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A walk through computer memory lane


Let’s take a look back over the years at some of the hardware and software I worked with at Mid-Manhattan Library.

Middle to late 1980s

IBM PC, XT and AT models with 128 -256 KB memory; 1 or 2 floppy 360K disk drives;
12″ monochrome green monitor; keyboard; 10-20 MB hard drive (optional);
DOS 3.0-4.0; $2,500 or more.

Those computers were heavy and the monitors generated enough heat to warm an office. The keyboards were solid with function keys grouped on the left side. They were easier to reach and to use than at the top of the keyboard.
User manuals came in small ring binders, packed with useful information on formatting floppy disks, etc.

HP LaserJet 2 ($2,700.); Epson dot-matrix($300.); HP ThinkJet ($225.) printers.

The LaserJet really sounded like a jet with a fantastic output of 1 page a minute.
The Epson dot-matrix printers sounded like dentist’s drills and woke up staff in the morning. Quieter HP Thinkjet (ink-jet) printers replaced these alarm clocks.

Infotrac used 12” laserdiscs to distribute data to computers through dedicated wiring.
Later on, they used regular CD-ROM drives which broke down frequently. I remember using unwound paperclips to eject broken CD-ROM caddies.

DOS 3.0; DBASE III for databases; Professional Write for word processing;
Professional File file creator; Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets (a tough program to learn).

I miss DOS though - it was simple and straightforward. I could write and edit small programs that controlled the computer. If there were hard drive problems, the FORMAT command wiped them away. Of course that erased all the driver commands to control the printer so I couldn’t print my reports. I learned to be more selective after that.

1989: my first computer virus message: “Your Computer is Stoned. Legalize Marijuana!”

There was also an unnamed virus that decreased memory each time the computer rebooted. Couldn’t figure out how it did that.

Computer manufacturers had live people (no voicemail!) at their tech support centers. They solved problems within a half-hour and even called you back later to see if the solution held up.

Library staff performed DIALOG searches for the public, free of charge. After a short reference interview, one scanned the DIALOG reference book for the appropriate database that could answer the question. No Googling here – you had to know your AND, OR, and NOT.

Early to mid 1990s

ZEOS 386, Gateway 2000 486;512 MB to 1 GB RAM; 40 to 80 MB hard drives;
DOS 5 and above; 3 ½” diskette drives; color monitors with grainy graphics; WordPerfect 5.0 and 6.0 (DOS version) HP LaserJets 3,4, 5 and 6. Prices drop for computer equipment prices drop and they become commodities rather than oddities.

Before the Internet hit, we bought several computers and Pioneer CD-ROM changers to provide the public with access to six CD-ROM databases from one computer. They worked well and the Library got their money’s worth out of them.

Windows 95 debuts at MML and I’m not thrilled with it. I can still use DOS.

WordPerfect chugs along in a few staff computers but MS-Word becomes the Library’s word processing standard. Does anyone remember (and miss) using WordPerfect’s Reveal Codes feature for text formatting?

The Library installs networked Internet computers for the public on all floors with Netscape Navigator as a web browser. Each computer has its own printer and paper mill.

Staff computer networks take shape slowly. Lotus cc:Mail replaces telephone conversations to some extent. We still use typewriters for typing labels.
The MML On-Line Office gets more calls about computer breakdowns. Viruses, hackers and spam – oh my!

Late 1990s to mid 2000s

Micron and Dell computers. Average cost is $1,000 apiece. Zip disks are supposed to be the next big thing in storing data but they cost too much to be useful systemwide.

No more manuals or free tech support. Help is available online – if the computer works.

Free Click–on computer classes for the public begin. Students use laptops to access the Internet through wireless local area connections. One of “Murphy’s Laws on Technology” seems apt: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The Internet has really exploded and more viruses show up. Aren’t software upgrades supposed to be less restrictive?

Somehow, working with computers isn’t as fun as it used to be.


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