What were computers used for in the eighties? Why would people pay 5 grand for a fancy typewriter? What were modems used for before the internet arose?

Tim Cole

Tim Cole, used to use telephone lines to get onto the Internet.

Répondu il y a 51w · L'auteur dispose de réponses 5.8k et de vues de réponses 5.9m

A fancy typewriter, eh? Being able to edit text on your screen and update it before printing it out was a marvelous thing. Word processors and electronic typewriters were quite a big business in the early PC days. You see, it was hard to convince companies to buy “computers.” I suppose the bean-counters visualized mainframes and programmers. Instead, some companies sold single function computers as Word Processing systems. Ye cats, those things were popular!

Over in the engineering realm, small desktop computers (well, they seemed small to us — the first minicomputer I used was the size of a refrigerator) were making a huge impact. As others have said, computation at your fingertips was a big attraction. The typing stuff tended to be done in the Word Processing department, and they didn’t look kindly to engineers taking their work. This lead to such silly things as typing a report on your department computer, printing it on a dot-matrix printer, and bringing over to Word Processing to get it typed. Yeah, I know….

Other folks have mentioned the impact of spreadsheet programs. Before these came out, spreadsheets were literally spread-out sheets of paper, either taken from huge rolls or taped together. You would enter data into these things, do some calculations by hand or with mechanical calculators, and write the results down on that paper. After a while, the paper got so covered in marks that you’d have to copy all the data onto a new spreadsheet. Sometimes, people would use blackboards for some steps, but paper provided an audit trail. Blessedly, I’d never had to work on large spreadsheets, but a working on even few pages of iterative, interdependent calculations was an error-prone and tedious process.

Along came Visicalc. All you had to do was type in numbers, select calculations, and type a command to get the cells recalculated. You might have to wait a few minutes if the spreadsheet were big, but it would have taken hours otherwise.

Scientific computation programs started to come out. You could get special purpose programs to plot data for you, letting you redo the plots as new data came in. An early numerical calculation program let you do linear algebra on a computer. No more hand computation with large matrices!

Soon after, early equation solvers came out, offering symbolic computation of complicated equations. A few could even handle certain classes of équations différentielles. I got an employee discount one of these seemingly miraculous programs and used it do wonderful things, such as calculate the characteristics of the atmosphere of Mars, or compute the speed and direction of the Sun with respect to a large number of local stars.

Books with titles like “Astronomy on Your Personal Computer,” and “Ephemeris Calculations for Amateurs” were coming out. You could do things for yourself that were once limited to professionals using mainframes or teams of human calculators.

Whole new areas of hobby computing started to emerge. Fractal graphics became very big in the mid 1980s. People started diving into the characteristics of obscure things such as Mandelbrot sets. Since color printers were rare and hideously expensive, enthusiasts would share their creations on bulletin board systems, where you could dial in with a modem and download the images to see on your own computer screen. It might take five minutes to get the image on your screen (as long as someone didn’t pick up an extension phone and wreck your connection), but it was faster than “Sneaker-net.” Sneaker-net? That was putting your stuff on a floppy disk and taking it to someone else — data transfer via sneakers.

Back in the lab, desktop computers let us program PAL devices at our desktops. Programmable Array Logic chips let you put fairly complex logical gate systems on one small chip. When the field programmable versions came out, it made huge changes in how electronic design was done. Systems that might have taken a whole rack of electronics could be put on a single board.

Electronic circuit simulators, such as SPICE, had been around for a while, but by the mid 1980s, personal computers had become powerful enough to run them for realistic circuit designs, rather than just a few example circuits. That was a huge advantage — you could check out circuit ideas before you had a prototype made. The cost and time-to-market advantages were quite amazing.

A friend of mine had set up a small company to build GPS receivers for the commercial market. At the time, this was considered quixotic at best. GPS was expensive and complicated, and while it wasn’t restricted to military applications, few thought the receivers could be made cheaply enough to sell in the civilian marketplace. He used his own desktop computer and a custom-designed program to simulate his antenna design. His simulation took an entire weekend to run, but he got his design done. He did well enough to get his small company bought out by a major equipment maker.

