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IBM Canada’s King Street Datacentre circa 1964. Photograph by George Dunbar, courtesy of International Business Machines Corporation, ©International Business Machines Corporation.

Gutenberg on Broadway

Observations from the arrival of the Information Age.

I had a part time job at the ComputerLand store on West Broadway in Vancouver, British Columbia in the early 1980s. Mostly it was to teach an introductory programming course in the BASIC computer language on Saturday mornings. Ironically, it was one of the few things for which you bought a computer back then — to learn how to program them. The store manager didn’t see any point in sending me home after the morning class ended and had me stooge around on the sales floor instead. I was typically assigned the enthusiasts who would, without fail, walk in and want to bend the ear of a so-called expert. Lacking any real experts, I was provided in their stead. By tying up the keeners, the real sales reps were freed up to work over the real paying customers. With all the distractions out of the way, they routinely managed to shake a couple of grand loose and sent the new, excited Apple II owner home with a pretty decent setup.

The Apple II was pretty long in the tooth even by that time but it would lumber on in various forms until nearly the end of the decade. Its rather modest capabilities meant the empty card slots in the back of the chassis started filling up with add-ons which extended the Apple’s capabilities in various ways. High capacity diskette drives added storage, more memory made the machine run faster and video cards enabled the screen to display 24 lines of 80 characters. More business-oriented operating systems, like CP/M, also appeared. The final piece of the puzzle was third-party software, like WordStar and VisiCalc. It turned personal computers into tools of interest beyond the computer geeks who had propelled the industry from the early-1970s.

Customers for the Apple II at ComputerLand were either hobbyists, schools or forward-thinking individuals and small businesses. You had to look really hard, through squinty eyes, to make any sort of business case for computer ownership at that time. You had to want one much more than you needed one — for anything. Even the icebreaker which would bring so many into the fold — the internet — was still a few years in the future. Before that, what you had was basically a lump of plastic and metal which would happily store anything you had the patience to type in and regurgitate it on demand one precious dot at a time onto a printed page. None, except those with the most fertile imagination, could have imagined where those prehistoric devices would eventually lead.

Every once in a while a unicorn would walk into the store. This was somebody who worked at the Computer Science department at the University of British Columbia or one of the handful of raised floor computer rooms which had been built around town for the phone company or one of the banks. The sales staff would run them through the drill of speeds and feeds and specifications. All too often, the slick yet sincere sales pitch fell onto an unimpressed and dismissive audience. Most would eventually walk out, sometimes muttering about not being serious alternatives to the real, megabuck computers they worked with every day.

I have a vague recollection of spending time at the IBM Golf Club near Toronto in the mid-1960s. My family’s next door neighbour was the quintessential IBM man. I’m fairly sure Gord Ward signed on with IBM right out of school and spent his entire professional life with them. There were perks for devoting yourself to one organization like IBM. They looked after you right up to and including finding a way for you to spend your weekends — not too far from the people with whom you worked, ideally. The great unwashed could visit the IBM Golf Club but only as a guest of somebody like Gord. It was a ridiculously luxurious time for Big Blue. An apex, of sorts, like nothing before, but so spectacularly successful it seemed like it would have to fade eventually. You would never have known that then, though.

In 1964 IBM introduced the now legendary IBM/360 mainframe computer. Customers could configure them with different collections of peripherals and software to meet different business requirements. Even that was an innovation in its day. It was wildly successful and set the stage for IBM’s near-monopoly of the industry for decades to come. The public had a growing fascination with the ‘electronic brains’ they were seeing on their rabbit-eared, black-and-white TV sets. So much so, IBM Canada took the extraordinary step of opening up a data centre on King Street West in downtown Toronto. They conciously chose to use nearly floor-to-ceiling glass for the entire exterior wall and kept the facility scrupulously tidy. They eventually immortalized it in a spare, beautifully composed George Dunbar photograph reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s classic painting Nighthawks.

IBM was so successful it was easy for them to overlook or dismiss markets not served directly by the 360. My father, for example, if he could have been teleported a couple of decades into the future, would have been one of the enthusiasts I tried to entertain on my Saturday afternoons at ComputerLand. He was a knowledgeable, well-read enthusiast. Digital Equipment Corporation, or DEC as it was known, was gambling with a line of reduced scale and lower cost computers — dubbing them minicomputers — which enabled organizations of more modest means to acquire computing capability. The strategy worked. Dad brought one of the first PDP-8s into McGill University in Montreal. He used it to support his research efforts, recording and analyzing neurological responses to audio inputs. That complicated work was lost on a six year old, but I remember thinking it was pretty cool when the PDP-8, which filled the entire back wall of sizeable room, bleated out a monophonic version of Greensleeves.

