ASCII by Jason Scott

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IBM Binders —

This week’s sent-in cool stuff came from Steve Ross, who sent me a box of IBM Binders.

Sometimes (OK, fine, often) I get to indulge in acquiring material that is personally meaningful to me. In the case of IBM binders, it’s one of those connections that, honestly, I find hard to explain but it’s overpowering. I’ll take a shot.

I don’t know when IBM started making instruction manuals in this fashion, but I know it must have pre-dated the IBM PC. That said, for a pre-teen like myself, the IBM PC would have been the first time I’d come up against this presentation and packaging. If it was intended to imbue a sense of power and confidence, to give the impression that IBM was here and everything was going to be OK, it did it in spades for me. I know that Digital and other companies had also made huge strides in creating documentation that smiled and tipped its hat to you, promising the world. But IBM was my first, and my strongest.

Each major product got one of these binders, this huge thing with tabs and the logo and inside a binder whose pages could be pulled out, or added to, or whatever. You saw these boxes on the shelf near any IBM PC. Here’s one in all its glory:

How could a kid not be impressed with something like this? How could anyone not be, especially if it was the first time they encountered a business-grade manual? After all, the IBM PC was going to be business-grade, and having a reference document nearby in such a perfect layout was fine.

If you’ve not encountered one of these in person, I do want to draw your attention to a significant detail/aspect of these manuals: the texture of the outside. This wasn’t just “cardboard” or a smooth colored surface. It was a crosshatched texture, one that gave a sense of richness and strength to the box and binder that you just don’t see as much anymore, now that everything’s commodity and lowest-common-denominator. Maybe this picture will help explain:

Can you see that? That bolt, that rich texture of the manual? Again, not something drawn/printed on the cover, but an actual textured feel. You could bring this to me, tell me to close my eyes, and stick this in my hand and I could tell you exactly what it was – my fingers would call back memories of a cold dining room with the computer on a table, pawing through this binder and trying to figure out how to make various parts work, or what buttons to press, or where I was going wrong in trying to make graphics show up. It’s embedded in my character, part of what makes me me.

Oh, sure, someone who does not buy into this worldview or my description of my feelings for these things can spit off a few quick digs, like my world being small or lacking proper human perspective or something. But in fact, this was all part of my growing up, of realizing that people could do really great stuff, and then when I encountered crappy workmanship in something as basic as the manual, I knew that things had strayed badly or the company didn’t work out all the problems with their product, or showed pride in it.  There really was a pride about it, here. Of craftsmanship, of IBM throwing people at the problem and those people having a lot of meetings and deciding what kind of a manual would, before you even turned the machine on, make you feel like you’d made the right choice.

It’s an outlook that, in this realm, is truly gone. Thanks to Steve for letting me have a few additional specimens of this bygone era.

Categorised as: computer history

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  1. G. Ratte' says:

    Yeah – good point/post, sir. IBM manuals in that era were had serious class. I approve!

  2. Wyatt says:

    Agreed. This reminds me of the time when a game manual had real presence. The boxes were large, the art was striking, and people were disappointed when Jane’s FLeet Command came with a manual that was less that a hundred pages! What’s more, the manual for a game used to have interesting backstory and world fluff. Would Wizardry have been the same if you couldn’t read about the land and the things that lived there in the little book, first? NES cartridges from the late ’80s/early ’90s had those black sleeves that kept your games somewhat safer and cleaner; SNES had the plastic bottom cover a few years later. Those, too, evoked that element of, “We care about the product we’re selling you.”

  3. odd parity says:

    I agree, those things are magnificent. They even _smell_ serious 🙂

  4. metoikos says:

    I totally see your point (and find myself thinking of some of the impressive type specimen books I saw in the “Helvetica” documentary, more of the pride in a product sense from days gone by) and I wonder how much of it has to do with not just the price point on PCs going down and becoming accessible to the masses (good), but also the growth of the idea of employees as temporary and expendable and faceless (bad). Just as a typeface can give you a hint at the POV or context of an artifact or an era, I can see how documentation can do so. I should note the design on that flowchart is lovely, even if the type is kinda squished.
    Hmm, another thing using a binder reveals is the idea that the machine is supposed to have a *lifespan*. The rate of consumption, disposal, and waste now in the industrialized world, in the realm of computing as in everything else, is another reason that manuals are short and stapled now. Even the PDFs on the manufacturer websites aren’t very good or well written, probably because the manufacturer just wants to pay people a flat fee and be done with it.