So, that’s why people spent money on computers. There were a lot of commercial tasks that became easier and a few that became feasible for moderately sized businesses. A whole new category of hobbies emerged, as well as a great many small businesses devoted to the needs of computer hobbyists and microbusinesses.

Incidentally, few people paid $5000 or so for desktop computers. One of the emerging businesses of the time was building “clones” — cheaper versions of of the big “authorized” computers. The quality ranged from bloody awful to very good, and it showed in the price. A lot of hobbyists cobbled up their own computers, buying parts in the then-emerging marketplace of cheap and used computer components.

Anthony May

Anthony May, is an E.E. from .au in SF.

Mise à jour il y a 3w · L'auteur dispose de réponses 1.4k et de vues de réponses 1.4m

How about laying the foundations for a future lifetime and career in computers and electronics and a networked world & life?

It was 1981 or 82, I can’t quite remember, I was about 11yo, but I do remember the bus ride down the Gold Coast Highway from our home to Coolangatta Public Library felt like it took *forever*. But it was *so* worth it, because they had an Apple IIc computer there that members could reserve to use. Unfortunately I don’t remember doing much with it; something something Turtle Graphics? It was a sole pursuit, I knew no one else into computers, and there wasn’t much in the way of learning materials available with it. It was around this same time I started getting into electronics, too.

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Finally in 1984 I got a Commodore 64 for my birthday. I’d been ‘dying’ to get one for at least a year, so it was probably my Bestest Birthday EVER!! That’s when it all really started for me. I was in love with my computer, in the way only a 13yo can be ��

What were computers used for in the eighties? Why would people pay 5 grand for a fancy typewriter? What were modems used for before the internet arose?

At the time my family was pretty strapped for spare cash, so this kit you see here with the C64, tape-deck, joystick (the first of several over the years) and some software & game cartridges retailed for at least au$500 ($5k would’ve been completely out of the question, and back then no kid my age even wanted an IBM PC - ew yuk!), which was a big ask. And it was far more than a ‘fancy typewriter’, even then I knew this would be not just The Future, but also my future; it was my most prized possession. Until I shortly later bought (or more likely, was gifted) this:

What were computers used for in the eighties? Why would people pay 5 grand for a fancy typewriter? What were modems used for before the internet arose?

…the Commodore 64 Programmers Reference Guide, about an inch and a half thick. This was the Bible of how to get underneath its BASIC facade, down to not just the chip register level, but it even had electronics schematic diagrams! Wow!

What were computers used for in the eighties? Why would people pay 5 grand for a fancy typewriter? What were modems used for before the internet arose?

This was geek heaven! Beyond simple programs and even simpler games in BASIC, I and a friend from school, Billy Graham (not the televangelist!), would spend countless hours poking around in the magical innards of the Commodore 64, programming with BASIC and Assembler to learn how it ticked at its deeper, if not quite deepest, levels.

Honestly I don’t remember much detail about all those hours spent, but particularly in concert with the schematic diagrams, it was a foundational stage in my learning about how computers work - learning about memory maps, CPU instructions, graphics and audio chip registers, chip-selects, i/o ports, and so much more. And playing a few games, of course ��

It wasn’t until many years later, once I was done with the burden of high school, that I got online (I shudder to think what my school grades would’ve been had I got a modem earlier!), first with a barely adequate 2400 baud (bps) modem, and connecting to FidoNet:

What were computers used for in the eighties? Why would people pay 5 grand for a fancy typewriter? What were modems used for before the internet arose?

FidoNet was one of several networks of computers before the Internet was a thing (or at least before it was a thing known to people outside academia & military). Computers with modems would use telephone lines to call each other and exchange ‘netmail’ (like email), ‘echomail’ (like public forums), and files.

The FidoNet network was arranged into a tree hierarchy, and each time a lower node connected to a node higher up the tree, mail & files would be exchanged back and forth. This connection happened typically once or twice or at best a few times a day, so an email or echomail you send one day might take a few days to traverse up the tree up to the nearest common node, then down to its destination node where your recipient typically dialled into. It was excruciatingly slow, and it was awesome.

