Weekend Roundtable: Life Before Computers

Love him or hate him, Steve Jobs was one of the pioneers who helped usher in the modern personal computing age. As Hollywood turns his life story into an awards-baiting bio-pic, let’s remember back to a time before each of us had a computer in our home (much less in our hand!). Assuming you’re old enough to have grown up without a computer in your household, tells us about the tasks or experiences that used to be much worse or harder before computers came along.

If you’re young enough to have always had computers in your life, describe something that used to be terribly slow or primitive that is now a breeze.

Do you actually miss anything from those days that computers have ruined?

Before someone gets pedantic about it, yes I’m aware that computers existed in some form for decades before I or most of our site’s readers were even born. However, our concern here is with personal home computers that any average individual could have easy access to.

Shannon Nutt

When we were sent this week’s topic, I considered writing about how much easier (and less embarrassing) it is to access adult material (yeah, I’m talking porn), but decided we weren’t running that kind of blog here.

Instead, I’ll comment on how much easier it is to find out about upcoming movies, a topic near and dear to all our hearts. (I’m guessing porn is too, but I digress.) In the old days, a huge chunk of my knowledge about upcoming movies came from a little monthly magazine called Starlog, which not only covered upcoming sci-fi releases, but pretty much anything related to the fantasy and adventure genres (James Bond, Indiana Jones, etc.).

Both the worst and the best part of all this was that you couldn’t find out any more about a movie you were interested in than the article in question provided. It wasn’t quite spoiler-free (I believe Starlog was the first place I read that Spock might be killed off in ‘Star Trek II’), but it was at least spoiler-filtered, meaning that you could go see a major release without having most of the plot ruined for you in advance.

Now, of course, if you look in the right places online (and worse, when you aren’t looking at all), you can find spoilers galore about every aspect of a movie’s production. This has helped weed out the good movies from the bad ones, but it’s also somewhat spoiled the magic of going into the movies with little (if any) knowledge about the story about to unfold.

Luke Hickman

I’ve been playing guitar for more than 20 years now, but I don’t play like real guitarists. I couldn’t write a song if you put a gun to my head, so I can’t just free-play like many others. Instead, I enjoy playing the songs that I like to hear from bands and guitarists I enjoy listening to. I don’t read music, so tablature is my way of finding out how to play certain songs.

Before the internet and e-commerce came around, it was by brutal acts of chance that I would find a desired songbook for an album. Weekly, I’d stop by my town’s only guitar/music shop (a fantastic little joint named Roll Over Beethoven) and see which new books it had in the racks. Because there didn’t exist a catalog with all of the albums that had been written out into tablature, I never knew if books for the albums I wanted even existed. Relying on chance, it was always hit-or-miss.

Amazon came around and changed things (as did a Barnes & Noble in the area), but the internet killed the need to purchase songbooks. Simply Googling “[song title] tab” will now give you more tab options than you could ever need.

Brian Hoss

An endless number of things have changed due to the prevalence of computers and the internet, but one area that comes to mind is the consumption of sports. We used to either pass around the local sports page or seek a TV update in order to get scores, usually from the day before. Pulling statistics out of the newspaper (to then basically go nowhere) is a world away from today’s fantasy sports. This is true all the way down to saving newspaper clippings for high school sports. Of course, this helped to create those water cooler moments that are so much more sedate now.

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

I genuinely can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t have a computer. Even before I was in Kindergarten, I had a TRS-80 Color Computer 2 in my bedroom. It wasn’t exactly the most practical thing, seeing as how mine didn’t have a printer or even a disk drive. It instead used cartridges like a video game console, and I could save/load stuff via a cassette recorder. Mostly I just typed in long, long programs from binders of sample software. Times sure have changed there.

