Friday, September 12, 2008


Remember when?

When I was finished teaching today, I stopped in the main computer lab to pick up some work one of my students had left in my folder there. One of the lab assistants started up a conversation about the information technology class most of us are teaching this semester but that he is not. He wanted to know if the students were responding more positively to the new curriculum than the old one. One thing led to another and eventually we ended up talking about how so much has changed in our lifetime with respect to technology. A (much) older gentleman who was on the far side of the room heard us and actually got up and came over to join our conversation. We talked of the early days of computers and computational machines such as the Enigma. We talked about teaching seniors to use the Internet and the older guy commented that many seniors have difficulty managing a mouse and that many have never typed: remember, secretaries used to do all of the typing, not the "professionals".

My students are mostly first semester freshmen. This means that most of them were born in 1990 - or just shortly before then. They know nothing of Enigma or punch cards or von Neumann machines. They were all taught to type in grade school.

Do you realize how much has changed in the land of technology in your lifetime? Think about it. Let's start with something really simple: coffee. These days, you can buy a machine that will not only grind your whole beans before staring the brewing process, it can do all of that on a timer and have it hot and steaming for you the moment you emerge from the shower in the morning.

  • When I was really young, my mother's coffee pot was a stainless steel percolator setup that brewed coffee on the stovetop. You put in the filter and the grounds and the water and turned on the burner.


  • The introduction of the automatic drip coffee maker was nothing short of a miracle: put in the grounds, add water, press the button, and -presto!- you had a perfect cup of coffee every time. Major technological advancement!

How about television?
  • Back when I was a child, a television was not something you put on or in a piece of furniture: it was a piece of furniture.


  • You didn't get hundreds channels: you got six, plus a PBS station if the weather was extremely cooperative that day.


  • You received only six channels because those were the only ones broadcast for free from the local stations and you received the radio signal through the antenna on the roof of your house. In my teens, cable became popular but my parents didn't subscribe to it until I was in college.
Next, let us think about the music industry. These days, all of my students have MP3 players and download their tunes directly from the Internet.

  • Back in the day, a stereo was a large piece of furniture, like a television. It stood on its own four legs and was made of wood. It played vinyl records at varying speeds: 33, 45, and 78rpm. Remember going to the record store to buy a 45 single? Remember how Side B was usually pretty lame but the record company still had to put something there?


  • The seventies introduced us to the joys of the 8-track tape players, but they were big and clunky and gave way to cassette decks. Cassettes were nice because they were small enough to fit in your pocket.


  • Number Guy and I bought ourselves our very first CD player as a Christmas present to each other the second year we were married. Very high tech.

This is all very interesting, of course, but let's move from entertainment to communications. My students have cell phones - many of them have had their own phones since they were in high school or even earlier. Each one of them has a cell phone and they like to send text messages and email using their phones. Funny - I always thought that a phone was a tool for audio communications. Of course, that's only natural since my childhood experiences of the telephone went something like this:
  • A telephone was an appliance which you rented from The Phone Company. You dialed your call by turning a wheel with your finger. You also had to sit or stand close to the phone while you talked because it had a cord to connect you to the base unit. The standard phone cord was about three feet long but your parents usually coughed up the extra couple of dollars for the fifteen foot long model - which your mother eventually stretched to at least 25 feet. She had to keep an eye on you rugrats, didn't she? Who knew just how much trouble you could accomplish while your mother was on the phone in the kitchen, after all. This was also an era of strange parental sign language; since there was no mute button, your mother used various signs and signals to indicate to you that if you did not shut up immediately so that she could finish the phone call, major and severe consequences would follow call termination. Possibly your own.


  • Back then, call waiting was what you did while you bugged your sister to get off the phone so that you could have a turn.


  • Leaving a message was what you did when you told your friend's brother to please tell her that you called. You hoped that your friend actually got the message sometime before next Tuesday.


