At work the other day, someone asked the question, “What’s the longest you’ve ever disconnected from all technology?” I said 22 years because I bought my first computer, a primitive Commodore 64, around 1982. I figured the question meant computer technology. Otherwise, we’ve all been around technology every day for most of our lives.
But then I got to thinking, as one tends to do, and I remembered that I was tinkering with some pretty early forms of technology when I was just a wee sprout trying to figure out which shoe went on which foot.
As it turns out, I first used a computer when I was about 14, in junior high school. It wasn’t a personal computer, those had just barely been invented and wouldn’t be widely used until a few years later. It was a huge metal terminal that connected to an equally huge UNIVAC mainframe computer at the University of Minnesota. Something like this:
No screen, no nothing. You type a command, it shows up on the paper, then about a minute later the remote computer responds and prints its answer on the paper. It was always so exciting when that response came down the line!
The one I worked on had a suction cup modem that a phone receiver fit into. You jammed the receiver into the cups and dialed up the mainframe. If you dialed the number and didn’t stick the phone in the cups – as we naturally did, since we were a bunch of 14-year-olds – you heard a strange sound, not unlike the modems of the early internet, for those of you who were around in those dark, distant days.
When you were finished messing around you saved your “program” in the form of dots punched into a thin strip of paper. You can see the paper roll in the picture above, it’s there in the upper left. All I can remember doing in the class was playing tic tac toe. An excellent use of network and mainframe time to be sure. As I recall, the class took place after school, which increases the geek factor by about 10.
Why did a junior high school in the frozen outskirts of Minnesota have a connection to a university mainframe only five years after the first ARPANET connection was made? I have no earthly idea. A better question might be why did a 14-year-old kid whose only interest in life was rock and roll take a computer class?
I should be able to answer that, but I can’t.
A few years before the teletype, I got my hands on a Science Fair 100-in-1 Electronic Project Kit. Science Fair was a Tandy brand sold at Radio Shack. Yeah, I was hanging around at Radio Shack when I was a kid. That’s how (un)cool I was.
Note that the box reinforces the widely held mid-20th century belief that only young white males were cut out for electronic experimentation. No girls or brown people need apply. 🙄
Check out that sweet integrated circuit!
Space age technology? Yes! And an illustrative ancestor of the chips that power everything we touch here in the 21st century.
If you look closely you can also see transistors, a solar cell, and a photocell. Relatively new components at the time. Wonderful things to put into the hands and minds of young people.
There was also a 150-in-1 Electronic Project Kit that I lusted after, but we weren’t millionaires like that. And honestly, I don’t know how I got the 100-in-1. I may have traded my only other Radio Shack nerd friend for it, or conned my father into buying it for me.
Science Fair/Radio Shack had tons of other smaller project kits that used a clever breadboard platform and point-to-point wiring to create some cool stuff. When I was 13 or 14 I wired a bunch of them together inside an old metal chemistry set box and created a kind of primitive synthesizer. Really just a bunch of tone generators and filters that I could blend. I would have called Robert Moog and asked for a job, but I wasn’t allowed to make long-distance calls.
And I probably created that noise machine because I’d already been introduced to weird sounds in an electronic music class. That class took place at a junior high school too. We didn’t have any waveform generators or fancy electronic equipment like that. We had big tube-powered Wollensak stereo reel-to-reel tape decks. Dozens of them.
So rather than plunk around on synthesizers we recorded voices, instruments, and ambient sounds (noise) and manipulated tape. We all had cassette recorders at home, or at least I did, so I wasn’t unfamiliar with taping things. But I learned how much more you can do on a reel-to-reel pretty quickly.
There was a lot of reversing tape, using the record heads to create slapback reverb, making long tape loops, and hand-spooling them through three recorders lined up in a row. I don’t remember the teacher ever trying to stop me from trying something, no matter how much abuse I might have been inflicting on the poor recorders.
The teacher played us a lot of early electronic music records; Stockhausen, Cage, and of course Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach which is where most of the world first heard a Moog synthesizer. Again, pretty progressive stuff for a town with 1,400 inhabitants. I learned things in those classes that I used later when I was a recording engineer.
Finally, I got to mess around with black and white reel-to-reel video recorders that recorded on open reels of half-inch tape. That was part of an A/V class. You know, the nerds who wheel the TV into the classroom. When we weren’t wheeling a TV somewhere we got to use the video equipment. The recorders were Sonys that looked like this:
The cameras were primitive-looking boxes.
In 1971 or 72 video recording wasn’t even 20 years old, so that must have been some expensive technology to let kids abuse. The first Betamax was still about five years away, and it would sell for $1300. Almost $7,000 in today’s money. So I can only imagine what the open-reel Sonys sold for in 1971.
There wasn’t a lot to do with video in those days. I should have put some of my electronic music skills to use and tried to manipulate videotape, but the A/V teacher was not on the same wavelength as the electronic music teacher, no touching of the tape allowed!
I did discover that aiming the camera at a monitor gave you that hall of mirrors effect that you’ve no doubt seen or done a thousand times. When I combined the hall of mirrors with rapid zoom-in zoom-out I created the first nausea-inducing video West of the Mississippi.
I guess Mahtomedi is technically East of the Mississippi by about 15 miles, but what’s a technicality among friends? The Mississippi is very twisty up there. It’s easy to get confused. I was confused the entire time I lived there.
So what does it all mean, Hannah?
I’m not sure it means anything.
But it probably means as much as anything else you’ll read today.