s phone. (Phone messages usually meant just telling the person’s secretary that you wanted them to call you back. Not sure when we got voicemail.)

As for my first computer at home, that came a couple of years later, when my first marriage fell apart and I ended up moving in with the man who became my second husband. He had a desktop computer. It had a gray screen and the letters were green, just like the Featured Image. The first time I attempted to use it was to type a letter to my daughter’s teacher. I was just treating it like a typewriter, and if I needed to change things I just did it however I could. It seemed much more complicated than a typewriter, but I was proud of my creative solutions to problems like indenting paragraphs and adding or deleting things. (He wasn’t home to ask for help.) When he came home and saw my letter, he clicked on Reveal Codes (Alt F3), and started laughing at the convoluted way I had done things. Of course I soon became proficient at all things computer.

Later there was internet, with dial-up access that took forever and tied up your phone line while you were using it. But that wasn’t on my first computer. My google search suggests that internet for private consumers became available in 1995 (amazing – only 27 years ago!), and before that it was mainly used by government agencies (like my office) and scientists.

Thanks to Neil Young for the story title song, from the 1983 album Trans. It was apparently inspired by the fact that his son, who was born with cerebral palsy, responded better to a computerized voice than to a person when he was an infant.

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Characterizations: right on!


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    This is a great history of your professional and personal introduction and learning, bit by bit, of the various ways that technology can make us more efficient, Suzy. You tell your story with a great eye for history. By the way, did you ever encounter Cathy Stephenson, an ADA in the San Diego office?

    I am impressed that you were interested enough to take an intro programming course back in college. Dan would have been a Comp Sci major, but Brandeis didn’t yet have one. Yet he took many, many courses in the subject. Today our kids tell him he’s a dinosaur!

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, Betsy. I don’t know Cathy Stephenson, but if she was an ADA, that means she was in the District Attorney’s office, which is totally distinct from the Attorney General’s Office. (We were DAGs, not ADAs.)

  2. John Shutkin says:

    A terrific history of the early days of computing, Suzy. Not surprisingly, it very much paralleled my own professional experiences as these new computers were wheeled into our offices and it took us all a while to realize what they could actually do.

    I particularly remember when we all realized that we could not only use email to communicate within our firm, but to communicate with outside law firms and other third parties. Wow! And how it slowly dawned on me that being able to attach documents to emails was of great benefit; my initial, naive view was, “Well, why don’t you just include everything in the email itself?”

    Incidentally, I never took Nat Sci 110, but one of my roomies did. And my recollection of it was that, because the computer lab was way on the other side of the campus and you had to submit your punch cards in one of the three time slots during the day/night (the lab ran 24-hours a day), I ended up driving him to and from the lab at all hours so that he could work on his course project, which was to “teach” the computer to write poetry. AI this was not. Nor Emily Dickinson.

    And many thanks for the “etymology” of your song title title. You spared me the need to research it myself, as I was totally unfamilar with it, notwithstanding being a big Neil Young fan.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, John. Your description of Nat Sci 110 doesn’t ring a bell with me. I don’t think I ever went to a computer lab way on the other side of campus or had to submit punch cards in one of three time slots. Maybe I took it a different year and the process worked differently? Or else I have lost my memory!

      • John Shutkin says:

        Since I was the “designated driver,” I do have a pretty good recollection of the whole ordeal, including that it required punch cards and that there were three submission times every eight hours. And the computer lab was, I believe, in the McKay Labs or some other science building on Oxford Street (on the other side of the Yard) where so many of the science buildings still are. I cannot, however, vouch for your memory. Is it on a chip or thumb drive somewhere?

        And, again, the program never really produced anything approaching poetry; more a collection of random words.

  3. Khati Hendry says:

    Great review of early computer days. Your story with all its details brought me right back to that time—I remember fumbling through function keys and having cheat sheets and figuring out formatting and slow connections…also Fortran and punch cards. The joy of being able edit a document without whiteout and retyping everything was huge. Like you, I was brought into using a computer through work, and it has changed the medical profession greatly, not always for the better.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, Khati. I remember when my doctor’s office became computerized, and the doctor would sit there typing while she was talking to me, looking at the screen instead of looking at me. I didn’t like it at all (and neither did the docs). But we have all gotten used to it, and maybe it has improved some aspects of medical care.

  4. Wow Suzy, could it have been only 1995 that we all became Internet junkies, how did we survive before that!

    I remember attending a workshop sometime at the beginning of tech revolution and learning back then there were more registered URLs than there were human beings on earth – how could that be?!?

    And that some day we’d use technology to communicate not only for business but socially – and we laughed!

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    Your story stirs up so many memories for me of the early computer and internet era. So many of us were self-taught, picking up tricks along the way. When we started the preschool, our volunteer accountant put us on Quicken, something I still use. We quickly outgrew that and moved from QuickBooks to a series of incomprehensible accounting software packages to industry-specific software. It was a pretty steep learning curve for most of us who used it, but being able to do it made us feel pretty accomplished.

  6. A deeper read of this story reveals the very interesting ways that technology is used in our society; fascinating how the people lower down in the hierarchy (oops, I almost said the “totem pole”) were expected to master the computers before the attorneys. Your close attention to details and good memory would make it interesting for a later generation to examine the social and political nature of this kind of process.

    On a different dimension, you reminded me that during my sophomore year (1968-9) in Adams House, a computer–filling a whole room as you stated–“moved in” to displace what had been some kind of storage room or maybe just a portion of the corridor, in F-entry, where I lived. One roommate and I had no interest in it, although we were annoyed by the clack-clack-clack it would make when printing. (There was also a printer in the room.) But my other roommate, Stuart, who was later kicked out for occupying University Hall, knew how to program, and he programmed the computer to print hundreds of lines over and over, reading, SMASH IMPERIALISM! POWER TO THE WORKING CLASS!

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