Operating a cash register in the 1970s
Our first home computer was a Commodore 64 that could talk. My ex coded the machine to speak in a robot-like voice. I can still hear its first words: “My name is Ergo.” Much better than the fake messages I now get about my “arrest warrant” or a large purchase on my credit card!
My first office computer was a small shared PC which sat in an aisle. I loved being able to revise my work quickly on it. Until I learned a word processing program, I used a favourite spreadsheet program called Lotus 1-2-3 for all of my writing.
At university, I had only used the giant mainframe computer housed in UBC’s Computer Science building. It was not for everyone or every day. In order to write code to send instructions to the computer, you first had to print out punch cards. A room was filled with machines whose sole purpose was punching holes in these long, narrow cards in a way that the computer could understand. The staff then fed your bundle of cards into the computer.
After a couple of hours, the result was printed on a long continuous sheet of perforated paper, like a roll of toilet paper. On each side of the paper were punched holes, which the machine grabbed onto while the paper was fed through it. You could separate the perforated pages by hand and remove the hole-punched sides. The first home printers used this type of paper, and were called “dot matrix” for the way the print appeared in coarse dots.
Finding a library book at UBC then meant searching through a concourse filled with physical card catalogues. A turnstile clicked as you entered, then footsteps sounded on the narrow stairways to where your title might be stored. I enjoyed browsing the musty rows of ancient scholarly inquiry, and often studied at a carrell (desk) along the north wall, furtively lunching on sweet home-baked rolls. On clear days, you could see the north shore mountains, framed by the long row of stately trees which then dotted the lane of East Mall below.
I wrote my work by hand on paper, revised it that way, then typed it out on a typewriter. I learned to type quickly at home from my mother, without looking at the keyboard. A book called Teach Yourself Typewriting had helpful exercises.
A fresh sheet of paper crinkled softly when inserted into the roller, which clicked as you advanced the paper to where you wanted to start typing. You had to strike the keys with some force, as they hammered through an inked ribbon to put their mark on the page. Electric typewriters worked with the lightest touch of your fingers, while humming in the background. A melodic bell rang as you neared the end of each line, a clue to divide your current word into syllables or start a new line. There were whole courses teaching how to type quickly and format documents correctly.
The first “smart” typewriter had a minuscule memory, but I loved that it could correct mistakes easily. Before that, some typewriters had correction tape that could cover an error in white, then you went back and typed over it. Or you could use an eraser much like a pencil eraser, which never worked well, and later, white-out paint. If it looked too sloppy, you had to retype the whole page.
Before photocopiers, you could insert carbon paper between the pages before you typed. The black film was clean on one side, inked on the other, which would appear on the back page as you were typing. I still have carbon paper. I have used it to quickly copy a letter written in pen.
We also had carbonless copy paper, which allowed you to make copies without a middle sheet. It transferred ink directly from the back of the first page through to the next page, but had a chemical smell, and at home, we only had odd colours like pink.
In high school, I had a memorable tour of Pacific Press, which then published the Vancouver Sun and Province in a large building at 2250 Granville St. The equipment clanked loudly as our troop of students were led to a man sitting at one of many enormous Linotype machines. His job was to type out the words of writers, which the machine then molded into rows of thin metal bars. After the bars were assembled together into the finished page and inked, newsprint would be rolled over it to reveal the finished copy. I still have the Linotype bar that the man gave me, with the name of our school printed on it.
The Linotype machines, and even the printer in Surrey that replaced them, are now history. Newspapers which served us faithfully for many years are struggling. I’m grateful for our excellent local paper, the Peace Arch News, which has had to cut back to one weekly issue in the pandemic.
My sister, Kathy Plett, often updated me about the latest technological advances. In the 1990s, she told me about the internet. A small community group, the Prince George Freenet Association, offered free email addresses to anyone. It was amazing to be able to quickly communicate across the miles, even through a slow dial-up telephone connection.
In the 2000s, my sister told me about a new internet search engine called Google. You could “Google” a person and get links to articles and websites where they were mentioned. When I told some work colleagues about the curious results of a search, I can still see the incredulous look as one of them asked, “You GOOGLED him?!”
- Irene Plett