Behold the Zenith Z-19

This column first appeared in The Paris Review.

The Zenith Z-19 is not a computer. It’s an end point of memory and desire, a vanishing horizon, a terminus, a terminal. It is also certainly not a monitor.

In 1979 my family’s Zenith Z-19 sat dull-eyed on a whitewashed, built-in desk in my parents’ L-shaped bedroom in New Hampshire. That year I was ten, and I was never not at that terminal. I beheld my Zenith Z-19 as I never had, and never will, not even close, observe a great painting or statue at Angkor Wat or the Vatican. I will never gaze at the aurora borealis that way — something as wordless, undying and not mine as the night sky? Frankly I find it hard to believe stars hold more than the polite interest of other people.

Was it flat? It was, to the touch. You could jab in, past the hard, battleship-hued casing, touching a rectangular screen with pleasing dimensions that drew on the golden mean. Whatever static my fingers lifted, I remember it as minor, but I distinctly remember the uppermost layer of that machine’s complexion to be petal-soft and cool — poreless, scaleless, hairless, but vibrating with life like a mammal. I can see it now, in a cramped image, on my tarty MacBook pixmap, where the old terminal’s recessive palate seems despairingly out of place. On Wikipedia, the screen plays as olive drab — but drab it was not.

Did we really acquire our Zenith Z-19 in ’79? I’m freshly skeptical. Reluctantly, I fact-check, matching my fanciful memories to the timeline of Zenith Data Systems. If we did have our terminal when I was ten, then the family, in our mock Colonial in the New Hampshire woods, were suspiciously au courant. Woods people in sync with, no less, the programmers of Microsoft — that Angkor Wat of engineering — on the opposing corner of our nation’s map.

Says Wikipedia: “Microsoft programmers of the early 1980s did much of their work using Zenith Z-19 and Z-29 CRT display terminals hooked to central mainframe computers.” Well, well, well — I also did much of my work using a Zenith Z-19 display terminal hooked to a central mainframe computer! That’s me there, a ten year old, at the selfsame Zenith Z-19 display terminal, not programming nothing, not building Microsoft. Instead I was playing Xcaliber.

Xcaliber hosted a game-turned-chatroom called Conference XYZ, or the Con, that system programmers had whipped up for Dartmouth College, where my father, in a separate department, taught English. The treasures of Conference XYZ — other people — were reached from my Z-19 via a rubber-lined coupler that sucked on the receiver of the family phone. This device coupled the town’s heaving mainframe and me to make one of the earliest computer networks. Conference XYZ was social life, where social life is also a game.

In three dimensions I was an aspiring teenager, but on the Con I was Athena, a glorious sage and verbal archer who professed to Apollo and Claude and other mysterious players a passion for partying and a disdain for Reaganomics. As we teased, quarreled, and exchanged art made of ampersands, the mainframe to which I prayed — summoning my Con with the squeal and crash of information — buzzed and rattled in the Dartmouth yard (Kiewit Computing Center, a three-minute stroll from the town’s village green, housed it).

Zenith Data Systems wasn’t even founded until 1979, so I must be trying too hard to seem like a prodigy. But, I learn, the very first Z-19s bore the logo of Heathkit, a company Zenith acquired in 1977. I believe I saw that red logo on my terminal, come to think of it, which they seem to have retained in the early days of the 1977 acquisition. So maybe I’m right.

In fact, in my memory the logo registered as Healthkit, which remained a mystery, despite my nagging sense that there were medical consequences to my terminal rapture. As I played my adventure game, as it devolved into chat, as we Xcaliberians collectively improvised the conceits of ALL CAPS and ascii and manners around reply all that would one day be known as digital culture; as I drank deep of the black yonder behind the green phosphorescent symbols that were my field of vision, and which came at times to form such limbic madness as I love you and Good point and Who are you?; as my body pressed against its clothes from ten to fourteen, coursing with desire, my gaze was steady. I became digital and hit reproductive years at once.

The negative space between and beyond those words, which seemed to recess infinitely, world without end, but stopped short of my trembling fingertips, seemed to me the alpha-omega of a mystery I desperately needed and still every day need. It’s four billion of us now, Internet users on Earth (stop and think of that), entombed or set free in this lightless, everlasting, universal deep that I first glimpsed in my own terminal’s soundless dark. That I first thought was only mine.

Virginia Heffernan is the author of Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, available from Simon and Schuster.

TAGS 1970s, 1980s, adventure game, Angkor Wat, Athena, central mainframe computers, chat,chatroom, Conference XYZ, Dartmouth College, display terminal, early Internet, Heathkit, Internet,MacBook, Magic and Loss, mainframe, memory, Microsoft, mystery, networking, New Hampshire,Prodigy, programming, Revisited, social media, system programmers, tech, technology, terminal,Vatican, Virginia Heffernan, Wikipedia, Xcaliber, Zenith Z-19