  5. I had forgotten those IBM manuals. Seeing your pictures of them made me remember when I was 7 or 8 and got to play with a PC AT. The manuals sat on a shelf next to the machine, and I eagerly flipped through them to learn more about the computer. Given how much I love the tactile feel of things, it’s unsurprising how strongly I imprinted on those manuals.

  6. Stephen says:

    Thanks for this. My boss dropped of a stack of these on my desk at my first job as a programmer when I was 16. This was in ’94 and he said, “You’d be surprised how much of this is still relevant.”

  7. Chris says:

    I have a small cache of these manuals someplace in my archives, and yes, the pictures instantly brought me back to a special time and place in my career. It wasn’t just the IBM manuals that were quality, though, the hardware itself was built to survive WWIII. If you’ve ever used, or better yet opened up, an old IBM XT or AT machine, recall how hefty and well put together it was. Everything inside was heavy, and strong, and made out of thick steel. Every mechanical part was stronger than it would ever have to be, designed to last longer than you would ever need it to. Same with an old IBM keyboard, which gave that distinctive heavy metallic click when you pressed a key, something that I haven’t heard in a long time. Compare this to the garbage that Asia spews out now, and it makes you sad to see how low our expectations have fallen when it comes to PC hardware (and a lot of other things, too).

  8. Jim Leonard says:

    Some of those haven’t been scanned and released into the wild; at least, I didn’t see the Options and Adapters manual on bitsavers. Please be kind to those.

  9. arcane says:

    Man, I loved these. My father was an IBM lifer and the house was full of these in the 80’s. My mom threw away boxes of them after he passed away.
    The diskettes that came in those vinyl covered folders too.

  10. Church says:

    Oh, yeah. Those cloth covers made it feel like you were holding something comparable to the works of Shakespeare. I had forgotten about them, thanks for the reminder.

  11. To me the ‘IBM’ three-ring binder was a very weird standard, but soon a lot of computer manuals came in that size. I probably still have the manual for a mouse-systems mouse in that size. It was a very weird size compared to european paper and binder sizes. The computer club I was active in catered towards IBM PC and compatible system users and they used that same format for their shareware catalog.

  12. jen says:

    I always thought that when you buy Windows Server that Microsoft should throw in the hardbound Windows Resource Kit for that edition of server. Or if you buy MS Office, the Office Resource Kit books, Buy Windows or a computer that comes with Windows and get a coupon that you can mail in for an actual printed user manual. etc.

    I know a lot of end users, who if they had a physical manual for their software, would actually read some of it. And it would be nice to be able to tell end users asking inane and basic questions, “read pages 44-45 in the manual for that.”

    Maybe throw in a few chapters on beginning programming and try to reignite the kind of home programming scene we had in the 1980’s.

    Same thing from software from other manufacturers too obviously. But Microsoft is in a position to help set the standard.

  13. nimbus says:

    A friend of mine’s dad still has these on the shelf in his office.

    I remember when the Mac came out, Apple did a commercial where they dropped the IBM manuals you refer to in slow motion with a big thud, then dropped the Mac manual which was a think spiral bound thing. Like the fact that it just had a wispy slip of a manual was a good thing (supposedly it was easier to use.) I preferred the big manuals… lot more to learn, there.

  14. Christine says:

    Ah, the PDBs: Pastel Denim Binders. That takes me back.

  15. Those binders were functional too. You could add pages. And the binders lay open flat on your desk so you could easily refer to them while typing in your code. Few people today remember that the source code to PC DOS itself was available in one of those binders.