I don’t think I had a PC with a capable printer until just before graduating high school. I remember clacking away at a typewriter for some assignments in elementary school, and my mother was particular enough that she’d make me re-type entire pages if I made a mistake rather than leaning on white-out. In junior high, we moved up in the world and had a dedicated word processor. It looked like a typewriter but had a little LCD screen that showed a couple lines of text at a time, and I could scroll through it. As inconvenient as that may sound now, it was a godsend 25 years ago. I remember trying to write a screenplay on it about aliens using videogames to turn kids into zombies, but I think I’d just as soon forget that whole thing.

I did finally have a proper PC when I started high school, although my first printer was one of those dot matrix numbers. I’m still tormented by nightmares of fighting to keep the paper perfectly aligned with the sprockets. Otherwise, text would print diagonally down the page and eventually be unreadable. It’s not the most fun thing to suffer through when you’re already pulling an all-nighter to finish a paper you should’ve started weeks earlier.

Josh Zyber

Although personal computers started to hit the market in a real way when I was a kid in the 1980s, my family was far too poor to afford one. I don’t remember even having a computer class in school until at earliest 7th Grade. Before that, we had typing classes, where I’d rigorously drill typing “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” over and over on an IBM Selectric. At home, we had a manual typewriter with at least one broken key (I believe it was the “e”), but I rarely used that. Until about sophomore year of high school, all of my school papers were written out longhand. What a pain in the ass that was! I still have a callous on my middle finger that never went away.

Through late high school and at least the first year of college, I had a word processor much like Adam describes. It was basically an electric typewriter, but had a small LCD readout that would display one line of text you could review before committing to it by hitting the Return button and watching it print. That was better (at least it gave me an opportunity to hunt for typos), but my life improved exponentially once I finally started using real computers, courtesy of the university’s computer lab, with whatever early version of Microsoft Word was available at the time. That was a true game-changer.

As a writer and editor, I’d like to think that those early experiences instilled some discipline and economy-of-words, but that’s probably just me being arrogant. (Listen to me ramble on about this!) Nevertheless, the gibberish spat out by today’s kids raised with texting and Twitter reads like an alien language to me. I can’t make heads or tails of most of it. I can hardly even fathom what things will be like when my own children hit their formative years.

How did you ever live without a computer? Or did you? Tell us your experiences in the Comments.


  1. You’re giving Jobs too much credit for early computing. Later on yeah he did a lot.
    I am with Adam – growing up I had an Atari 800XL, friends either had C-64 or TRS-80 CoCo computers. Jobs’ name was never heard of back then. We heard names like Nolan Bushnell, Bill Gates, Gary Kildall.

  2. Csm101

    Shannon Nutt,
    Your comments about porn are totally legit. Beats having to ask for a dirty magazine at the gas station line.
    I do kind of miss the days when movies hade some mystique to them. Nowadays, because we all have computers, everyone knows too much about the production of a movie before so much as a teaser trailer. On of the coolest things I got was a CD burner. It was so great to customize my music onto a cd rather than cassette tapes. I still find it fascinating how one can store thousands of songs in a tiny little device.

  3. NJScorpio

    Regardless of how influential Steve Job’s was in getting computers into the homes of the average person, he became a household name and catapulted Apple into a new age of success by doing two things to the design of Apple’s consumer products…

    (1) Steal 1960’s Braun design language.
    (2) Seal everything up so that consumers aren’t intimidated by “parts”.

  4. Chris B

    Steve Jobs was obviously a genius, but was also reputed to be one of the biggest assholes to ever walk the earth. It’s a little dishearteneing that he’s the subject of not just one but two major motion pictures.

    As for the computer question, word processing for school projects was always a bitch. My family didn’t buy a computer until I was well into junior high so all of elementary and a few years after were a pain in the ass. I used to try and type all of my stuff in the library after school or I’d be forced to write it out long-hand. I don’t miss those days.

