In 1982, Jim “Chico” Salmons and his buddy, David “Bear” Fitzgerald set off in search of digital life at the dawn of the microcomputer revolution. Their plan was to write stories for Softalk magazine on how early adopters were using their new Apple II computers and to generate Softalk and Apple enthusiasts.
There were no cell phones. There were no laptops. There were no digital cameras. There were no searchable Big Data stores to help provide background information. And getting their stories back to the Softalk office in California took a great deal of effort.
This year — 2015 — thirty-three years later, Jim and I are on the road in search of digital life in 21st Century America. We’re going “on the road again” taking @DPLA #SmartTrips in celebration of our both having won our battles with stage 4 cancers.
We have smartphones, laptops, tablets, and digital cameras; the works. And we can easily access the Internet while traveling, including access to the Internet Archive, the Digital Public Library of America, and untold scores of other digital sources for any information we need. And anything we write can be on line for anyone to read in just a matter of seconds.
But before I tell you our story, let’s let Jim tell you what it was like to be a Digital Pioneer at the Dawn of the Microcomputer and Digital Revolutions.
Softrek — Going Mobile in 1982
by Jim Salmons
Softrek — to the best of my knowledge — was the first fully-functional, computerized mobile editorial and business office of a nationally published magazine. Here’s what Softrek was and how it happened…
With two amazing “burn bright, burn fast” start-up ventures behind us, my business buddy Dave “Bear” Fitzgerald and I were at a “Now what?” Moment on a steamy, hot Baltimore Summer afternoon in 1981. I wistfully proposed, “Hey, Bear, would you go On The Road like Charles Kuralt if I can talk Al and Margot (Softalk owner/publishers) into letting us do it?” Bear halfheartedly said, “Sure.” So we mustered our dwindling resources and made it to the upcoming AppleFest in New York City where Softalk had a major booth and media presence.
During a seldom-quiet moment, I made the Softrek pitch and to our surprise — I was hopeful but pleasantly shocked while I believe Bear was just blindside WTF-shocked — Al said yes… with a caveat. When we came off the road, we had to relocate to southern California where I would become Director of Marketing for Softalk Publishing and Bear would be another much-needed creative staff super-techie to help Softalk handle its then explosive growth.
The idea was to be more than simply an in-the-field writing resource, we were Softalk Ambassadors of Good Will and Cheer. Once on the road, we visited local computer stores and user groups. We visited advertisers and pumped them up about what was ahead for Softalk, etc. And, of course, we got to write some great stories about all sorts of amazing people doing cool stuff with Apple computers, both maker/producer and user/consumer stories. I am forever grateful to Softalk Publishing for letting me and Bear have this wonderful adventure. But the real amazing part of this story — no, make that the truly incredible and unexpected part of this story — is what we had to do on the technical side of things so we could fulfill our mission. (It was one of those, “Be careful what you wish for, you might get it” kind of situations…)
In 1981–82 there were no portable personal microcomputers commercially available. There may have been prototypes and high-end stuff I don’t know about. I mean there were no self-contained, battery-powered personal computers that we would recognize today as laptops. Only Trekkies would imagine tech that we now know as tablets, smartphones, and all the other digital gadgets of daily life. There were microcomputers built into a rugged carrying suitcase. But the assumption of the designers of first generation consumer microcomputers was that you’d get somewhere, unpack, and plug in. So here’s what we had to do to ‘go mobile’ in 1982…
- Start with my ‘stock’ (coolest car EVER) 1973 BMW 2002.
- Rip out the glove compartment, then install a canvas strap and buckle to sling the 8-inch computer monitor under the dashboard in position for the passenger/worker. Run the AC and video cable down the console and along the drive-train hump to the rear deck.
- Rip out the backseat and make a plywood platform with eyehooks and bungee-cords so we could strap down our Apple II computer with its two floppy-disk drives on top.
- Install a hold-down strap in the trunk for a large deep-cycle 12-volt Marine battery that was trickle-charged off the engine alternator and fed to a DC-AC voltage inverter on the rear-seat platform for power to the computer and monitor.
- Buy a really long piece of ribbon cable and male-pin connectors from RadioShack to make the colorful flat cable that ran from the rear-deck computer to the keyboard in a custom plywood case to be held in your lap while working in the passenger seat.
- Make custom cables and power-line so we could pull the car up close to a pay-phone at a gas station or convenience store, drop some coin for a collect call, and slam the receiver into our acoustic coupler (modem) passed out the car window when we heard the receiving-end modem-squeal. That’s what it took to do the equivalent of e-mail and file transfer between us on the road and Softalk headquarters in North Hollywood, California.
- And since this was before digital photography, we carried pre-addressed padded envelopes with postage so we could drop exposed film in the mail to head to processing before delivery to Softalk editorial HQ where photos could meet up with story submissions prior to paste-up (no desktop publishing then either).
As crazy as it sounds to us today, this is what we had to do to ‘go mobile’ in 1982.
Softrek — Searching for Apple Users
The first part of our Softrek trip took us up through New England and upstate New York, down through Pennsylvania. After a restocking and a mobile office set-up tweak in Baltimore we headed out on the ‘Smile Route’ into the Southern states. Our primary objective was to cover the behind-the-scenes story of how Apple computers were being used at the 1982 Knoxville World’s Fair.
