35 Years of Connected Computers

I realized the other day that at some point 35 years ago, during the latter half of the summer of 1986, Potshot… or Skronk or Fergorin or whatever names I’ve used to identify him on the blog over the years… sold me a modem.

I think it was in August, but honestly it could have been July or September.  It was a cash deal and no receipts were kept.  It was an Apple 1200 bps modem and I took it home, then went over to the used computer store that was close by… because used computers were a business then… and bought a Super Serial Card for my Apple //e so I could hook the modem up to it.

Apple and Zoom modem pictures gleaned from the internet, the latter being me second modem

At that point I had to do something with it.  I dialed up a BBS or two with some primitive terminal emulation software, then I started looking at online services, landing on GEnie.

There I ended up playing Stellar Emperor almost right away.  Somebody there told me to go buy the Apple ][ terminal emulator that CompuServe sold which was light, emulated well, and had ten macro keys, which would become all important in playing Stellar Emperor and Stellar Warrior. (I did a recap of my 80s online gaming a while back.)

I also never had to go sit in the computer lab in college anymore.  They had a dial up number I could log in through.  I still had to walk across campus to pick up my printouts for projects, usually from SPSS, a software package I am continually surprised to find still exists.  It is almost as old as I am.

I’ve told those tales before here.  I’ve even charted out timelines for various things, including platforms and connectivity.  I’ve written a lot down on the blog over the last 15 years.

Game Platforms

I should probably update that one a bit.  I can add iPhone to it, and a Nintendo Switch.  But mostly it has been Windows PC gaming since Y2K.

Connectivity

That one I really need to update.  I think it was about 2015 that we swapped over to Comcast for a cable modem connection.  That runs at 100 MBits.

100 megabits per second.  One hundred million bits per second.  That is a long way from 1,200 bits per second back in 1986.  I would need more than 80,000 little Apple modems humming along in parallel to even come close to my throughput today.  1986 me would be impressed.

Hell, 2006 me would be impressed.  We’ve come a long way.

Back in 1986 I was kind of an oddball, demographically speaking.  I mean, just having a personal computer was still kind of odd, though growing increasingly common.  But having one that connected to other computers, that was really not a thing for many people.

For a long time the idea of a computer being connected to other computers was kind of niche.  One of the jobs I had there were several Apple ][s hooked up to a central Corvus drive that would share accounting data and output reports.  And the stuff in the lab at school was all wired up, but for most people a computer was a stand alone unit.  If you wanted to send somebody data you printed it out or saved it to a floppy disk.

In 1991, when I was working for a company that specialized in hard drives I got a call from a guy who had moved from there to a data recovery firm asking me about modems.  I was the recognized “modem expert” largely because I ran a BBS at the time, which made me the one-eyed man in the land of the blind.  He had a client down in LA who really needed the data from a drive they had recovered and wanted to know how long it would take to send to him via modem.  They had a 2,400 bps modem handy to transfer the 40mb of data.

I told him it would be quicker to drive down to LA and hand him the drive in person.  I didn’t even get into the complexity of queuing up however many files and sending the one by one and then sorting through them at the far end.  He was discouraged, but understood when I did the math.  It was kind of a surprise that the client at the far end had a modem, even in 1991.

Modems didn’t really become a thing to have until 1994 or so when the World Wide Web suddenly hove into view for many people.  I moved from the hard drive company to a modem manufacturer… again based on the fact that I ran a BBS so knew something about modems… where our big selling point was that you could send a fax from your Apple PowerBook.  Hard copies were still a thing.  Remember faxing lunch orders into a restaurant or getting fax spam ads?  No?  You’re kind of young, aren’t you?

But with the web, the internet became a thing for everybody.  The rush to get online began and here in Silicon Valley there was a good year to 18 months when on a typical weeknight you could lift up the handset on your home phone and not be sure you would get a dial tone.  The phone company, built on the idea that most people make a few five minute calls, was suddenly faced with a bunch of people who would dial up to their ISP when they got home from work and leave their connection pinned up until they went to bed.   Checking your email was kind of a big deal.

