"a tacit understanding that we’re all here to help one another..."
February 28, 2021 12:11 PM   Subscribe

"Throughout the 70s and into the 90s, groups around the world helped hapless users figure out their computer systems, learn about technology trends, and discover the latest whiz-bang applications.... the meetings often happened IRL."

There's tremendous diversity in the experiences of early to mid-era home computing. Many of these usergroups had newsletters with a special nerd elan. So the TRS-80 Newsletter became Dynamic Memories, the newsletter of the Assembly Language Journal of Merlin Programmers is called The Sourceror's Apprentice, Timex Computer users read and wrote for Time Designs. Even bigger companies were in the newsletter biz, with Infocom putting out The New Zork Times (and Questbuster, devoted to advanture games, noting when Infocom started calling them "interactive fiction"). Microcornucopia started out as a newsletter for people who worked on Ferguson Big Boards, but expanded tom include other board-based computers. These newsletters made liberal use of all the desktop publishing fonts and gratuitous female clip art.

The computers didn't all look the same either. You'd have case mods like this wooden Ohio Scientific case, meant to imitate the Apple II; another wooden enclosure for the Cosmac Super ELF; the SCELBIs which just seemed to be put into whatever was available; this Imsai VDP 40 only went so far as wood-grain; five different ways to put together a Mark-8. Heck the Cromenco even came with a video camera. In 1975! (learn about it)

By the 90s many people in the UK/US/Japan were using standard PC/Mac/Linux home computers, but there were still interesting innovations in the Soviet Union and nearby nations. And what happened? As the article says "Once personal computers went mainstream, troubleshooting them stopped being an esoteric endeavor." Many of these older computers still work, are still being repaired, and exist, in museums where they are lent out as props for movies and television. People still try to sell them and vintage computer auctions do have... a certain tone to them.

I admit, I have always been partial to the nifty colors on some of the early Digital computers like this PDP8/e or this PDP-12.

Further more thorough reading...
posted by jessamyn (14 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Shout out to the Apple Users' Society of Melbourne (AUSOM) and its parent, the Microcomputer Club of Melbourne (MICOM).

I would not have had a career in IT had I not joined these groups.

There was a widely felt sense, once IBM released its first 8088-based PC, of a rising beige tide marking the end of all the real fun; and so, in many many ways, it came to be.
posted by flabdablet at 1:22 PM on February 28 [5 favorites]

Reminds me of a line from one of Donald Barthelme's short stories about an affable engineering conference: "They were full of love and mathematics."
posted by benzenedream at 1:26 PM on February 28 [3 favorites]

Nod to the AppleCore of Memphis User Group, which apparently lasted 38 years after starting in September of 1979. They were a great source of information and contacts during my early days of computing. The first VP of that club was a colleague of my father's, which I think legitimated my purchase of an Apple ][e in the early 80s.
posted by grimjeer at 2:05 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]

The Toronto PET Users Group is still going. Would I say strong? Probably not as strong as in the early 1980s, when we had full time staff in an office and published a glossy magazine. World of Commodore, which in 1983 took the entire International Centre by Toronto Airport and would turn over several million dollars, is a small affair with perhaps 100 attendees. If you have parts or expertise that you can help someone with, you do — because you know that someone will help you in turn. There are collectors and users of all sorts of old computers in the group.

Ah, selling old computers (or as the very long running thread on the *. Acorn forum calls it: lolprice). There's always someone who thinks they've got something rare. There's always someone who thinks they can cheap you out. And yet the machines change hands, perhaps with new capacitors and power supplies, and keep going on and on.
posted by scruss at 2:06 PM on February 28 [2 favorites]

I was a long-time member of the Framingham (MA) TRS-80 Color Computer Users Group. We mostly traded software, but we would do demos and show off stuff we had written in BASIC. I was a teenager and most of the members were adults so they thought I was some whiz kid because I knew BASIC. One of the members hooked me up with these old DEC floppy drives that we somehow were able to connect to the TRS-80 Disk Controller so I got my first disk drive from them.

It truly was a golden age. Computers were new and we were all just figuring out what we could do with them.

I'm still bitter that my mom wouldn't let me go to the Chicago Rainbowfest. I mean why wouldn't you let your seventeen year old kid drive half way across the country with a couple weird 30 year olds?
posted by bondcliff at 2:27 PM on February 28 [4 favorites]

The Southern New Mexico Commodore Users Group (in the 80s) would have people type in those programs from the backs of various magazines and then save them in a runnable form and distribute during the meetings. So each person only had to type in one program now and then to get all the ones that came out.
posted by hippybear at 2:59 PM on February 28 [4 favorites]

Oh hey, that's me (the uploads of Time Designs, that is). The Timex computers are my jam, so much so that I've built an entire site trying to document the user groups, their newsletters and magazines, the 3rd party hardware and software, etc.
posted by jdfan at 4:39 PM on February 28 [4 favorites]

if you didn't like 'Halt and Catch Fire' on first view, skip ahead. It's not exactly realism, but it gets more entertaining...
posted by ovvl at 6:09 PM on February 28

I remember getting The Status Line in the mail, right after the name change. Good times.

The PDP-8 did have the best toggles! A few years back someone lent me a switch so I could CAD it up and print my own. And if you want to relive the PDP-11/70 Front Panel Experience on a (relative) budget, there's always the PiDP-11, scaled down but with all the blinkenlights.
posted by phooky at 7:06 PM on February 28 [2 favorites]

Just as a general thing, I've noticed that a tremendous amount of computer knowledge is taught and learned informally, and I don't know of any effort (anthropology? sociology?) to study this.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 5:20 AM on March 1 [2 favorites]

Oh, hey, there's a Washington Apple Pi shout-out in the article. I was a member for several years, late '80s to early '90s, and it's good to know they're still humming along. AND they have an online archive of their old journals, in which I've just found a handful of Mac game reviews I wrote.
posted by hanov3r at 9:08 AM on March 1

And if you want to relive the PDP-11/70 Front Panel Experience on a (relative) budget, there's always the PiDP-11, scaled down but with all the blinkenlights.

Holy crap! Does it run RSTS?
posted by The Bellman at 9:22 AM on March 1

Does it run RSTS?

Yup. And RSX, RT11, DOS11, and a whole bunch of Unices.
posted by scruss at 3:33 PM on March 1

Shoutout to PIBMUG, the Pasadena IBM Users' Group! Nice group of folks.
posted by blnkfrnk at 4:22 PM on March 1

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