Saturday, May 28, 2005


When I served as an LDS missionary in Germany 1976-78, my prized possession was a portable German typewriter (had an es-zet key -- for two s's). It was "tiny" (although quite a bit larger than my current laptop computer), had a cover, was well engineered. It made writing home easier (since my handwriting's atrocious). Made typing tasks of all kinds easier. Although German-made and branded, it looked something like this Royal:
Hard to believe that text was put on paper back then by a metal key striking through a ribbon against paper pressed against a rubber platten, and that you had to physically return the carriage at the end of each line.

I served as the printer in the mission office for 9 months. A primary part of my job was to publish a monthly newsletter in German and English. I learned how to type quickly as a result. I also learned how to justify margins (typing out the text, counting the number of spaces to get the margin even and annotating the line with the number of "ticks" required, then retyping the whole thing to put the spaces in).

For headlines and art, I'd have to use transfer lettering (rub on letters from sheets -- I had to draw a light pencil line, line the letter up and rub on it to transfer it to paper -- it was an art). Then hand paste up the headlines, art, and text using a T-square on a drafting table. Then take the paste up to the Church distribution center and run a plate (a paper "print" of the paste up). And use a brush to wipe away stray lines that appeared if my paste up wasn't "clean", and then run it through the "heater" to fix the compound to the plate. Then back to the mission office to start up the tiny offset press, put the right amount of ink in the well to get the rollers evenly distributed. Then put the plate on the roller and moving a control to transfer the ink to the roller, then feed paper through.

Sometimes plates would be ruined -- they'd be off-center, or the chemical solution wouldn't work and ink would ruin the plate, or they'd tear. That meant another trip back to the distribution center to make another plate. (I think after a while, I started making two plates so I'd have a backup). Sometimes I'd waste a lot of paper because the ink rollers weren't evenly coated, or because the text wasn't centered on the page. Sometimes sheets would stick to the plate or get jammed.

I also did two colors each time: black for the main text, color for the headings, art, and the margin line framing the text. That meant at least four plates (two for each side). And an ink change (which required cleaning the ink well and rollers). And I had to be sure I had extra color-printed pages before printing the text (to allow for any foulups).

As I say, I did this job for 9 months. While I was working on the text for articles, the translation, the artwork, and the actual printing, I was also recording talk tapes from the mission library for missionaries in the field. We made copies at real time speed, so I'd just listen as the tape copied. It would take most of a day to tape 7 talks.

The first computer I ever saw was an IBM 360 mainframe which took up a specially climate-controlled room in the math building at BYU. This was around 1973. This was about what it looked like (note the trendy plaid jacket):

Input was via punch cards:

You'd type the punch cards on a machine like this:

My first computer, the original Apple Macintosh
had the following specs: an 8 MHz processor, 128K of RAM, one 400K floppy drive, and a 9-inch monochrome screen. I bought it new in 1984 when it was introduced for a student-discount price of $1,995 (as I recall). Retail price was $2,495. It didn't have a built-in modem. Modems came later, and transferred data at the blazing speed of 300 baud. FYI, that's a lot slower than 1200 baud, and then 14.4, and even 56K. Tedious is the word. As soon as I could, I upgraded it to 512K -- known then as a "Fat Mac". 512K, not 512MB.

Fast forward to today. I'm typing this on a new Apple PowerBook 12" computer while lying on my bed.
(I pulled this image from a French website found via Google -- hence the metric measurements).

Some comparison is in order. The G4 PowerBook I'm using runs at 1.25 GHz (v. 8 MHz), has 512M (v. 512K) of RAM, an 80GB hard disk (no floppy drive) and a 1024 x 768 display showing millions of colors. It also sports a SuperDrive that can read and write to CDs and DVDs. And it retailed for $1,699 ($800 less than the original Mac).

Word processing has transformed text entry. Desktop publishing tools have transformed the (real) cut and paste of the old days -- from days to minutes (instead of handtyping articles I'd find, I can cut and paste them electronically, and justify the margins with the click of a mouse). My color printer (cost around $100) can produce multiple color output, including digital photographs, with photo-quality in seconds. And I don't have to clean rollers between ink changes for different colors.

I connect to the Internet wirelessly with an AirPort Extreme 802.11g card through a Belkin wireless router and a cable modem. Content appears nearly instaneously from computers thousands of miles away. (Compared to 300 baud via a dialup connection).

I can lie on my bed, as I am now, importing songs from a Stevie Wonder CD, send and receive email, and type this post. It takes the 8x speed SuperDrive a few minutes to import an entire CD -- so it doesn't take real time (i.e., an hour or so) to record a whole album. Plus, I'm free to listen to the songs in order while they're recording, or listen to something else, or to nothing at all.

