Before the PC: “Looking Back”

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.

Recently, a YouTube video captured the reaction of present day teens to an old PC with a Windows 95 operating system. It reminded me of the days before personal computers. It hasn’t been that long ago.

As the 1980s approached, Conway High School had exactly two computers for students. They were in one math classroom to be used by the advanced math students. They did not have a hard drive because that hadn’t been developed yet. They had a large floppy disc and students had to write commands to perform activities.

A few years later, the introduction to computers class at UCA looked at pictures of massive computers in the textbook and read a history of computers. The students wrote a simple BASIC program using punch cards. They then ran the program on the big computer in the basement of the Burdick Business building. Registration for that class and others included getting the proper punch cards from the proper tables in the UCA Student Center ballroom.

As a high school and college student in the pre-PC era, writing a term paper involved going to the library card catalog to search for resources. The call letters on the card corresponded to the library shelf numbers where the books were located. Students then checked out a large stack of books or copied pages from the reserved books that could not be checked out. The closest thing to a search engine was the set of encyclopedias in the reference section.

Once all the information was gathered, the first draft of the paper was often handwritten. The paper then had to be typed in whatever format the instructor required. Since word processors were just coming into use, most papers were typed on a manual or electric typewriter. The lucky ones had corrector ribbon. White-out was close by for the others. Too many mistakes could kill your grade though so papers often had to be retyped to perfection. If multiple copies were needed, students would then have to take the paper to a local copy shop. Teachers had access to a Thermofax machine which would create a master of the worksheet or test. They would then put the master on the round drum of the duplicator that printed out multiple copies in purple ink.

Multiple pages were manually collated and hand stapled.

In the early 1990s, programs like Writing Assistant on a floppy disc provided word processing capabilities on a computer. There were still no hard drives on these PCs. Early internet access was achieved through a variety of browsers such as Netscape Navigator and Mosaic.

It was Windows 95 that introduced many to Internet Explorer, Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel. With the Windows operating system, users no longer had to type DOS commands but could click on the “desktop icons” to access programs already installed on the computer’s hard drive.

Microsoft Word allowed people to compose papers, letters and documents as they typed. That flashing cursor allowed them to insert words, whole sentences or whole paragraphs in the paper without redoing the whole document. Spell check helped them correct mistakes. Dot-matrix printers were attached to these new PCs to print out the finished document.

A new era of written communication opened with these technological advances. In a very short period of time, there were even more improvements in computer software and hardware. More recently, search engines like Google have allowed on-line research. Even those library card catalogs have been replaced with on-line catalogs.

Today’s Conway High students use cell phones, I-pads and all-in-one PCs to do research. They then write and submit their papers through Google Classroom. Teachers grade the papers and send the grades back through the program. No paper is involved. Technology is changing so fast, one can only imagine what the next innovations will be.

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