Living With a Computer

A 1982 story by James Fallows perfectly captures the birth of the PC era in all its messy glory

"The process works this way. When I sit down to write a letter or start the first draft of an article, I simply type on the keyboard and the words appear on the screen."

With these words, Atlantic readers entered the personal computer era through James Fallows' landmark July 1982 feature, "Living With a Computer." The piece is a finely observed quest through the wild technological moment in which new machines became accessible to individuals. Looking back, we almost can't believe how much has changed.

Nearly all of the systems that allowed people to get work done without computers have withered away. "What was so exciting? Merely the elimination of all drudgery, excerpt for the fundamental drudgery of figuring out what to say," he wrote. People used to type and retype and retype. This hasn't been a part of our lives for 25 years. It's also amazing to read Fallows describe wanting to electronically send his work to The Atlantic instead of "fighting the crowds at the Express Mail window." Crowds at the Express Mail window?!

Nearly all the companies building system components that Fallows mentioned are gone or bit players now: Optek, Ball Corporation (of canning jar fame), Lanier, Wang, Digital Research, Heath-Zenith, Victor. As Fallows noted, it was like the automobile industry of 1910, "a thousand little hustlers trying to claim a piece of the action." Neither Apple nor Microsoft made it onto his radar.

But where Fallows' article is most fascinating is his intuition that the computer, more than any other technological artifact, was changing his relationship with his family. He had become "hopelessly addicted" to it, staying up into the wee hours of the morning for months learning BASIC, a programming language, and nearly destroying his health in the process.

The shape computers rounded into back in the mid-1980s is the shape they still have today. But the iPad and other high-powered, mobile devices are challenging the idea that a computer's primary purpose is the processing of words as mediated by a keyboard.

All of which makes it a perfect time to revisit this perfectly observed portrait of one individual's world Before and After the Computer.

I'D SELL MY COMPUTER before I'd sell my children. But the kids better watch their step. When have the children helped me meet a deadline? When has the computer dragged in a dead cat it found in the back yard?

The Processor Technology SOL-20 came into my life when Darlene went out. It was a bleak, frigid day in January of 1979, and I was finishing a long article for this magazine. The final draft ran for 100 pages, double-spaced. Interminable as it may have seemed to those who read it, it seemed far longer to me, for through the various stages of composition I had typed the whole thing nine or ten times. My system of writing was to type my way through successive drafts until their ungainliness quotient declined. This consumed much paper and time. In the case of that article, it consumed so much time that, as the deadline day drew near, I knew I had no chance of retyping a legible copy to send to the home office.

I turned hopefully to the services sector of our economy. I picked a temporary-secretary agency out of the phone book and was greeted the next morning by a gum-chewing young woman named Darlene. I escorted her to my basement office and explained the challenge. The manuscript had to leave my house by 6:30 the following evening. No sweat, I thought, now that a professional is on hand.

But five hours after Darlene's arrival, I glanced at the product of her efforts. Stacked in a neat pile next to the typewriter were eight completed pages. This worked out to a typing rate of about six and a half words per minute. In fairness to Darlene, she had come to a near-total halt on first encountering the word "Brzezinski" and never fully regained her stride. Still, at this pace Darlene and I would both be dead--first I'd kill her, then I'd kill myself--before she came close to finishing the piece. Hustling her out the door at the end of the day, with $49 in wages in her pocket and eleven pages of finished manuscript left behind, I trudged downstairs to face the typewriter myself. Twenty-four hours later, I handed the bulky parcel to the Federal Express man and said, "Never again."

Read the rest of Fallows' "Living With a Computer."

Revisit more pieces from The Atlantic's archives with the Technology Channel.