ASCII by Jason Scott

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A Stack of Paper —

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.

Stack of ComputerworldsComputerworld Recieved Stamp 1987

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?)

Bet on TCP/IPAre you prepared to supply a technical staff with each 9370?A Stack of Computerworlds

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.

Selected Job Market AdsStratus Catches the Competition with their Computers DownThe Cloud when it was just a cloud

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 exist 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.

Ibis Claims Giant Leap with 2.8 Gigabyte DriveThis. Is. Big.Sun: The Merger of Every Computer in your Business

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 much and could do this” and a quick reference back to this material shows them to be soaking wet. But “gotcha” only goes so far.

We're Taking on the Whole IBM WorldThe New Tandy 4000A Direct Channel Attached Protocol Converter Controller

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.  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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4 Comments

  1. David Moisan says:

    I love the ads best; not for the “gotchas”, but because they bring back fun memories (I got my CS in ’87!)

    Some ads were very much off-color (most remember the baby in the “Feeling good/Feeling better” ad in PC Magazine). Others were fun in the way that retro is fun. Still other ads show that not much changed in IT at all.

    I wish I’d kept my copies of the old Industry Standard; that was a fantastic record of ephemera for the dot-com era.

  2. Decius says:

    You are intending to scan and share these, right? The cloud might not be a storage medium, but all of us would-be archivists with more disk space than time would love to help with redundant backups.

    On a somewhat related note, I have several of the CDs that shipped with PC Gamer Magazine, from about 2000 or so. I’m such a packrat that I couldn’t bear to part with the media, but I’m willing to rip ‘em to .ISOs or something similar and send them to you if your interested. Either reply here or send an email to the address provided to the comment.

  3. Matt Wilson says:

    I love those magazines from the early days of computing. The main reason I love them so much is because I pored over them as a teenage in high school. Around 1991, I became obsessed with computers. I bought every magazine I could find, PC Mag, PC World, Computer Shopper (the big oversize ones), etc. I spent 9 months reading everything I could before I finally had the money to buy from own 386 white box from California. I still have a bunch of those magazines and enjoying looking at them every now and then. I plan on building up my collection soon. Thanks Jason.