  • Dialing 411 or the operator actually connected you to a real, live person immediately. You did not have to Press or say "one" for English. Menus were things that you read at restaurants and, no, they were not voice-driven - unless it was a very upscale, trendy restaurant where the executive chef changed the offerings each evening and the waiter told you about each entreé individually after he brought you your drinks. Why am I mentioning this? We were kids: we were never taken to such fine eating establishments. Moving right along...


  • Each family had one telephone number. Your parents might have had an extension installed in their room, but there was only one telephone number at your house. If your parents were well-to-do, they might give you the gift of a "teen line" when you reached high school. We weren't and mine did not. I got my own phone number when I moved out.

And how about computers? As far as my own child is concerned, computers have always existed. The kids I am teaching at the college were born at the beginning of the PC boom and don't remember a time when there wasn't at least one computer in their home.

One of the requirements for the course I teach is that each student must have a USB flash drive. I found ads online today for 4GB flash drives for under twenty bucks. Speaking of being online today, I polled my students last week: every one o them has high-speed Internet access at home, most using cable modems.
  • My little brother's first computer was a Commodore 64. He snuck in a modem because our mother didn't want him to have one: she was afraid that he would use it to make long distance phone calls to other computers and drive up the phone bill. When the 64 broke down a number of years later (I was in college), I got him a Commodore 128. Oooh, impressive!


  • During my first two years of high school, my homeroom was in the "computer lab". There were about a dozen PET computers there. At the start of my junior year, the school decided to move us: they had invested in new computers and didn't want us to break them.


  • The summer after I finished my freshman year, my brother and I played Ultima IV together on the computer every evening after work. We had to continually swap the game disks in and out of the drive bay. Did I remember to mention that these were 5¼" floppies? Took the whole summer to finish the game, too. All that time waiting for the game to respond to simple commands...


  • Number Guy bought his first PC in 1989 or so. It was a 286 and it had a 100MB hard drive: one-tenth the storage of the flash drive I bought two years ago. This was state-of-the-art, people. Cost him an arm and a leg, too. About $3500. And, no, that did not include a printer.


  • Back when we first got married, we used a modem to connect to the Internet. AOL charged us by the minute for access, so we were very careful to collect our email with the quick download option and read it off-line.

So, how has technology changed in your lifetime? What do you remember?

17 yarns:

Chris said...

I remember learning how to use our reel-to-reel tape deck when I was 4! And when my dad brought home a pocket calculator. He was a computer design engineer for IBM, so when I was little, we wrote our grocery lists and notes on used punchcards. My dad bought an Apple II when they were available - and it had a lovely cassette tape drive. :) He also has a patent on one of the very first disk drives - something like a 10" drive, back in the 70s. Getting our first microwave was really exciting. So was getting a color tv (who knew Capt Kangaroo's coat was red?? I thought it would b eblue). Heck, we had a party line instead of our own phone line (I grew up on a farm). And we only had to dial 4 digits to reach anyone in the town/area.

Robin said...

I remember 4 channels, CBS, ABC, NBC, and PBS. I remember having the convertor for the 8 track so I could listen to cassettes. I got it for my birthday or something and I was so excited. Technology has changed so much and it makes me wonder what will happen when my kids are older.

Anonymous said...

I remember dialing an operator and having a party line for a telephone. I actually remember getting our 1st tv set - we were one of the last families to have one. I also remember when the Amana Radarange was invented and my DH bought one for his mom when we were dating. It was huge and weighed a ton! It wasn't all that fast in comparison to what we have today. I heard the other night that the HS seniors today have had the internet since they were about 4, look how far it has come and I wonder where it will be when my granddaughters 2yrs & 1 mo. will be in HS?

lookinout said...

Look back at this post again in 5 and 10 yrs.
I too remember a party line though not in the city. I remember giving my mother a calculator, which had cost about $70, and her never learning to use it.

holly said...

This is so true. We must be about the same age. I'm going to have my 14-year-old son read it! We are just getting our first cell phones on Monday, only out of necessity as I'm on the road a lot more now AND the fact that all his friends have phones and he's constantly borrowing them to call home.

Aunt Kathy said...

yeah I remember it just like you... scary isn't it

Hey were did you see the 4G flash drives for $20? I have never backed up my computer I need one of those things

Turtle said...

