Due to some articles I wrote here and there, I get questions about old computers. I am no expert in the subject, I just happened to be there while all these happened. A couple of weeks ago someone told me she heard about a mechanical word processor and asked me to confirm they existed. As it turned out, I could; in fact, I say so in the first of those articles, but provided her with some more details.
What younger people usually have problem understanding is the way in which computers were used only a few decades ago. Now we have so many computer devices, smart phones, tablets, laptops and so on, that we need to keep our data in the cloud to make it accessible from all those platforms. Not long ago, having one computer per person was a luxury. Even personal computers were able to have multiple users with their separate logins so as to share them amongst the family members. The latests operating systems don’t even have the ability to switch users because devices are no longer shared.
Computing power has become so cheap that we often have truckloads of processing power idling around us. Decades ago, computers were too expensive to be idle. You even had several shifts of highly qualified operators attending a single machine working for a whole organization. Even us, programmers, wrote code in paper forms that would later be keypunched to be run at some scheduled time.
Earlier machines were too expensive to have an operator sitting idle in front of it deciding whether this sentence or that paragraph looks good, as I am doing right now with this sentence. You idled in front of a piece of paper, edited with your pencil, cut and pasted with scissors and glue. Most people didn’t know how to type on a keyboard, it was a highly specialized tasks because there was no going back. Even using correcting fluid (most people nowadays don’t even know what that is) took time.
So, a mechanical word processor would not allow you to do much editing, its purpose was to automate the task of actually printing hundreds of standard letters. If the letters were in the thousands, such as bills for utilities or bank balances, the organization would have your mainframe computer to do that. But what if you had a small/medium business? Then having your own automated printing system could be affordable.
Going even earlier in time, we have those very early one-of-a-kind computers, those that had individual names, which were not even called computers, their names all ended in ‘AC’ (Eniac, Edsac, Maniac, Illiac and so on) for “automatic calculator”. Kids often see Babbage’s Engine and wonder how can they ask it a question. Perhaps they think you write it in a piece of paper, insert it into some sort of mailbox, turn the handle twice and out pops a card with the answer. Perhaps you have to intone the proper enchantment.
The purpose of any of those earlier automatic calculators was to print tables, in fact, books of tables, to be distributed amongst ship captains, artillery officers, radio operators, train station chiefs or bank managers. They didn’t answer general questions, they printed answers for a whole range of initial values for a very specific problem.
So, when writing this novel and deciding on which user-level technology from Heaven to bring into Mother, I was careful to avoid, say, a smart phone or tablet. As Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Thus I decided on a phone network. Behind the scenes it is an advanced, cellular network, but with its functionality limited to what the initial users would be able to comprehend. A few physical buttons, no screen, just like an old touch-tone phone. The communication equipment would have the ability to do much more, but it could have created adverse reactions should all of it was to be dumped on regular people all at once. Let the pioneers amongst those in Mother make the system grow. Even the visionaries have their limitations due to their backgrounds. They would advance the technology but only within what they can understand due to their shared cultural background. All at their own pace.