Drawing with pencils of fire
October 6, 2010 1:08 PM   Subscribe

Alexis Madrigal is exploring the history of technology as seen through the archives of The Atlantic Monthly. (previously)
Some highlights:
Oliver Wendell Homes on photography, 1859.
Mark Twain on the telephone, 1880.
Gilbert Seldes on the first sales of TV sets, 1937.
Robert Jastrow and Homer Newell on the Apollo Program, 1963.
James Fallows on the PC, 1982.
posted by Horace Rumpole (22 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

 
Great find. Thanks OP.
posted by auto-correct at 1:13 PM on October 6, 2010


These should be fantastic. I already love what Oliver Wendell Holmes says about photography (before the Civil War):

"In all the prophecies of dreaming enthusiasts, in all the random guesses of the future conquests over matter, we do not remember any prediction of such an inconceivable wonder... No Century of Inventions includes this among its possibilities."

We can say this about most of the wonders of our age (including the internet). They are rarely predicted.
posted by Faze at 1:15 PM on October 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


Neat, thanks Horace!
posted by carter at 1:38 PM on October 6, 2010


This line from the television & radio article made me fall out of my chair:
Because of radio, more of us took setting-up exercises in the morning, with possible improvement in our health; old songs were revived, as new ones quickly exhausted their popularity. Those who could not read found a new interest; oratory was restored to its ancient glory in Presidential campaigns; the difference between the city and the country was made less, vaudeville artists got jobs, book sales increased;
Oh, if only...
posted by DiscourseMarker at 2:51 PM on October 6, 2010


Good stuff...It's amusing to read the state-of-the-art in computing ca. 1982.
posted by notsnot at 3:22 PM on October 6, 2010


Oh, if only...

Are you referring to vaudeville artists getting jobs?
posted by Faze at 3:44 PM on October 6, 2010


[this is good]

Note: It's Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., father of the famous Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
posted by John Cohen at 3:51 PM on October 6, 2010


I reject your implication that the author of Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table is not famous in his own right, but yes, that's a good point.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 4:13 PM on October 6, 2010


FWIW, I just checked the bible verses Twain mentions. They don't exist; Deuteronomy don't go that far. heh heh. Thanks Sam.
posted by charlesminus at 4:21 PM on October 6, 2010


Great, and thanks!

I'm having difficulty with the dates in the Fallows article. He writes that he was shopping for a system to do word processing in early 1979 and had to locate some engineers to build him a one-off for $4000, with tape as his external storage. But in early 1979 the Apple II was already well established, as was the Disk II floppy drive, and would have been available with floppy and software for $1200-$1500. Or he could have gotten a TRS-80 from Radio Shack, with the Electric Pencil word processing software (very buggy and crash-prone, but my wife did huge amounts of typing with it for the professor she worked for at the time.) Both the App II and the TRS-80 were heavily advertised, and not just in geeks-only magazines like Byte. Or he could have had a Pet from Commodore, or one of a zillion others now of antiquarian-techie interest only (Exidy Sorcerer, anyone?) without having to round up any consulting engineers with pocket protectors and soldering irons. In late 1979 I was shopping for my first pc also, and by the time I had the scratch saved out of my grad-student/teaching-assistant salary (summer 1979) the II+ was out and I brought one home with 64k (had the additional bank-switched memory card and could load fortran instead of BASIC), a floppy drive, and a lowercase chip (non-Apple but a popular hobbyist mod) all for a hair over $1500.

I suppose a big chunk of the $4000 was the converted IBM typewriter for paper output, but Centronics was already selling printers through Radio Shack and Epson was already selling cheap printers, like $200 list and 169.99 street. Yeah yeah, ugly dot matrix and listening to one printing was like spending Friday night at the dentist, but you don't have to sit there and listen to it like you did when you typed on a typewriter. (I kept mine inside a homemade plywood box in a closet.) Probably dot matrix was too low rent for a well-known journo, but why the rest of the custom system he describes, at a time when slick (for the day) out-of-the-box systems with software and appropriate peripherals for common tasks were not just available but already entering the mainstream?
posted by jfuller at 4:28 PM on October 6, 2010


I reject your implication that the author of Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table is not famous in his own right

I wasn't implying he's not famous; I was implying the two are easily confused.
posted by John Cohen at 4:42 PM on October 6, 2010


The first link is now returning zero results. (It worked a while ago.)
posted by John Cohen at 4:42 PM on October 6, 2010


He suggests spending no more than $6000 on a home computer for word processing. In 2010 dollars that has to be about $12000.
posted by keratacon at 5:06 PM on October 6, 2010


More often than I should, I wonder what the reaction would be from someone that -poof- appeared here from say the 1800s.

Would they lose their shit instantly? Heart attack? Start wildly throwing random punches?

How long would it take them to assimilate to modern society and could they assimilate to it?
posted by Senor Cardgage at 5:18 PM on October 6, 2010


I wasn't implying he's not famous; I was implying the two are easily confused.

Oh, I know, that was just a joke.

The first link is now returning zero results. (It worked a while ago.)


That's weird, I don't know what happened there. Must be a problem at Atlantic's end.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:30 PM on October 6, 2010


> Would they lose their shit instantly? Heart attack? Start wildly throwing random punches?

Holy shit, airplanes!
posted by mrzarquon at 5:34 PM on October 6, 2010


The first link is now returning zero results.

Looks like it's back now.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 6:04 PM on October 6, 2010


Yep. Thanks.
posted by John Cohen at 6:59 PM on October 6, 2010


these are SO COOL.
posted by The Whelk at 7:19 AM on October 7, 2010


jfuller, Fallows is so smart that he could listen to his data cassettes in his Sony WalkMan and understand the raw bits. He's like Chuck Norris With A Data Plan.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:29 AM on October 7, 2010


> Fallows is so smart that he could listen to his data cassettes in his Sony WalkMan and understand the raw bits.

Well, there you go. My App][ came with all the packaged software on both floppy and cassette, and not having any use for the cassettes I actually did put Apple Typing Tutor and Little Brick Out in an audio cassette drive and listened to the bitstream. But unlike that guy who can tell what's on a vinyl record just by looking at the grooves (as verified by James Randi) I never listened to them enough to be able to recognize them from sound alone. The best I can tell you is that both start out "hsssssss" and both end up "hsssssss" and some of the middle passages can be skipped.
posted by jfuller at 3:21 PM on October 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Some very interesting thoughts and thinking process going on. Would love to study subject myself when I have time.
posted by olia02 at 4:46 PM on October 29, 2010


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