For quite a few years I was a regular in some of the public echomail ‘forums’ of FidoNet, learning the art of online banter, debate, argument, and flaming/trolling. To a significant degree back then “the medium was the message”, geeks geeking about about geeky techy stuff, as the whole ecosystem learned and paved the way for what was to come later: the Internet.

By the time the Internet and its ‘Web 1.0’ (as we’d later come to call it) came along for the masses to experience, I was well and truly over it. To this day I dislike spending much time on ‘forums’; except Quora ��

Alors, What were computers used for in the eighties? Why would people pay 5 grand for a fancy typewriter? What were modems used for before the internet arose?

Basically having a mastery of how computers work at a relatively deep level by the time I was 16yo.

Mike Frey

Mike Frey, former Pointy Haired Boss

Répondu il y a 57w · L'auteur dispose de réponses 195 et de vues de réponses 283.7k

Back in 1986, I was tired of sending my hand written corporate letters to the secretaries for typing. I had also seen what computers and VisiCalc could do with math calculations. Rows and columns of numbers calculated in seconds! Part of my job was updating prices for the thousands of items that we made. I did it all with my trusty calculator, pencil, and paper.

I began to realize that I could dramatically increase my productivity… if I only had a computer. I appealed to company headquarters, using the above logic. “I want an IBM PC and here’s what I will do with it…”.

Some time later I was informed by headquarters that I my wish would be granted. A shiny new computer was on its way to me! I eagerly opened the boxes that arrived. What the heck?? PCs Limited. Aw, man, I got one of those “clones” I had heard about. No IBM for me! Oh well. I hope the monitor is color!

I plugged it in. I turned it on and eagerly watched the screen as it booted up. Black background, white letters.

C: \

Now what? My experience with computers was mostly limited to looking over someone’s shoulder as they typed something into an open program. I remembered some of the Apple Basic commands.


Bad command or file name


Bad command or file name

Yep, I got a computer with nothing on it. Unwilling to let anyone know that I was totally ignorant, I called the head IT guy (they didn’t call them that back then) at company headquarters in Chicago.

“Hey, I got my computer. No, I didn’t do anything with it yet, just thought I’d ask you if there are programs on it, or do I need to go out and get them?”

“Yeah – I loaded it with Microsoft Word, Lotus 1-2-3, Windows, everything that I could think of that you might be able to use.”

“Oh good – so I can just plug it in and start using it?”


“What’s this PCs Limited brand name?”

“Oh, it’s a company in Texas – we started dealing with them last year. They make computers equal to – even better than – IBM, same or better quality but lower priced”

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“I see” (I certainly didn’t)

So, I turned back to the computer. After a few pecks at the keyboard, everything I typed in resulted in “Bad command or file name. PCs Limited had a toll free number. I figured I’d call them and ask.

“Hello, this is Mike, how can I help you?”

“Well, my company sent me this new computer and I want to make sure that I am doing everything right before do something wrong or break something…”

“Oh, they don’t break easily. Is it plugged in and turned on?”


“What do you see on the screen?”

“The letter “C” with a colon and a slash”

“OK, your computer appears to be operational. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

I finally came clean and told Mike that I knew nothing about computers and how I had convinced my company that I would perform miracles if I had one, and here I was.

“OK, do this: type the letters dir followed by the Enter button” I did as told.

“What do you see?”

“A whole bunch of text just scrolled by the screen.”

“Can you tell me what the text said?”

“Well, the text was more than one screen, so I can’t tell you everything that was there” He patiently told me how to do dir/p and asked me to read back to him what I saw. I read back to him:

“…..Lotus, Word, Windows…..”

“OK, your computer has been loaded with the programs that you will be using. Do you have any bookstores nearby? Go to the computer section and get instructional books on DOS (he actually named one for me that I did buy), and any of the programs that you want to learn. Give us a call if you need any more help”

After a week or so, armed with a couple of books, I was able to start Microsoft Word, type into it, and exit back out. As far as Lotus 1-2-3 went, the only thing I could do at first was start it. I couldn’t figure out how to “/qy” and the only way I knew how to get out was to turn the computer off.

