In the mail, from Ross Kerr (who has been sending me similar packages), came a small stack of Computerworld, a newspaper-style trade publication covering all aspects of computer technology. This particular stack is from 1987. Some are in not so great shape and some are pristine. They’re obviously ones that were sent to a business, because they have the classic multi-colored “Received” stamp on them.
So, for the benefit of the folks at home, why the hell would I want old newspapers like this? Why would anyone care? And why do I happily take these in (and ask if you have any, to send them to me?)
The thing is, history can be a very funny thing. If you don’t keep around some evidence, some pieces of what came before, history itself becomes malleable clay formed into whatever needs or biases are currently existing. Left alone, in other words, people lie or innocently malign history into something it never was. Keeping even a slight pile of evidence from that time is an easy antidote.
But let’s go further than that.
Obviously, one big advantage is that you get to say “Wow, things were different back then.” This is easy enough: words are used differently, graphics are differently arranged, and priorities are different. Companies huge from the year of these papers, a mere 22 years ago, are bankrupt, mere echoes of themselves, or huger than ever. Faced with selling ideas that we would now accept without question (one photo here shows an article about people “betting on” TCP/IP as a network protocol), these decades-ago technologists, reporters and sellers had to make their case from thin air. Minicomputers? Network printers? Token-Ring? Print-Spool hardware? All of this had to be proposed and then indicated as being a superior choice of what came before. This paper record I have (and of course, paper records are often digitized) will tell you exactly what happened then.
And by exactly, I don’t mean they didn’t lie.. There are promises wrapped in newsprint here that never saw the light of day, and predictions off by parsecs. I just mean that the fact that these items existÂ proves the thought of them, or the approach to them, existed in 1987. The graphic design existed. The technology to make newspapers in this fashion and with this binding. The photographs. The referenced machines. Names of people. Names of companies, of products, of places. All are captured here. That may have relevance. That may not. But it’s here.
Of course, the simple uses of this sort of collection pop up again and again: look how expensive things were! Look how weird the machines look! Look at how little the capacity was!
For me, that motivation has lost its zest; I am now swamped and in personal control (not to mention the collections others have) of tons of evidence of this basic fact that computers cost more and had less ability, back then. I don’t need to make much effort to prove this, although it does help to be able to specifically and exactly point to the retail prices of machines when someone goes “back then, computers cost this muchÂ and could do this” and a quick reference back to this material shows them to be soaking wet. But “gotcha” only goes so far.
No, I think what these pieces of history really do is serve as solid foundation to build new ideas on and maybe avoid certain mistakes. A dropped name, a specific promise, and you research those further to find out what worked and what didn’t and maybe avoid the minefield that came before. Maybe. People have an amazing propensity, faced with a blood-soaked hall of stabbing machinery, to think that somehow they’re going to come out of the other end unscathed and claim the prize. So be it. But at least in these pages I or others can reference how very long some ideas have stuck around. For example, the Cloud. Or gigabyte drives. Or Sun when it was a viable computer company. Â I get an enjoyment out of knowing I might do my bit to help people look back with a more informed eye. It really does make it happy.
And maybe it’s just an old man talking, but I think they’re beautiful, these now-solved mysteries, these peeks into an unknown future that is now the known past.
Categorised as: computer history
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