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Mem-ries, All Alone in the CRT-Light…

August 10, 2008

Every time I meet a new group of fresh-faced, 18-year-old, born-in-freaking-1990-this-year! students, I’m reminded that I’m old. Seriously, unimaginably, fossil-ish-ly… old. I’m bracing myself for that harsh, harsh jolt of reality coming at me again at the end of August, but I was surprised to feel it today.

BoingBoing Gadgets posted a mega-collection of scans of “classic” (i.e., old, like me) computer ads. If you remember the TRS-80, the Atari 2600, and the days when Cray supercomputers were both the ne plus ultra of computing power and came upholstered in sexy red and black leather, check it out.

I liked and/or recognized a lot of these ads, but three of them really reached out to me, and when I reflected on that, I realized that they did so for such idiosyncratic reasons that I just had to share.

I’m old. Indulge me.

The first is an ad for the Odyssey 2 computer/game system. The Odyssey 2, with its focus on games and its attached keyboard, probably saw itself bridging the gap between the Atari 2600 game system and the Atari computers that would come later. As I recall, the Odyssey 2’s main claim to computer-dom was its voice synthesizer, which you can see touted in this ad. We, of course, had a 2600, but somehow I persuaded my parents we needed an Odyssey, too. Still don’t know how I did that.


The thing that grabs me about this ad is that I vividly recall bringing the Odyssey 2 home from Sears, unpacking it, setting it up on the kitchen table, and firing up the voice synthesizer program. And that’s it. The memories stop there. I don’t remember playing a single game on it. I don’t remember where we moved the darn thing after it’s debut evening (and we had to have moved it because the kitchen table was where we ate all of our meals). And I don’t remember what happened to it after that fateful (?) first night of Stephen-Hawking-sounding fun and frivolity.

(If others of you out there have this same memory-hole, I’d love to hear about it, because that’s just about the last piece of evidence I need to prove that I’m an android with implanted memories.)

The next ad features (in a bit part) my very first computer-like thing. One of my cousins (they were all older than my brothers and I) had somehow come by a terminal and probably realized immediately that it wasn’t nearly as cool as he’d thought it would be. Luckily for him, he had an exceptionally geeky younger cousin who would love to take it off his hands. And so, we brought home the white-shelled terminal you can see in the left-hand side of this ad:


The thing had a power switch, a keyboard, a built-in monochrome (sexy greenness — remember that?), no disk drive, and an extremely primitive external modem velcroed to the side. This machine carried me into the age of the BBS. And that, ladies and gentlemen, carried me into the age of the real computer.

But wait, grandpa, I hear you complain. What’s a BBS, and what the heck are you rambling on about now?

Ah, callow youth. Before the Internets became porn-capable (and thus achieved their destiny), people used to dial their telephones to certain numbers where computers would answer the phone. Then these people would quickly push the combination of buttons on their modem that would allow their terminal (and later, their computer) to talk with the computer that had answered the phone that they had just dialed. And when their computers were linked, they could read messages from other users, post comments, and even — if they were on a computer with storage capabilities, which my terminal lacked — download programs, many of which were “cracked.” (That’s old-school hacker-speak for “illegally altered to allow unauthorized copying and running of the program.”)

Funny story #1: BBSes required users to log in with a user ID and a password, which meant that 12-year-old me had to come up with something fun for a name. One of my favorites — because I loved the sound of the word — was Lord Tarragon. I thought that was very cool. Until another user asked me if I liked cooking. I had no idea what “she” was talking about, and she explained to me (very patiently, to her credit) that tarragon is a spice used in cooking. C’est la vie, and Lord Tarragon c’est mort, vive… somebody else.

Note: Using the scare-quotes with the “she” above was a bit of an anachronism. At the time, and given my tender young age, I certainly wasn’t as aware then as I am now that many, many, many people online are males. Even/especially the ones who present as female. And yet my memory of this interlocutor (and the one in the next story) is undeniably of a female-presenting online identity. Which is trickier to do when you don’t have graphic avatars. Or graphics of any sort, really. ASCII-art can only do so much, after all. But I digress.

Funny story #2: Eventually, many of the boards allowed private messaging between users (early boards mostly used open threaded messages). And while on a board I’d used pretty regularly, my father expressed interest in what I was doing. I explained the set-up to him, and then got a private message. I explained what had happened, and then opened the message. It was my first invitation to cyber.

Sidenote: I don’t think I’d done anything to provoke it, being 12 and all (and a bit of a late bloomer). But I guess I shouldn’t have underestimated the sexual allure of Lord Tarragon or Kaledonius Rex.

I don’t remember much of what happened after we both read that message at the same time. Except that I immediately protested that I didn’t know “her,” hadn’t encouraged “her,” and deleted the message and logged off the BBS. Sigh. Growing up online was tough, even in the Age of Dinosaurs.

The third ad brings me up to my first real computer, an Apple IIc. I inherited a shoebox full of Apple-compatible cracked programs on 5.25″ floppy disks (the last disks that were actually “floppy”) from my terminal-donating cousin. One of my favorites was Dung Beetles, a simple maze game. The neat thing about this game, though, was that when the titular characters (who chased you through the maze) caught you, the game cranked up its Odyssey 2-esque voice synthesizer and actually said “We gotcha!” And the giant bugs on the side did a little dance. It was cool and cute at the same time. And you can see the game as it was ported to the TRS-80 in this ad:


The crazy thing is that all of this takes me back 25 years or so. Part of me thinks that it’s simply impossible for there to be a time 25 years ago that I can remember. But then I remember: I’m old. And then it all makes… depressing… sense. But you know, some of it is pretty cool.

Unlike the clueless youth out there who have never known a world without computers and the internet, I lived through (on the front lines, no less) the rise of online culture and life. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Even if I am really, really old. And probably an android.

Categories: Technology
  1. Victor
    August 12, 2008 at 8:16 am | #1

    Nice, Richard. You took this fossil back in time as well. Atari was my first introduction (Pong of course) at about age 7 (1977). A friend down the street got a Commodore 64 for his birthday one year (1979 maybe?) and man was I jealous! Somewhere in the early 80’s I got my first computer, an Apple IIe, and all I remember is spending a ton of time trying to program a stupid golf game, and getting “Error on line 470” (or something to that effect) every time I tried to execute the program. Hated that machine!

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