After the Fair, we had an interview scheduled in a remote Kentucky state park with an executive of a Louisville bank that was creatively using a network of Apples in their branch offices. We started this post-Fair leg of the trip on familiar highways. After the meeting-interview in the state park, we made a bee-line from Kentucky back to Baltimore before our next leg of the Softrek adventure. What Bear and I experienced when we left ‘the road’ part of ‘on the road’ and went ‘off the beaten track’ didn’t make it into the published story.
Here is the previously unpublished prologue to the cover story “The World’s Fair — Apples Behind the Scenes” featured in the September 1982 issue of Softalk magazine:
Had we taken a different route and means of transportation, the impact of having visited the Knoxville World’s Fair would not have been so dramatic. Returning to Baltimore by way of the tiniest back roads through rural Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, we were vividly reminded that the basis of the differentiation between the Haves and Have-Nots finds its clearest expression in Technology. There are no Apple computer retail stores in the towns along these roads. There is no need.
Technology is expressed in the tools developed as a means to the solution of the major problems which face the tool user. The folks in the remote reaches of Appalachia are struggling against the same problems which faced their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents; simple survival. Removed from the economic vitality of urban development, the opportunity for change is diminished.
Jobs are few and far between. Those few available are low-paying. Without surplus income there is no money for productivity-increasing tools. It takes all available time and energy to meet the demands of basic subsistence. These folks don’t need microcomputers to catch up. They need electricity, running water, and sewage. They are trapped in a Technology Black Hole. The Energy Crisis is a matter of cutting enough wood for the coming winter.
As we drove through this technology-poor area, word processor cranked up on our in-car computer, I couldn’t help feeling our vehicle was an exploratory probe dropped from a star-ship to investigate conditions on a newly discovered planet. We were strangers in a strange land. Science-fiction metaphors were appropriate to the moment.
The Knoxville World’s Fair might just as well have been on a planet orbiting a star in the constellation of Orion, this destination being but a few time units away at warp speed. Yet we had arrived by way of fossil-fuel-burning internal combustion at speeds that rarely topped 50 miles an hour.
Having made this journey from Technology Wonderland to the barren Tool Desert, I cannot turn on my Apple computer without thinking how lucky I am to own such a fantastically powerful device. Our childhood frustrations of having been born too soon before science-fiction becomes reality are dissolved by the realization that we are living in a world un-imagined to even the most forward thinking of just a generation before us.
Those of us with access to these state-of-the-art tools are given the opportunity to solve the problems that keep us from rising above the demands of simple survival. The challenge is to make these inevitable advancements without deepening the division between us Haves and the Have-Nots.
Such a challenge must be addressed by a marriage of scientific development and a sense of humanity, of concern for our collective welfare. And this is the context of this year’s and the previous World’s Fairs; celebrations of the human Can-Do attitude that has brought us from leaf-nibbling foragers to Tang-sucking space walkers in the blink of a Cosmic Eye.
From the moment that our cognitive abilities shifted the impact of environmental adaptation from genetic mutation of our bodies to the development of tools, the measure of our evolutionary progress has become a matter of assessing our available Technology. And just as a child stands tall to the edge of a closet door to mark the march toward adulthood, a World’s Fair is that event where we stack up our technology for a benchmark of just how far we have come since our last growth-measuring ritual.
It is only appropriate that our Apple computers have taken a significant position in contributing to the heights of technological development which are being showcased at the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Knoxville… of all places for a World’s Fair.
That was Then, This is Now…
What strikes me, Jim, most now about this reflection is just how far we’ve come technologically, yet we’ve made far too little progress applying our technology to the great and growing challenge of income and opportunity inequality. I’m pretty sure that I self-edited this ‘intro semi-rant’ out and didn’t submit it for the actual cover story that appeared in print. But I am glad I hung onto this printout to remind me just how far we’ve come, and just how far we still have to go to live up to our potential.
And together with Timlynn, I am especially grateful to have the strength, good health, and opportunity to go “back to the future” to pick up where Bear and I left off… to go “In Search of Digital Life” — this time in the 21st Century more exotic than my wildest scifi-imaginings of just 33 years ago.
Join Us on Softrek2 #SmartTrips
We hope you will join us on this adventure. As Community Reps of the Digital Public Library of America and as Content Partners of the Internet Archive, we’ll be on the road to listen and learn — our excursions are #SmartTrip adventures, by the way. It will be exciting to chronicle the local and regional impact of these important “national treasures” — the DPLA and the Archive.org truly are national treasures—but it will also be exciting to be like Johnny Appleseed, as we help to spread the word about the explosive growth of vast amounts of freely available cultural heritage information now on-line.
If you see that we’re going to be on the road in your neighborhood, give us a heads-up tweet or message. We’d love to meet our fellow Citizen Scientists, Citizen Historians, and Citizen Journalists… “To Infinity and Beyond!” :D :D
Happy-Healthy Vibes to All,
-: Jim & Timlynn :-