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Prompted By My First Computer

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My husband was always a tech guy; first a programmer, then a systems guy, then a thinker – a management consultant. I came out of college with a Theater Arts degree and a teaching certificate. As he began grad school, I begged for a job in his office and they took the bait, thinking they could train me (Over-Educated, Under-Qualified). First I keypunched, taking the punch card decks to a service bureau in the building next door that had a huge array of IBM computers. I just dropped off the decks and picked them up with the print-outs the next day.

Within a few years, one of the smart people at SofTech configured a PDP-8 (the Featured photo), hardly a personal computer, but still, small enough to fit in a room in our office without special air conditioning. And he somehow decided that I should run it, as I was Chief Program Librarian. This computer was called a “minicomputer”, made by Digital Equipment Corporation, headquartered in Maynard, MA, about a half hour west of our office. Those computers had a fair amount of horse power in their day and the programmers in our office liked having their own computer, rather than having to pay to use an outside service. I’m sure the company had done a cost/benefit analysis and found it made sense to purchase this computer for the growing company.

I had no idea how to run a computer, but Barry (the fellow who configured and purchased this one), taught me how to maintain it, check to make sure it ran properly, order supplies for it, and the like. I never learned how to actually use it. I have no idea how to program. That skill has eluded me all these years, even though I always earned a living in the tech sector.

When I was selling, I always had a smart MBA-type at my side to answer the technical questions. I knew how to do the initial sales pitch, ask the right questions, listen carefully, make sure the prospect’s questions were answered, and ASK for the sale. But I never learned how to use whatever it was I was selling (at one point, even when I sold software, we had a deal where we could sell hardware too and I sold a Prime minicomputer to Coca Cola in Atlanta, GA, and Hardee’s Food Systems in Rocky Mount, NC. I was there for the installation, to make sure all went smoothly, but didn’t have a clue what transpired; a smart hardware/systems person from my company took care of that).

Dan, with two friends, bought one of the first IBM personal computers in 1981. The three of them were going to start a business. They thought about writing software to run small doctor’s offices, a good idea that they never got off the ground. The machine sat in our study for some time. Since then, we have been a 100% Apple family. Dan just bought a new MacBook Air for himself a few weeks ago. I still use the 10 year old desk top in the den.

Old desk top Apple

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Characterizations: well written


  1. John Shutkin says:

    A great, truly inside story of the early days of computing, Betsy. It all rang very vague bells with me — chiefly as a result of my (much smarter) brother becoming a programmer back then in the Dark Ages. Plus I had a number of friends and classmates who worked at Digital (DEC). In fact, I remember when the big debate was which would end up being the “800-pound gorilla” of computing, DEC or its neighbor/competitor Wang. How very quaint, in retrospect (ahem).

    You also reminded me of something else I learned form my brother: the difference between those who mastered “the back of the computer” (programmers like him and the ones you worked with) and those who mastered “the front of the computer” (users such as you and me). And how they are often so very different. For example, I am amazed that my brilliant brother has a hard time setting up Zooms.

    And Dan’s non-start-up was genius. I’d hate to think how much he might have sunk into a business like that only to quickly fall by the wayside.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I think you give me too much credit here, John. I can follow instructions, but never mastered much in the way of using computing tools (I’ve been out of the office too long). But times were certainly different way back when.

      Dan and his friends had a good idea, but never implemented it and were WAY ahead of their time. Now, doctors offices, even small ones, couldn’t run without systems.

  2. Khati Hendry says:

    Wow, is that a picture of your computer set up? Probably—you have such a great photo archive! So much has changed I think, as I type this from my phone. Your role with the human interface was critical—tech alone doesn’t make the world go round. I was involved with implementing electronic medical records in physician offices, which involved minimal technical skills, but lots of user-interface skills.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thanks for the vote of confidence, but no, not one of my original photos, Khati. From what I can recall (the computer came to SofTech 46 years ago), it was a smaller setup than the one in the photo. And I totally agree with your statement. The human interface is all-important.

  3. Betsy, it’s comforting to hear that someone who spent her career in the tech sector didn’t know to use it all – but surely you know more than I!

    Believe it or not altho we still have an old desktop, a laptop, and iPads, I do most everything on my iPhone – even writing my Retro stories!

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    Really interesting, Betsy. It’s hard to imagine how quickly the computer industry evolved from your featured image to the bottom photo of your Mac. So few of us actually understand how anything works, so thanks to all of the programmers and computer geeks out there who do!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      My husband tells me that according to Moore’s Law, chip capacity doubles every 18 months! That is no longer quite the case as the silicone gets so tiny and we don’t upgrade our pc’s as frequently any longer since they don’t provide significantly new capabilities. And yes, I am grateful to all the geeks who do understand what goes on “under the hood”.

  5. Suzy says:

    Great story, Betsy, about your life on the periphery of the computer revolution. Too bad Dan didn’t follow through on the idea of writing software for doctors’ offices, he probably would have made a killing.

    I am blown away by the fact that Khati and Dana both apparently write their stories on their phones. I can barely write an email on mine! Much easier for me to type on a computer keyboard.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I think you are correct on many counts, Suzy. Dan’s idea was a good one, just way ahead of its time and he and his two friends had neither the time nor resources to invest at that point to get it off the ground.

      And like you, I can barely respond to texts on my phone. The idea of writing a whole story with no keyboard just blows my mind!

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