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When hot type was high-tech

Remembering the days before desktops


In our era of desktop computing, it’s hard to remember the days when we first got into our high-tech way of doing things. I had the good fortune to be a graduate assistant during the changeover at the J-School. I was hired to provide minimal instruction in the “new technology” to each of the school’s 1,007 students.

I desperately needed the job to stay in school. As soon as I learned about it, I went to William Bickley’s office to apply. Bick, a tough newsman and managing editor of the Columbia Missourian, was a slight man with a permanent squint, probably caused by the smoke from the ubiquitous cigarette dangling from his mouth.

“What do you know about computers?” Bick asked.

“Lots,” I said, not completely lying. I had at least seen a computer before.

“You saw the computers outside my office?”

I hadn’t, I said, not sure if I would have recognized them as computers even if they’d had signs hanging on them. He told me he guessed it was because they were still boxed. Somehow I got the job.

The next morning I helped unpack the new machines and during next two months I helped a technician install a DigitalEquipment Corporation PDP/8 controller in its impressive seven-foot high cabinet with yellow and orange binary-octal toggle switches and blinking lights. The system had a Burpee six-level paper punch for output to our typesetter and two Fiberglas-cowled CRTs (cathode ray tubes, an early expression for an editing terminal) on their polished chrome pedestals. Each terminal could process about 1K of copy at a time, and could not scroll, copy or move anything. But, hey, we were in the computer era. 

Then it was on to the education part of my job. One-by-one, Mizzou students met in the newsroom and completed a 15-minute session on the CRTs. All went well until one crisp 1973 February morning when I was greeted with a rather stiff “Hello” from a student sporting a waxed moustache and puffing on a Sherlock Holmes meerschaum-lined calabash pipe.

Edging into the seat beside me, Sherlock crossed his legs, folded his arms, fondled his pipe and tilted his head to one side. A raised eyebrow indicated to me his skepticism.

A few moments into my instructions, I asked him to enter his name into a blank form that appeared on the screen. He sat, unmoving, and cleared his throat after puffing on his pipe.

“I don’t really see the value in this,” Sherlock said, as he got up and started to leave. Pausing only long enough to give me his explanation, he said, “You see, I’m in the radio and television program, and we use film and cameras. Not this kind of stuff.”

Gael L. Cooper, professor of public relations
University of Southern Indiana

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