With Apple's new OS (Tiger 10.4), I can sweep the cursor to a "hot corner" of the screen and see "widgets" that instantly tell me the local temperature and 6-day forecast, and the temperature and forecast in Jerusalem (where my parents are right now), and Houston (where my parents-in-law are). I can also see the current satellite photo of the Middle East (or choose to see any of a half dozen different weather maps of the area, or other areas of the globe). I also have at my fingertips an electronic dictionary and thesaurus, and an electronic encyclopedia, an electronic Yellow Pages, an electronic calculator, an electronic calendar -- all linked to the Internet. The response to any query is instantaneous.

I have so far stored over 1,200 songs in iTunes on my hard disk. I just keep importing CDs. I can search them by title, artist, genre, most-played, etc. I can instantly switch between tracks. I can arrange them in playlists, or have them play randomly.

Back in the day, I used to buy plastic 33 rpm records. The record company could record only 4 or 5 songs on each side -- because that's all that could physically fit. If you wanted to hear the songs on the other side, you had to physically turn over the record and put the needle at the beginning of the record or song you wanted to hear.

When cassette tapes arrived on the scene, I would buy a record, take it home, and record the mint album on tape -- sometimes skipping tracks I didn't like. But to change tracks on a record, you had to physically move a needle over the gap between the songs, and then let it drop. Scratches were a common song-altering and -ruining experience. Now, of course, the content is digital and can be stored and played on a handheld device that can hold thousands of songs. And you can drag and drop a song's name to record it, skipping any tracks you please.

I have also stored speeches of interest: Elder Oaks' General Conference talk on pornography, and Elder Holland's talk about Terror, Triumph and Wedding Feasts. I'm about to import the Book of Mormon read by Lael Woodbury (a gift from a motel proprietor in Rawlings, Wyoming who saw my driver's license was from Utah -- someone had apparently left the CDs in a room and not returned to claim them...).

We missed Elder Oaks CES Fireside a couple of Sundays ago when it was broadcast, so we listened to it for Family Home Evening the following Monday through my laptop connected to our home stereo via streaming audio transmitted to the laptop via radio waves.

I can also listen to local classical station, KBYU, using streaming audio. I can also view streaming video of movie trailers and news items. And I can watch full-length movies, with digital quality audio and video.

If I get a webcam (for all I know, I can use our digital camera, since it can take video as well), I can videoteleconference with three other locations around the world for free using the Internet (Apple's iChat AV -- built into the operating system). I can also "conference call" with up to 9 other locations using the same computer program.

Instead of taking pictures, and taking the film in to be developed (which used to take several days), we now take photos with a tiny digital camera, delete them immediately if they don't come out, and store them and make them into slide shows (with music) on our tiny notebook computers.

Using Sherlock (built into the operating system), I can see what movies are playing where, view a summary about the film, a poster, and a movie trailer, see the start times, and order tickets online to the show I want.

As Barry Manilow might sing, "It's a Miracle -- a true blue technicolor miracle come true."


Blogger Garry Wilmore said...

I enjoyed your musings about how technology has developed just during your lifetime. As I read this piece, I reflected on the fact that on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated -- Nov. 22, 1963 -- there were fewer than 5000 computers in the entire United States, most of them big IBM mainframes. Today there are probably at least half that number just in the Superior Court complex in downtown Phoenix, most of them desktops, of course. Moreover, when I first became connected to the Internet, back in 1994, the computer I used had a 100MB hard drive, and used a 14.4K modem, which was pretty much state of the art at the time. (I believe the 56K modem was out at the time, but it was more expensive, so I did not purchase one.) And that computer, which is by now long since obsolete, was more powerful than the computer aboard the Lunar Module that had taken Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin to the moon 25 years previously.

There are a lot of things I don't like about living in this day and time, but the technical marvels we both enjoy so much are not among them. It amazes me that through the Internet, I have made friends with people in other countries, whom I will probably never meet in person. And in 100 years, after you and I are gone, our computers, digital cameras, and other gadgets will seem as quaint to those living then as the Model T does to us now.

This morning I was reading a sermon by Orson Pratt, which was based in large part on Section 88 of the Doctrine and Covenants. He said that in the eternities, although we might be millions of miles apart physically, we will all be able to see and communicate instantly with each other, as well as with God. That is something to ponder, but today we can do something similar just with our computers, which are manufactured by the toil and ingenuity of ordinary human beings, out of the elements of the earth. And something so complex and marvelous to us must be trivially simple for God.

9:29 AM  

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