At the end of the first month, I was on well on my way. I needed to call them one more time and ask a question about intermittent lock ups (probably static generated). This time I talked to a pleasant guy with a Texas twang. Apparently they logged their support calls.

“I see that you called last month. How are doing with your learning so far?” I could feel my face turn red. I told him that whomever I had talked to had suggested instructional books to buy and that I did just that and was now creating spreadsheets and documents and getting comfortable around the computer.

“Oh, that was the boss that you talked to on the first call. Mike Dell. He’s a nice guy. He does tech support whenever he has time.”

So, the Internet in 1986….

I can remember my email address: 76220,153

I can remember being able to access current weather from any station in the world: “wea PABR” gave me the usually frigid forecast for Barrow, Alaska.

The above was Compuserve.

Just a bit later came AOL and their chat rooms, replacing Compuserve “CB Radio”

David Schwartz

David Schwartz, Arctic policy, hazard analyst, and Jack-of-all-Trades.

Répondu il y a 34w · L'auteur dispose de réponses 847 et de vues de réponses 934.4k

Back in the 1980s the computer in our house was primarily my father's home office computer which was a Leading Edge model M PC clone. This was a computer with:

It used an Intel 8088-2 processor, running at a maximum of 7.16 MHz on an 8 bit bus, compared to 6 MHz for the IBM PC-AT on a 16 bit bus. The 'M' stands for Mitsubishi, their parts provider.


Man that was great stuff for 1982 and only cost about $1500 then. And it all fit in a box that looked like this, kinda.

What were computers used for in the eighties? Why would people pay 5 grand for a fancy typewriter? What were modems used for before the internet arose?


My dad also opted to dump one floppy for another 10 meg drive.

And with this machine that the phone I'm typing this answer out on outperforms by a few magnitudes he ran a business. Typed up proposals and contracts, ran a spreadsheet, used a 2800 baud modem for some data transfer, and even made custom mailing labels.

Plus my mother and I used the word processor for for our needs. And just to show how much better this incredibly crude word processor is than a typewriter I could write, delete, and rewrite all without using whiteout.

What were computers used for in the eighties? Why would people pay 5 grand for a fancy typewriter? What were modems used for before the internet arose?


So in that respect alone the pc was leagues ahead of the typewriter.

We also played games on that device: Tetris, Welltris, Railroad tycoon, and a centipede clone. The Tetris games turned into a 4 way competition for high score betwen my father, aunt, brother, and myself. I don't know who won.

In 1991 the computer was handed over to me and my dad picked up a newer 80386 of some sort. I then used it as a word processor only until 1994 when my brother and I bought and upgraded a 80486. And got one of those AOL disks they were just handing out to try out the 56k modem.

And it just kept going from there.

Here's the thing. Yes that first computer is primitive and pricy compared to today but it was so far ahead of everything that us regular people could get our hands on even 5 years earlier. Think of it this way: 5 years ago you had smartphones, social media, and really mobile computing. 5 years before 1982 for most of us there was typewriters, some really primitive machines, and if you worked at a big company maybe a terminal setup.

If you didn't live it you just may not get it.

Notes de bas de page

1 http://Leading Edge Hardware Pro...

2 Disk space and how things have changed

3 Save Time With Easy Microsoft Word Shortcuts

Graham Cox

Graham Cox, BSc (hons) from University of East Anglia (1993)

Répondu il y a 56w · L'auteur dispose de réponses 4.5k et de vues de réponses 4.2m

I started a new job in 1989. One of the ‘perks’ I asked for, and got, was a new computer. I didn’t have too many concrete reasons for wanting it but I thought it was a cool thing to have and I’d find good uses for it. Since the boss wanted me, he was happy to sweeten the deal by throwing this in.

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So I start the job, and after a few days, he comes to me and asks what I want for this computer. I didn’t want to push it, so my request was pretty modest - a Mac SE. At that time, this was already a few years old and there were far more capable machines available, but since my justification was fairly weak, I figured that was the best I could hope for. Well, he actually talked me up on the spec, and I ended up with an SE/30. If you know Macs, you’ll know this was, at that time, much more powerful than an SE.

What were computers used for in the eighties? Why would people pay 5 grand for a fancy typewriter? What were modems used for before the internet arose?