There was an transition point from where a computer went from being a stand alone device, to being something that could connect to an online service, to a device whose whole existence revolves around connectivity.

Back in the 80s and 90s having a computer online meant you could be some sort of cyber ninja computer hacker.  Now having a computer not connected has a special mystic.  We have a special term for it even, an “air gapped” computer.

I mean think about how much you do every day that required connectivity.  My job, which has been work from home for 18 months now, pretty much required online connectivity all the time for the last 20 years.  The network being down meant no work was getting done.  And now I am at home and that connection is work, commerce, and entertainment.  I have a 10 channel package from Comcast for my cable TV service because they want so badly to demonstrate that people are not cord cutting.

So far this year we have watched live TV on January 6th and during the Olympics.

Meanwhile, “always on” internet is essential.  All my many screens, and screens have proliferated in the last decade, seem to now demand some sort of internet access.  I remember back in the day when my daughter and I got our Nintendo DS Lites.  Internet connectivity was kind of a rare thing.  Setting up Nintendo WiFi for Pokemon was a pain.  I think only Mario Kart really worked well with it.

Now if I pick up the Switch Lite somewhere out of WiFi range is starts acting like a junkie in withdraw.

And I suspect the trend will continue in that direction.  I’ve resisted wifi enabled appliances and stuff, given their legendary security vulnerabilities, but I am sure some day they will become mandatory.

6 thoughts on “35 Years of Connected Computers

  1. bhagpuss

    My electricity company has been trying to convince me to move to a “smart meter” that’s always connected via the internet for years now. If they’d rebate me the postage costs of the mailings I could probably have a month’s service for free.

    My stance is that until it become a legal obligation to have any service other than media and telecommunications “connected” I will keep changing providers to those who’ll provide services the old-fashioned way. I know exactly who this particular revolution is intended to benefit and it’s very definitely not the consumer.

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  2. zaphod6502

    I had a 2400bps modem in the 80’s but it was an oddity and I rarely used it as it was very expensive to stay connected with timed analog calls. I wasn’t seriously online until the late 80’s and I bought a 9600bps modem and first started connecting to local BBS’s and used the original FIDOnet network. A bit later I opened a CompuServe account as that was the only reliable way to get the latest games patches at that time. I remember everything being incredibly expensive with timed calling and the goal was to log in and download newsgroup and mail via offline readers, reply offline, and upload the replies and log off as quickly as possible.

    I now look at my 1Gbig fibre connection and my 940 Mbps daily download speed 24/7 and it reminds me how good we have it now.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. PCRedbeard

    GEnie… Oh, the feels.

    I loved GEnie. The SF&F areas were wonderful, and you could actually talk to authors there. Not all of them were nice to talk to –Jerry Pournelle came off as a colossal asshole, for example– but GEnie showed me what the Internet could be.

    Somewhere between there and now, it feels like the Net lost its way.

    But I’m also insanely jealous that you got a chance to get online in the mid-80s. We had a TI-99/4A, and while I begged and pleaded for a modem for the computer, my dad continuously said ‘no’.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. zaphod6502

    “Somewhere between there and now, it feels like the Net lost its way.”

    The net did lose its way and its original purpose was twisted by commercial interests and censorship. The net was once a bastion of free speech but not anymore. Ironically the BBS concept – which were often populated by subgroups of users with similar interests – have been reincarnated into Discord lobbies and other walled groups on the internet. It seems online communities have come full circle.

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  5. SynCaine

    One could say that is someone now has a PC that isn’t connected to the internet intentionally, they must be a hacker :)

    My most vivid memory of early internet was being the first person I knew to get cable internet in the early/mid 90s, playing competitive Myth online, and using the phone for ‘voice chat’ with a friend who moved to Maine. We did this daily for easily 2-3 hours each day. The computer was also in an unfinished basement, just to complete the stereotype.

    The other thing I remember is being accused of speed hacking daily in UO because of the faster connection, which because of how that game was designed, basically did let me move faster than those on slower connections.

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