I got my first personal computer at age 36. Commercially-made microcomputers had barely been around for ten years. Nowadays, kids in early grade school are already pounding on their consoles. Not until the first generation of kids who have known these machines all their lives, who take their supercharged productivity for granted, begin to run things, will we discover computers’ true potential. (The game-changing fact that schoolchildren can all of a sudden all type will be the subject of a future post; the last of the MAD MEN-era bosses who never learned to type are dying away.)
Back then, microcomputers were just emerging from the hobbyist era. Most individuals didn’t own one or want one. We used computing devices, like my dedicated IBM Displaywriter word processor, which allowed me to write and deliver ad copy without error, via its green-on-black display. Only the folks at Wang, nobody else, bothered with a black-on-white display like the one you’re reading now. They also wrenched the rectangular monitor onto its side to accommodate entire legal-sized pages at a single glance. My girlfriend Marianne Turpin showed me the one she used at her office, and all you could say was duh, that’s how it should be. After enough people had used word processors for enough time, it turned out that the IBM design, also employed on its personal computers, was tres rotten: constantly shifting vision from the positive space on your paper printout to the negative space on the screen was really bad for your eyes. Goodbye, green-on-black; hello, Apple’s Graphical User Interface and mouse, “imitated” (stolen?) for the Microsoft world by Windows. (Although didn’t Apple itself “imitate” the interface Steve Jobs saw at Xerox PARC?) I found out later that Stephen King, a guy who processed lotsa words back then, did it all safely, using what he called his “big Wang.”
But Windows was still in the future when I performed my initial boot. Electronic mail hadn’t yet taken off (only the government used the nascent ARPAnet, which morphed into the Internet), and online commerce was still a decade away, waiting for somebody to invent a “browser” for the “World Wide Web.” Aside from playing crude games (I loved the clever text-only adventures from Infocom, which was handy, because the graphics capability of my first multipurpose machine, a Compaq running MS-DOS, was next to zero), there was really no compelling reason to buy a home computer if you didn’t spread any sheets or process any words.
Then I plugged my modem into the phone line.
I had sprung for the full monty, a screaming 1200-baud number. The little green letters scrolled horizontally faster than you could read them: amazing! The sales person had given me a couple of phone numbers for local bulletin boards, and I discovered an arcane subculture. Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear.
Kids, a “bulletin board system,” or “BBS,” used to be a means to share messages and files over a single dedicated phone line. Only one user could be on at a time, and you were usually allotted a certain number of minutes per day. There were only four or five credible BBSs in Jackson, Mississippi back then; some of them were attached to companies, so not much interesting was going on unless you happened to work there. The best one by far was “MacHaven,” run by a man named Ray Leninger (he was the System Operator, or “Sysop,” in the parlance of the time). Ray hosted with a Macintosh, hence the name, but that didn’t matter; most everything was in ASCII characters, which every machine read.
Ray was running Red Ryder software (I know because I asked him a little while ago), written for the Mac by Scott Watson. Ray says the original Red Ryder was one of the first, if not the first, “shareware” programs; it evolved into Red Ryder Host, which is what he was using, then into Second Sight. All the tough coding to send and receive information had been done by Watson: all Ray had to do was to personalize the bulletin board, and he had a wonderful idea. He imagined his virtual structure as a literal home, and named the various sections for rooms: the “Living Room” was where you might talk about thus-and-so subject, the “Game Room” was where you found a particularly addictive text-based dungeon game, and the “Back Porch” was for aimless chitchat. Ray could partition message areas, public and private (I think the Back Porch was by invitation only). “MacHaven started its life on a 1200-baud modem,” says Ray, “a step up from the 300-baud I’d been using for my personal communication. Over the years I upgraded to 2400, and eventually a blazing 9600 baud! (Compare to today’s typical DSL/cable modem operating at 300,000 baud.)” But still, like I said up there, back in the day we thought 1200 was smokin’!
The concept of being a guest in Ray’s home, “walking” through the various rooms, made MacHaven’s electronic innards completely transparent, the whole experience reassuringly familiar to non-techies like me. At first, you’d trade messages with other users, and the various personalities would emerge, then particular likes, like movies or music. Keep in mind that while you were online at MacHaven, nobody else could be, because the single-line modem was engaged. I believe each user was allotted one hour per day, and people fell into calling regularly at certain times. If you left a message, you wouldn’t see replies until the others had taken their turns. Since it was a local phone number, there was nobody much calling from any distance away, so MacHaven informally self-selected for Jacksonians.