Anyway, I’m getting into the first job, which was to design and build an entire working simulation of the control room of a Vanguard Class nuclear submarine. That was the business of the company - exhibition displays, simulators and the like. Every one a bespoke job. The Royal Navy was a big customer - we did a lot of work for them, mostly recruitment aids, but this was a whole new thing, where they trusted us with a major state secret so that they could train submarine crews*.

A Vanguard’s control room has hundreds of dials and meters that show all sorts of different quantities, such as the amount of power of the engine, the temperature of the nuclear core, and so on. Hardly any two were identical. The draughtsmen were really not looking forward to creating the artwork for all the meter scales - they were extremely fiddly and time consuming, requiring both great accuracy and effort. This was the second job of this type they’d done, so they knew how tedious this part was.

What were computers used for in the eighties? Why would people pay 5 grand for a fancy typewriter? What were modems used for before the internet arose?

So I blithely say I could produce those meter scales on my computer. The boss was a bit skeptical, but I showed him one example which I created in Claris CAD, a simple 2D CAD package but which was nevertheless quite capable and easy to use. To turn that into an actual meter scale, it had to be printed out at 2x normal size, reduced photographically, then turned into a silk screen mask. The issue was whether the laser printout would be good enough to use for this process. It turned out it was, so I got the go-ahead to do the rest. The whole lot took about a day and a half - saving the drawing office months of tedious work. The boss was cock-a-hoop at how much time had been saved, though I’m less sure the draughtsmen were so keen, they may well have felt threatened.

After that, the boss became a huge enthusiast for Macs, and ended up buying several more, another printer, an extrêmement expensive Tektronix colour printer (based on thermal wax transfer - this was before colour inkjets or lasers existed), and all sorts of software. Applications opened up on almost every new job, from producing video titling, graphics, creating a sort of jukebox/sequencer software for Laservision discs (it was still impossible to store and run digital video off a computer), creating games for exhibitions. We also designed a lot of one-off digital logic for controlling various displays and I generally used an app called Logicworks to design and simulate these. It was the main period of transition from hardware to software I personally went through - one day I’d be designing some hardware for a display, the next writing a game in Pascal.

It turned out to be an invaluable tool and really opened up a lot of new possibilities for that company, and I learned a huge amount about programming at the time as well, which turned out to be vital to my career in the years to follow.

*Since the Vanguards are still in service and will be until 2028, it seems probable that the simulated control room we built is still in use.

Mark Decker

Mark Decker, Digital Printing Hardware and Software Guy (1990-present)

Répondu il y a 56w · L'auteur dispose de réponses 1.9k et de vues de réponses 596.6k

My first computer was when I worked for Xerox called an 820-II, along with a daisy wheel printer that I bought through the employee purchase program. I think it cost about $2100? It ran CP/M operating system, dual 5.25″ floppy drive, and I used an acoustic modem that I picked up somewhere. It was in the early 1980’s a year or so before the IBM PC had been introduced. It was pretty obvious by then that computers were the wave of the future and my work exposed me to many variations of them at the time, including the famous Xerox workstations that had the first GUI’s, mouse and laser printer way before Windows and Mac. I learned how to manage a primitive database using Dbase2 software, simple spreadsheets using Calc, word processing using Wordstar, bulletin boards using the acoustic modem, Basic programming using MBasic, many primitive games and just plain starting to understand how a computer operated using the command line, which set me up for learning Unix/Linux later on. We also had an Apple or two in the office to play with. So when it came time for me to start building my own computers and accessing early web places like Usenet I had a good head start.

What were computers used for in the eighties? Why would people pay 5 grand for a fancy typewriter? What were modems used for before the internet arose?

The point is it gave me at least, a simple albeit expensive way to learn computing which gave me the foundation for what eventually became my career path. I’m now what’s called a Solutions Engineer meaning I scope out various workflow software products for companies who also usually purchase Ricoh high speed digital printing systems, which of course are completely controlled by, guess what, computers!

What were computers used for in the eighties? Why would people pay 5 grand for a fancy typewriter? What were modems used for before the internet arose?

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