Monday, March 30, 2009


Over the next few weeks, my thoughts often drifted to the advertisements I had seen in airline magazines, in which trim and cheerful secretaries effortlessly produced documents by typing in front of computer screens. Were these devices real? I checked with a salesman for a company called Lanier and discovered that while their word-processing system, called "No Problem," was quite real, it cost some $15,000. If I had drawn a pie chart representing my annual income, No Problem would have been a very large piece of pie. I called Wang, Digital Equipment, and some of the other big-name manufacturers and got roughly the same news. If I called the same manufacturers today, I'd hear much more encouraging news, but my options were to start writing shorter articles, go into hock, or take my chances again with Darlene.

The way out of my dilemma came from an unexpected quarter. My father-in-law often dealt with inventors who put together computer systems to monitor various industrial processes, and he thought that one of them might have the answer. On his advice, I followed a trail of leads and suggestions that eventually led me to a converted church in the farmlands of central Ohio. There, Bill Cavage, Marv Monroe, and Bill Jones, three young engineers doing business as the Optek Corporation, tinkered with disk drives, photo-sensors, and other devices in hopes of making the big sale. Optek's specialty is making machines like the one they produce for drug companies, which counts pills as they pass by at a rate of 24,000 per minute and kicks out any bottles that receive the wrong number of pills. For men who can do all this, I thought, turning a small computer into a word-processing system should be a cinch.

For a while, I was a little worried about what they would come up with, especially after my father-in-law called to ask how important it was that I be able to use both upper- and lower-case letters. But finally, for a total of about $4,000, Optek gave me the machinery I have used happily to this day.
-James Fallows, "Living with a Computer," The Atlantic, July 1982

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