ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Three Notebooks —

Three explorers set out. One wanted to rescue comrades. One wanted to talk to new people. One wanted to meet people and bring back knowledge.

They never met, but that’s to be expected – they set out at different times, using different ships, to different destinations.

One was Robert Wilson Andrews of the Kilauea, a steamship bound out to rescue a shipwrecked crew. This voyage, from Honolulu to Ocean Island, took four months (December 1870 to April 1871), during which time two ports of call were made. Mr. Andrews was the ship’s engineer, and along the way he noted the ship’s travel, the sights seen, and a smattering of the activity by the crew in their journey:

Friday 6th {Date: 1871-01-06} – slowed down at 2:30 A.M. Said to have sighted land at 3:30; and turned away from the island at 3:30, and were carried so far westward, that it was 8:30 before we cast anchor in Midway I. inner harbor.  Four boats and a gang of men were immediately set to coaling. The weather was very propitious. Mr. Roberts went ashore, and turned over a turtle upon his back. Had all night in; though steam was kept up to 20 lbs. continually.

Journeys were long and arduous, with sleep schedules affected by the ship’s needs and the requirements of the ever-hungry coal-burning engine. Even in this short passage, the fact is that the land sighting was at 3:30am and five hours later, at 8:30am, do they stop off at this island, an island that you, not unlike a god, have visited through a single link in seconds.  Weather is a concern, along with all the attendant needs of a months-long journey and the health and continued functioning of the crew. At the bottom of this logbook page is a clipping, a classified ad taken out by the rescued crew members, profusely thanking the crew of the Kilauea and to “express a grateful sense of obligation to the authorities at this place for the prompt and effective measures taken by them on our behalf, feeling, as we do, that but for their immediate and humane action, we in common with all upon Ocean Island, must have endured very severe suffering and perhaps a lingering death.”

Our second explorer sets off about a century later. His name and age is a combination of lost to time and held from view. While he might, on cursory first glance, seem to be more a pirate than a ship’s engineer, his travels are worldwide and his logbook just as detailed and informative.

His ship is also, we see, a mite smaller than a coal-burning schooner, but it is a hand-built vessel, prepared to sail that most unusual of seas, a place that called itself The Bell System. Already a vast worldwide network and at the time of this explorer’s travels increasingly automated, it was, and continues to likely be, the world’s largest computer. Its ports of call for this explorer are no less exotic, although many of the most interesting aspects are spoken – the voice of operators, confused at this interloper visiting them. The voices of other explorers, meeting at ports of call in the back rooms and equipment areas of all manner of buildings. The voices of whoever dared pick up the strange overnight call, confused as to who could possibly be calling at this hour, and even further confused why the initial sound upon picking up is an echoing series of clicks.

Some choice pages from this explorer’s notebook:

This is hard-won information indeed – all manner of phone numbers, noted interesting locations and voices, and finally the keys to the kingdom, helping to place these journeys in the 1971-1972 period: the calling card code (cc code), which showed the formula for determining what combination of numbers would charge telephone bills to a given number. This was passed from explorer to explorer, and recounted in journals such as TAP, utilized in all sorts of ways.

This explorer’s efforts, during his college days, are myriad and also not confined by the hours – in fact, late nights and overnight efforts are rewarded, with points from across the world being awake while contemporaries and local inhabitants are not. Numbers here point to embassies, businesses, and even individuals, noted for their accents or names and with additional numbers of friends and associates, no doubt intrigued that someone from so far would make the effort to contact them. It is an instantaneous trip now, but communication even in the 1970s is an exotic experience from across the world.

Our third explorer is but a child, a mere ten years later than the second explorer, but harnessing technology and power only dreamed of by the others.

His name is Rob O’Hara, and his journeys are primarily in his home state and occasionally beyond. His ship is a computer, one of many in use during this time: a Commodore 64, build sturdy and dependable and the best-selling home computer of all time. Geography is meaningless here, save what concerns there might be for telephone charges – his ports of call have names like The Bloody Booger, Realm of Magic, and The Dream Palace. They, too, are often maintained by children, but the urge to explore and share is strong. In his notebooks, Rob notes not just ports of call, the BBSes, but friends he has met, names he has known, thoughts on what to do next. As these journeys are layered among multiple days and weeks (and also during the late hours of the night), the ink changes in nature, from scrawled pencil to red markers to Sharpies and whatever else he has handy as a new fact comes to him at his console.

He lists potential trading partners, people he might swap his software plunder with. He notes systems he has the numbers for and no other information, showing what he has found out so far with the potential for further knowledge later. It is worth noting, at this late stage, the inability of his computer to both conduct these travels and allow him to write down his thoughts – we are long past the stage where this information would not now be cut and pasted into a separate document, or, even more likely, logged by the browser itself and saved to a centrally located place to share with others.  The inclination to utilize a notebook to save this information has rapidly disappeared for most.

In a book Rob later wrote about his travels, he mentions a geographic exploit he utilized at the time, travelling with his family from Oklahoma to Illinois and arranging for membership on bulletin boards a couple weeks before. By submitting to validation and sign-up procedures a few weeks before, he had the operators of these boards convinced he was a distant trader logging in. But then upon making the journey to Chicago, he could log into these boards for a pittance of a local call and bring back to Oklahoma his bounty and the attendant glory therein.

The age of the notebook is rapidly passing us. I know it still has places in many circles, and that for some, the function of the notebook will never go away, replaced by weblogs and online diaries and bookmark lists; but the nature of these written-out sketches of crashing ideas overlaying each other and betraying time, emotion and reasoning as it bleeds through a wood pulp page is almost gone. We are going to lose something there, as we have already lost so much.

All three explorers left their notebooks for us to regard.

I thank all three.

Categorised as: computer history

Comments are disabled on this post


  1. Chris says:

    Is that Cheech Marin?

  2. Jon S. says:

    This essay inspired me to blow the dust off my old C64 notebooks as well. It’s funny, really. Back then the world seemed so huge, my pirate and phreaker friends seemed endless, and nothing seemed to interconnect at all. Everything was so random, and my notebooks were an attempt to put some sort of order to it.

    But I was a poor note taker in school and for the “important” things like my BBS life as well. I have five notebooks sprawled with names, aliases, phone numbers, codes, loop lines, a seven page list of “wares” and everything in between. I remember leafing through them endlessly trying to recall where I put “vital” information. However, if it weren’t “vital”, it wouldn’t have been put in the notebook to begin with!

    Now, most of the pages I had used pencil on are unreadable, and even the blue lines have faded with time and the oils from my fingers. Phone numbers have no names, names have no aliases, and aliases have no phone numbers. It’s just as chaotic as I remember the “scene” being.

    A few years ago, I discovered a C64 site that has the stated goal of chronicling the C64 scene from its origin to today, including handles, groups, BBSes and game/demo releases worldwide. It is a very ambitious project, and quite entertaining to read through. However, it made everything smaller. What was once chaotic and larger than life was made orderly. It seems as though everything is only separated by four or five degrees.

    That is until I leafed through the photographs of O’Hara’s notebook. Aside from a few games and groups, NOTHING is familiar. I thought I had made sense of it all, and that the CSDb was like a hyper-huge and super organized filing cabinet. It clearly isn’t as large and complete as I had thought.

    If Mr. O’Hara has any more of these notebooks, I’d love to have access to JPEGS of them. If that’s not possible, thanks for sharing what you have!