    I agree about the porn accessibility factor. I honestly don’t know how adult video/book stores even stay open anymore…

    • CC

      A person being an A-hole is no reason not ot tell his story if he is a genius. Ty Cobb was one of the most amazing baseball players of all time, but also a racist, alcoholic jerk. But personally being a jerk doesn’t discount ones achivements. They are tangible and real.
      Computers have given and taken away. I was recently in New York, and I was struck in the past it was a big deal going to different places and buying stuff. If you went to London or New York, you came back flush with presents of stuff you couldn’t find in your hometown. Now I can get anything from anywhere online.
      But, I love having facts at your fingertips. In the past when you couldn’t think of that song in your head- it tortured you for months until you remembered it. Now you just hum a few bars into the computer and it tells you!
      But the worst for me- because of computer assist- people who have no musical or singing ability are able to manipulate computer programs to spit out junk and call it music. I worked in a music studio and you have no idea how many “real” singers can’t sing. (I,myself, helped retune Jonathan Davis on a Korn track. Dude cannot sing.)
      I love the things computers help us with- but I get worried about how lazy it allows us to become.

      • Chris B

        I get what you’re saying. I just meant it’s unfortunate that a terrible human being is celebrated so much, regardless of their intellect or achievments.

    • William Henley

      I would disagree with you on him being a genius unless we are talking strictly marketing. Nerdy, sure, but genius, no. Hobbiest computer kits came out in the mid 70s, and there were groups that wrote software and operating systems. Steve Jobs took the different ideas, put it together in a neat little package, and sold it.

      He licensed the GUI and pretty much Mac System 1 from Xerox. The Apple Laserwriter was one of the first laser printers, and the first to use Post Script, which gave you a WYSIWYG, which was a first, but that was really developed in conjunction with Adobe, and Jobs himself didn’t develope it – he just saw the potential and licensed it.

      Apple was suffering and Jobs was dismissed from Apple in 1985 – just one year after the Mac was released (this should tell you what Apple thought of him – although some histories say he was forced out, others that the board voted him out, yet others say he resigned). He went on to found NeXT, and where we see Job’s “genius” is that he put together a good team and marketed the hell out of system. While the system was ahead of its time, this is thanks to the engineers at NeXT, not Jobs himself. The NeXtStep operating system was based largely on Unix.

      In 1997, Apple bought out NeXT, and just brought Jobs in as a consultant. He did not return as CEO until 2000.

      Mac OSX is based on BSD and NeXTStep. The iPod is based on the Diamond Rio. The iPhone combined the iPod with the Blackberry. The iWatch is based on the Samsung Android Watch.

      What made Jobs a success was being at the right place at the right time, seeing potential in things and people, and then assembling the right engineers and designers together to take several different ideas and unify them in a pretty package, or, later, litterally copying what someone else has done and making it pretty (as in the iPod).

      So while Jobs may be a genius, I would argue it is not for the reasons most people think – he was good at seeing potential, finding talent, and marketing.

  5. Finding rare things is much easier now. You used to have to hire bookfinders to locate out of print books.

    Doing the checkbook is easier now.

    I’m old enough that I can ignore social media without seeming too eccentric, just out of it. For people who have to have it: it seems to be ruining their lives.

    Political discourse is now worse than I have ever seen it. Dumber and more angry. I don’t know whether to blame advanced communications or not.

  6. William Henley

    We got a Commodore 64 in 1982 when I was 3, and the first PC was in 1988.

    Those Commodores had serial cables connecting everything. A floppy disc I believe held 320K per side (this sounds right, later they came out with double density, and those were 1.44 meg discs), yet it could easily take 3-5 minutes to load up a program (and now that I think if it, if you were loading it into ram, I think you only had like 39k free after the operating system loaded into ram, so what the heck took so long?).

    Your printouts never looked like they did on the screen with either the Commodore or the PC (this may sound strange to kids nowadays – I believe Apple pioneered the idea of WYSIWYG – the concept that what you see on the screen is what comes out on the printer). Those printers also shook the whole house when you printed.

    One of the things though that we lost was the ability to do banners. When is the last time you saw fanfold printer paper?

    My Dad had a 300 baud modem. The program that came with it did not work right, but the code was printed in a book in BASIC, so he had to troubleshoot and fix bugs in the code. It was one of those modems that you had to pick up the phone, dial the number, and when you heard the tones, you unplugged the cord from the receiver and plugged it into your modem. He also paid $50 a month to the phone company for a “computer grade phone line” to be able to do that 300 baud.

