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Technology & me: The early days

By Rich Mesch

My toy of choice these days is the Oculus Rift. When mated with a super-hot computer, this bleeding edge virtual reality headset can produce almost shockingly lifelike experiences. After turning off the virtual tour of the International Space Station because it made mad claustrophobic, I thought about the very first computer I ever had “back in the day”. It may have had slightly fewer features, but the ability to create new experiences was still very much there, among them real time human interaction.

Which was the last thing I expected from my technological journey.

In 1983, with the end of my college career in sight, it was time to decide what was next. Writing for a living had always been my dream, so I decided to invest in a computer. My writing until then had been longhand in notebooks, then transcribed to my trusty Smith-Corona (uh, that’s a typewriter, by the way). So the notion of having a computer to type on was decidedly futuristic.

In college, I waited patiently for terminal time and then created programs that spit out on decks of punch cards. Yeah it sounds stupid, but that’s the way the world used to work.

My previous computer experience was pretty limited. I had taken an APL class (uh, that’s an old computer language, by the way) in college, where I waited patiently for terminal time and then created programs that spit out on decks of punch cards. Yeah it sounds stupid, but that’s the way the world used to work.

So I bought a copy of Consumer Reports Guide to Computers, and read it over and over again until it was a dog-eared mess (why didn’t I just research on the internet, you might ask. Shaddup.). Back then, you had the “real” computers, like the IBM PC and the Apple IIe; the “toy” computers, like the Atari 400/800; and the uninspiring but reliable stalwart, the Commodore 64. The Apple Macintosh was on the horizon, its advanced technology being price-prohibitive. And then a new entrant appeared, aiming to be a game-changer: the Coleco Adam.

Those of a certain age may remember Coleco as a home-gaming system that gave Atari a run for their money before Nintendo swooped in and changed the gaming world. But Coleco also introduced an all-in-one computer package called the Adam. The Adam included the computer itself, a data drive that was a cross between a floppy disk system and a cassette system, and a daisy wheel printer.

A brief pause to explain the daisy wheel printer, a relic of the past that no longer exists. Computer printers of the 80’s were dot matrix; reliable, but distinctly rustic. The quality of printing ranged from barely acceptable to just plain awful. A daisy wheel printer emulated the mechanics of a typewriter, creating clean copy, albeit usually very slowly. They also cost a fortune. It wasn’t unusual for a daisy wheel printer to top $1000. And they couldn’t print pictures.

But the Adam came with the daisy wheel printer included, and everything, all together cost $599. So one wintry day, I walked to downtown Philadelphia and went to John Wanamaker, an eight-story old-fashioned department store that actually had a computer department. Coleco had misfired badly on the launch of the Adam, so finding one for sale anywhere was tough.

But Wanamaker’s had one; however much to my surprise, all of the components came in a single box, roughly the size of a compact car. I could barely lift the thing, so wrangling it all the way home presented a challenge. I sprung for a cab, an almost unthinkable expense for my poor college student self, and struggled to mash the giant computer box into the back seat with me.

Suffice to say, the Coleco Adam was junk. The cassette drive ran like a fat kid going uphill. The daisy wheel printer generated lovely output at a speed of

one

character

per

second.

And it was so loud that printing out a paper was like spending the night at a pistol range. The final insult, of course, was that in order to return this techno-abomination, I had to pack it back into its unwieldy box, and invest in yet another taxi back to the store.

But you know what I discovered in those pre-internet days? That you could use your computer to meet and talk to other people. That may seem an odd revelation in today’s hyper-connected social world, but it was a mind-blowing technological leap forward in 1984.

I replaced it with a sturdy Commodore 64, boring but reliable. I wrote stories and plays. I created little BASIC games. And then one day I invested in a 300 baud modem, an online speed so slow that you could watch each individual line of text come in.

And everything changed.

But you know what I discovered in those pre-internet days? That you could use your computer to meet and talk to other people. That may seem an odd revelation in today’s hyper-connected social world, but it was a mind-blowing technological leap forward in 1984.

Virtual reality? Nope. Actual Reality.


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