A decade or so later, my mother and father helped me buy my first computer, a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 1 with Level II BASIC. Presciently, they were not going to miss the opportunity to steer at least one son squarely into the face of the oncoming tech tsunami. It was a sort of 20th Century version of every good Catholic mother’s dream of giving one of her sons to the priesthood. Things I learned on that computer in 1977 — the MID statement comes to mind, for example — I used as recently as yesterday, albeit with a spreadsheet on Google’s cloud. It’s safe to say that wasn’t even a glimmer in Larry Page’s four year old eye back then.

After a period of rumours which would have been measured in days or at most a week or two, mysterious boxes marked with the IBM logo began to show up at the ComputerLand store on Broadway. We might have thought “we’re going to start selling typewriters?” When unboxed and assembled, we could hardly believe our eyes.

It was the IBM Personal Computer.

We knew from first glance that nothing was ever going to be the same again. The story would only be fully told a number of years later: a small group within IBM had begun to realize that there really was a market for a desktop computer. Like the PDP-8, cheaper really did mean more customers. Lots more. Previously, IBM had been content to leave whatever opportunity that was to juvenile upstarts like Apple, Radio Shack and Commodore. But as those manufacturers and their products began to enter the 1970s lexicon, and perhaps as a sop to young engineers who might be considering decamping for Silicon Valley, IBM set up a skunkworks in Boca Raton, Florida. They proceeded to break every rule which had made IBM successful for years.

Rather than design and build everything in-house, IBM brought together a ragtag collection of more-or-less standard, off-the-shelf, third-party parts and integrated them into a pretty decent, but not spectacular, hardware platform. Lacking anything in-house capable of tying it all together, they worked out a deal with a rebellious upstart from Seattle called Microsoft. They agreed to supply IBM with a version of their MS-DOS operating system on short notice. Wisely, IBM also ensured that popular software applications, like VisiCalc and Wordstar, were at least in the process of being ported over to IBM’s new machine.

The only uniquely IBM value brought to this new project was the revered build quality inherited from the Big Blue of old. The IBM PC weighed a ton and owners delighted in that. The keyboard had a luxurious, tactile feel reminiscent of IBM Selectric typewriters last seen in Typing 11 in high school. Detractors, however, were quick to point out that despite its vastly superior look-and-feel, the IBM PC was actually not that much more capable than the fully tricked out Apple IIs we had been selling for a couple of years and for much less money. It didn’t matter in the least. The very same university professors and raised floor mavens were back. Those who had dismissed our pleadings to that very moment were arriving in droves and forking over their cash for their own personal IBM without a second thought.

In an instant, the folksy hobby types and chatty enthusiasts had been unceremoniously shoved aside and it was all business from there on in. At the same time, IBMers of old must have been left scratching their collective heads and wondering what had become of their rarified, country club, employment-for-life world. The ground seemed to shift and roll beneath all of our feet.

Johannes Gutenberg printed about 180 copies of his eponymous Bible, only 49 of which survived. Short of finding a warehouse somewhere with thousands of previously undiscovered copies, the 49 represent the substantial evidence of Gutenberg’s invention credited with launching the modern age. Before his movable type printing press, the dissemination of knowledge was limited to how fast it could spread from one set of lips to another pair of ears. After Gutenberg it was limited only by how fast you could churn out copies of the latest pageturner and get them into the hands of a population eager to lift itself out of the filth and pestilance of the dark ages. Gutenberg had given birth to the early ancestor of the Information Age.

I sometimes wonder if those passing by Gutenberg’s workshop in Mainz, Germany in the 1400s would have had the slightest clue what was going on inside, never mind the juggernaut his printing press would unleash. Did fans of movable type who had been experimenting with their own versions gather on Saturday mornings and waste Gutenberg’s time with idle chatter? Maybe. Did anybody recognize his work as a turning point in human history? Likely not, I think. No one person would have lived long enough to fully witness the earth-shattering impact Gutenberg’s work would have. It’s only looking back across a half dozen centuries that it became evident that was the case.

The ComputerLand store on West Broadway was not any version of Gutenberg’s workshop. In fact, our concerns in that cluttered little store were a parallel, puny universe to those milestones of human development. However, the corner of Broadway and Arbutus was at least within the blast radius of the new Information Age which had just begun. I am grateful for the observation perch I had. I’m also grateful to have felt, first hand, the shockwave and the seismic tremor of its arrival, and to be smart enough to know what it was.

©2018 Terence C. Gannon

Thank you so much for reading! If you prefer, this essay is also available as an episode on the Not There Yet podcast, read by the author.

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