    My first modem was on the PC, and it was 2400 baud I remember it taking 5 minutes to download a jpeg that was like 320×200. A 15 second low-resolution video clip might take me 3-4 hours to download.

    A couple of my friends and I ran our own BBS. As it was thrown together, it only had a 9600 baud modem in it (by this time, most people had 33.6). My friend Clay was in charge of the file area and ANSI graphics, Laura was in charge of the hardware and general administration, and I was in charge of Doors and RIP Graphics. A door was a program that launched outside of the BBS software, and were usually games. I had a hidden door where I could also get to the command line to install programs. RIP Graphics stood for Remote Imaging Protocol. In RIP graphics, you could either download your graphics before hand and the remote system would call for the files (the game Legend of the Red Dragon is an example of this), or you could do vector art and GUI menus (like designing stuff in Visual Basic) that would pretty much send Draw and Fill commands to the remote computer. It allowed you to do higher resolution art and GUI menus compared to ANSI.

    It was 1993 when I first got on the internet. Used a little browser called Mosaic. It was a pain – first, you had to launch your dialer program, then you had to launch Trumpet Winsock, then you had to launch the TCP/IP protocol application. After doing all of that, then you could then launch your web browser, ftp client, e-mail program, Archie, Veronica or gopher. Bookmarks were extremely important as there was no search engine – there was a published book called The Internet Yellow Pages, but you usually found something by visiting a page you knew of, and looking at their links to their favorite sites.

    In 1995 I got my own computer (instead of using Dad’s) and it was a Pentium 90 Mhz with Windows 95, 1.2 gig of hard drive space, 16 meg of ram, a video card with 2 meg of Video Ram, A Soundblaster Live, and a 14.4 modem. My dad was in awe, he was like “what are you going to do with all of that?”. I was amazed because with the Microsoft Network, they allowed you to download more than one file at a time. Of course, I crippled my connection by trying to download 10 MOD files at the same time (No, not hacks to Quake or Doom, these were sound files).

    I moved my website to Angelfire, and then eventually to Geocities since Angelfire only gave you 32k of disc space for your site (I am thinking Geocities was 5 meg, but I slept since then). I started college in 1997, and we had a dual ISDN line in the lab (128k speed!), and my website on Geocities still took 10-15 seconds to load up because all the graphics and animation on my site added up to 500k!

    Video editing was fun. I got Adobe Premiere in 1998, and a 4 minute video took about a day and a half to render.

    In 2001 I went to Salzburg for a Semester. I had a digital camera (one of the first people I know to have one – $600 for a 1.2 megapixel point n shoot, and I got that on a special – it was a $1000 camera). It came with an 8 meg memory card (meg, not gig) and I bought a 64 meg to go with me. It held about 250 photos. However, we did not have internet at the school or at my house, so this involved me loading pictures onto floppy and taking them up to the internet cafe. I would upload pictures and stories to my website (the term later became known as blogging, but there was no term for that then). My mom only had e-mail through Juno, so I would upload files to Walmart to print and have them sent to her store.

    When i got back from Salzburg, I created a video. This took 4 months. Over the summer, I captured and went through video clips (they were all on analogue tape), and then I created my projects (they had to be about 4 minutes a piece – back before things went 64 bit, Premiere would crash if you loaded too many objects into it). When I got back to school, we had a new fiber network at the campus. So I shared my drive with my files, and then I would go down to the computer lab at night, and I would secure about 6 of their brand new Pentium 3s to render work. It took them about 4-6 hours to render a 4 minute clip. The video was 90 minutes long, so rendering was done overnight for about a week. After all the clips were rendered, I created a new Premiere project, and brought in the clips, and told it to process without reencoding the clips. This took about 3 hours (as it just had to render transitions between the clips). Now, DVD was still 5 years away, so once it was rendered, I had to use a video card with SVideo out, and the master was put onto SVHS. This was then sent to a friend at another university who used his school”s broadcast equipment to run off 10 copies at a time (we had 63 students, of which 45 ordered videos).