Hmmm, 8 tracks, an electric smith & corolla being hi tech!, being the first in the neighborhood to get a microwave that would fit a 20 # turkey, the video game Pong...., lol at the red capt kangaroo coat! We had a 7 inch tv black and white and got 2 channels till i was 13! (that was the same year we got a phone) And i am a few years away still from 40!

KnitKicky said...

High school---my dad bought our first calculator. Those days, they were the size of a hardcover book, could only add/subtract/multiply and divide, and your answer came out on paper or electronic!
Summer school--learned to program the one school district network computer in BASIC--you wrote your program and it printed out on a long piece of 1" wide ribbon (punch card style)...don't remember seeing a PC or a fax machine until grad school!!

Abigail said...

I remember:

Not having a computer in the house.

When we got our first microwave, which was a huge beast, we were the coolest people on the block.

So much has changed in only 40 years.

My son will never know what it was like when we were kids. He can't imagine a world without cell phones either.

I did'nt even get a cell phone until 4 years ago (and I still despise them) when my husband forced it on me. I hardly ever use it.

Sorry I digressed. Yes, dear they were the good old days.

Deb said...

We gave Kathryn a rotary dial phone the other day and she stared at it ... "Um - how do you use this? There aren't any buttons!" It's the phone to use in an emergency!!

Robin said...

For me it's from drip coffee to buying it at St*rbu*ks; tv addiction to haven't watched it in weeks and may not even get that converter box thinger when digital comes b/c there's nothing worth watching anyway; from Abby Road lp to listening to my music downloaded on the computer... and I can remember my gram being on a party-line with her telephone (we cousins had bunches of fun with that!) Thanks for the memories, trek!

Karin said...

Boy does that bring back the memories. How about transistor radios that were small and you could carry around and listen to your favorite radio stations. Or, calculators that cost a fortune to buy and now are so cheap it's amazing.

As for telephones, we had no area codes and the first three digits had letters of the alphabet in them. Ours was CO2. We also had to share a phone line with someone else we didn't know and it was called a party line. Sometimes, we as kids would try to pick up the phone carefully, so the other party couldn't hear you and listen to their conversations.

My first computer was a Radio Shack TRS80 that had a word prosessing program where you had to add symbols or characters to capitalize, bold letters, etc. Example: For the first word in a sentence, I might have to type ?T?he to capitalize the word The.

The things we had to live through to get where we are today. ;-)

April said...

Coke in glass bottles.

Penny candy in big glass jars.

Learning to use the teletype machine at my first "real" job.

Walter Cronkite and the Evening News.

Having one choice of bread at the store. White.

Sheepish Annie said...

I remember trying to call home from college and getting a busy signal because Daddy Sheep was on the computer. No one else in my dorm seemed to have that problem! Sheesh...

Wait...you had six channels? You were lucky! We had three. Plus PBS if the atmospheric conditions were good...

Mary deB said...

Yes indeedy. Now my son collects the old stuff. We have 1.5 Commodore 64s, and exactly one game cartridge, which gets some use once in a while; a Sinclair 1000 which you can program in Basic, and make it print "HI MOM" over and over again down the screen; and we just fished a 16mm film projector out of the trash!

Funny how rotary dials are on all the wee kids' toys -- push the button, pull the lever, dial the ...whatever it is.

Yarnhog said...

I coveted the Commodore 64. My first computer was a TI994A. You had to hook it up to a tv, and it saved to cassette tapes.

We were at an antique shop the other day, and neither of my kids could figure out how to dial the old phone.

heather t said...

yarnhog - we had that computer too! I think we got it when the price dropped to $50, lol. it had been out for a while at that point.

I took the first computer class offered by my high school - a programming class in BASIC, that I have never ever used since.

Remember putting tin foil on the TV antenna or standing holding the antenna in a certain position and - don't move or you'll lose the signal!

You guys realize, too, that phones don't *ring* anymore? Everyone has their own ringtone, which has its convenience, I guess, but i miss that old phone bell ringing.

I'm not 40 yet either!