Sometime in 1980, I think, my dad spent a great deal of time determining that he wanted to follow his individualist streak and obtain a Kaypro II, a 64k dual-floppy machine that used the pre-DOS operating system CP/M and whose most important feature was the tank-like, large-suitcase-style construction. The keyboard was housed in the lid of the box, and the drives were stacked next to the 9-inch green phosphor screen.
(While I’m certain that the computer was in our house by 1980, documentation indicates that Kaypro IIs were released in 1982, so it’s likely that the computer was something else – maybe a DEC-10 dumb terminal with the coupler described below. I supose this would mean my interest in online communities preceded my interest in some computer games, but others would have been avaliable, such as Adventure.)
I was disappointed that he’d not decided to pursue the Apple route at the time, as I’d seen my good friend Eric’s father’s lab computer, an Apple II, and hoped that Eric and I would be able to learn together, swap software, and so forth. Alas, it was not to be.
My father, an academic, had long used computers in his research for publication, but the machines available to him for these operations were punch-card-programmed and consequently quite limited in terms of access, active storage space, and convenience. I don’t know what the final selling point for Dad was, but 1980 would have been about the time the first productivity applications came on the market – WordStar, VisiCalc, Lotus 1-2-3, and so forth. I believe the hot home-office database program at the time was dBase II.
I was only mildly interested in that aspect of the machine. It was the games that I was interested in. Eric’s apple had an amazing graphic game called “Choplifter” on it (seen here in a C64 color version which is actually less clean in appearance than I recall the vector-graphics based one on the Apple). I had seen other dazzlingly promising displays on an academic network called PLATO (check out that link! A historical marker!) that linked the Indiana University and University of Illinois main campuses. Imagine my disappointment when I learned that the Kaypro had no graphics capabilities whatsoever.
At best, programmers could animate ASCII characters to create games that were functional emulations of the video games of the day, at least some of them, such as Donkey Kong and Pac-Man. Despite the underwhelming graphics these games were playable.
However, clearly it was in the manipulation and presentation of text that the Kaypro would perform best. I still have saved games of ADVENT, the cp/m Adventure port, that are playable on my current Mac G4, courtesy a rock-solid cp/m emulator available freely at emulation.net. “You are in a twisty maze of passageways, all alike.”
When the maze held no more mystery, I began to pester my father for a system user ID to the campus computing network, known at that time as Wrubel. That was short for the name of the central campus IT facility, Wrubel Computing Center, a dingy little set of rooms tucked around the back of the large physical education facility known as the HPER, or ‘hyper’. Today, WCC occupies my old middle school. Jon Konrath has an online history of the growth and changes that occurred shortly circa 1990 which led to the center’s relocation.
It’s a modem, but rather than simply plugging the cord from the phone into a little jack, you have to take an old-fashioned, round-ended telephone handset and jam the ends into the heavy-duty round rubber cuffs that grip the speaker and mike with what can only be described as sexual intensity. Then you dial the connection number, wait for the familiar hiss and burble, and flip the switch on the coupler, telling it to translate the white noise into 1s and 0s. (Image courtesy of the University of Virginia online Computer Museum)
I believe the device may have reached the startling transfer speed of 300 baud. On a good day. I’m sure you can imagine the inherent inefficiencies. (The info page linked above describes the speed as 10 characters per second.)
At any rate, Dad never did spring for an ID, and I ended up “obtaining” an unused, forgotten account that I continued to employ until sometime around my graduation from high school in 1984. And what on Earth was I doing, poking around the guts of the WCC?
Why, participating in an early incarnation of a bulletin board, of course. It was called Note; it was completely unauthorized; and occasionally it would eat up enough system resources to attract the attention of a dutiful high priest (we called them ‘truck drivers,’ natch) and be deleted.
At any rate, my experience is similar to others’ initial experiences of BBS-based communities. It was my first brush with written communication as a vehicle for self-expression and argument in a meaningful context. A great deal of eccentric amusement. Silly names. Fascinating, detailed arguments about the overarching issues of the day, the millenia, and Star Trek. It was the best, and it wholly validated parts of my personality that had never experienced positive feedback, largely by putting me into social contact with other linguistically-gifted persons.
Then in 1981, we moved away for a year; when I returned, girls, punk rock, and the assorted attractions of full-blossomed adolescence drew me away from the Note community, as it was called. Since it was a social network largely inhabited by current college students with an interest in computers and this was the very early 1980’s, there was a great deal of admiration for the music of Rush, and very little for that of the Sex Pistols.
I continued to use the computer, until I graduated from college, in fact; all of my term papers were written on it. But I never forgot the online experience, and when in the early 1990’s, the first tendrils of Internet culture began to tenderly caress my lobes (I believe I the form of the FutureCulture email list), I immediately began a crash course to obtain a more recent-vintage computer and modem. That was in 1992, I think.
(This was written as a contribution to Adam Kalsey’s Newly Digital distributed memoir project.)