    After that, things started changing REALLY fast. I graduated college in January of 2002 and went home, and my areas was one of the first with broadband (I actually had cable internet the summer of 1999). So I had 10 meg internet, then shortly after went to a 1.2 Ghz processor, then 64 bit, then dual core, then quad core, then six core, then 8 core (pretty much upgrading every 2 years). My next camera was 2 years later and was a 3 megapixel with a 128 meg card which I believe cost $250, and pretty much upgraded cameras every 1-2 years. Now I have a 3D still and a 3D video camera, but I use my phone for most stuff (In fact, the last trip to europe, all pictures were taken on my phone, although I did take a TON of 3D video with my camcorder).

    Ah, memories.

    • William Henley

      Oh, the whole Salzburg thing brought up something else.

      So, in 2001, quite a few people in Europe spoke English, but we still fumbled with broken English (and my even worse broken German / Italian / French and only knowing a few phrases of Czeck). Worse was trying to find something mentioned in your guide book – you had an address, and general directions usually, but you would still get hopelessly lost (especially in Italy, where instead of street names, and entire block(ie 4 streets) would have the same name, then cross to the other side of the street, and it is another name, and you would have 4 streets with that name). Trying to read maps and time tables and not knowing the news of the week resulted at me being pulled off of a train at gunpoint for trying to get into a country that the US just went to war with the week before. I DID have a cell phone, but this lead to 1) praying to GOD that roaming worked in the country you were in and having to manually select networks to see if one would work and 2) trying to figure out how to dial then 3) trying to decipher directions that a local of another culture is trying to give to you (you will come to a junction that is laid out like a hand – take the index finger).

      In 2014 I return to Europe, with a Smart Phone, international plan, and unlimited data. I have Google Translate on my phone that I can point at signs and menus and it will translate into English, if we are fumbling over words, we can use the microphone in Google Translate to recognize and translate, I have GPS with Google Maps and voice navigation, I have Rick Steves app downloaded that gives me walking tours of cities for free, I can text and call friends and meet up with people, I can price check stuff at suvioner shops, I can take pictures and post immediately to facebook, and I can blog while waiting at bus stops.

    • William Henley

      I got one more for you. Thanks to computers, and then the internet, think about how much Amazon has changed our lives. 16 years ago, I was leary to give credit card information online, and ordering from an online bookstore? No thanks, I will go to Barnes and Nobles or Walden Books. Now? I never go to the store (Amazon is even starting to deliver groceries in my area). I get to work and place my order by 8 or 9, and by the time I get home, my order will be sitting on my doorstep. Instead of carting around 100s of CDs, I got thousands of songs stored on Amazon Music that I just stream. Amazon has hands down changed my life for the better.

  7. Thulsadoom

    I remember the days before we had our first computer. I had a couple of colour LCD and LED games, but computers had always fascinated me. Even before my dad got our first one, I loved watching tv programs about CGI (I remember some of those early ones, showing tech demos and such, with important-sounding voice-overs talking about it being the future!)

    Despite being a software developer and designer who’s always loved computers, Apple had only a peripheral influence on me growing up. We had an early Mac in the library at school, which I think I used twice. Other than that, our computer experience in school was using BBC Micros, and my dad got us an Amstrad PCW at home. I later got a tape-loading ZX-Spectrum!! Even at university, the only Mac experience I had was being shown the Mac lab, which nobody ever used. 😉

    The BBC Micro was released in 1981 and the ZX-Spectrum (48k) in 1982. The Macintosh, which is probably when Apple became best known for computing, wasn’t till 1984, by which point most people interested in computers in the UK had got into affordable home computing.

    So for my experience, Apple have only had much influence on computers in recent decades. I think all the early Apple influence on computers was mostly in America, to be honest. It’s usually designers that wax lyrical about Apple, as if you can’t be a designer without one, and make them sound like more of an influence than they actually were. 😉

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