As a few months went by, I’d show MacHaven to friends visiting my house, let them log on as guests and play for a while. They became absolutely addicted, and finally there was a real reason to buy a computer. (These sales helped to get people to quit tying up my phone line.) I think Ray Leninger and MacHaven personally sold about ten machines to friends of mine; too bad he wasn’t on commission. But aside from those people, I only knew MacHavenites by reading their messages. This is fairly commonplace nowadays, and the Web makes everything faster, but back then it was brand new and ridiculously easy: ham radio for dummies. It’s the same feeling as you get from Facebook: “friendship” and a certain distance simultaneously. Like most everybody else, we had at least one “troll,” an unpleasant guy who basically did not act like the guest in Ray’s home that he was. I think this is one reason we started the exclusive Back Porch, for some fresh air without this irritant, and before long we were finally meeting face to face at monthly Back Porch lunches, which continued after I moved away to New York, along with a bigger annual party, one I never got to attend: “An odd assembly when I held the MacHaven Labor Day Bashes,” says Ray. “Lots of people who seemed to be unable to speak without a keyboard.” Plus ça change, right?
Towards the end, Scott Watson’s software supported TWO phone lines, but Ray didn’t have the capability. He did make one expansion, though, joining the newly connected FidoNet, which let MacHaven users communicate with people on other FidoNet boards all over the country. (Including, ta-daa, me, in New York!) There was one catch, though: it took time. “My BBS would call a hub every night and drop off any outgoing messages and pick up any incoming,” Ray says. “It was like a 4-5 tier network, so it might take 4-5 days for a message to be delivered and 8-10 to get a reply!” It didn’t matter, though: the communication power alone was mind-blowing, never mind any potential for good. I remember my brother Rick and I getting into a private chat room on CompuServe one day and having the most inane ten-minute conversation at the laborious rate of 1200 baud. We signed off, and two seconds later the phone rang: Rick. “Wasn’t that cool?” Phone calls were suddenly so Victorian. The chatting experience hasn’t changed in decades – it’s a very popular part of Facebook.
In New York, I found a new “home board,” the Invention Factory, run by Michael Sussell, where the experience was similar, even to the point of dinners with fellow users every month. Our little chitchat partition and dining society was called “No_Carrier,” and it wasn’t private, just self-selecting for people who could speak without their keyboards. These guys were far more hard-core techie than I, but they were still friendly and funny, and they made a great chowder society for this recently-transplanted New Yorker. You might notice a smart, savvy sf/rock & roll aficionado named Ken Houghton commenting on this blog from time to time. Well, I met Ken on the Factory board and in person at the No_Carrier dinners. We’re still good buds, 25 years later.
My first email address was provided by the Factory: firstname.lastname@example.org, just about the time email was exploding out of the government’s ARPAnet and being popularized by forward-thinking BBSs like the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link in California. I hardly knew what to do with it. But the Internet was charging hard. Both MacHaven and the Invention Factory signed off about the same time, in the mid-90s. They had each lasted a little over ten years. (The domain name “factory.com” is now owned by a bland, faceless wholesale business.) By then, everybody had an email address, mostly at work, and communicated over their companies’ local area networks. But that dial-up modem connection sound (you can still hear it on some fax machines) can still bring back memories.
I remember connecting with Sir Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka, before individual email came to Bantam Books, where I worked. I brought my AOL disk into the office, installed it on the one PC that was hooked to a dial-up modem, and “talked” to Sir Arthur that way. I’d ask him a question through AOL’s email system, go home, go to sleep, come back the next day, and there was the answer from Sri Lanka. We excitedly agreed that the setup was highly science fictional — and this was the guy who first proposed the geostationary communications satellite! The lag time was half a day, but to us that was heaven, because neither had to worry about the other being asleep. Little did we know that this was only an interim stop in the most significant revolution in communications ever. But the Internet rose up almost instantly, in retrospect, and in January 1997, at a new job, I became the first employee of the Hearst Book Group to have my corporate email address printed on my business card. Peeps, that’s almost yesterday — yet now, the email address is all you really need.
There have been many storied folks and fortunes attached to the computer industry, which actually fulfilled Bill Gates’ dream of a machine on every desk, and at head-spinning speed. But it was the hobbyists like Ray and Michael who really showed me the enormous potential for not just work, but fun, that was inside these danged disk-spinners. And they did it for love, not money. Thanks so much, guys. Over and out.
P.S.: It didn’t fit up there before you met Ray, but I asked him to read this piece in advance to fix any errors, and I’ve got to show you how he fixed a whopper! I’d originally written: “Goodbye, green-on-black; hello, Windows and mice.” This devoted Mac user replied: “The Graphical User Interface (GUI) was brought to the masses by Apple on the Macintosh. The hard and fast DOS generation saw it as a toy — why would anyone want to have to use a mouse to drag a file to a folder when you could just type copy “D:\Documents and Settings\MY.USERNAME\My Documents\myfile.txt” “E:\MYBACKUP\My Documents\newfile.txt”? It didn’t take Bill Gates long to realize that Steve Jobs would take over the mass home/education markets if they didn’t embrace GUI. My thing, I know, but I hate to see “Windows” given credit for it.” Imagine my forgetting to acknowledge the Mac GUI in a piece about MacHaven!