Will personal computers raise or lower educational standards? Magazines from the mid-seventies asked that question before most people knew the term “personal computer” or had access to the internet. Reading those forty year old articles is a good way to explore whether we’ve made progress, or are simply asking the same questions. Even though the hardware used in schools now includes tablets and phones as well as desk top computers, and they’re all connected into a vast network, it’s not clear that students are performing better academically.
Teachers, students, business people and hobbyists all relied on a growing number of magazines to educate themselves about electronics, computer software and the myriad ways computers could be used. We’re protecting such publications, particularly ones that reflect the name of our parent nonprofit organization, LO*OP Center, Inc. One example (item #1018 in our catalog) is People’s Computer Magazine (volume 7 number 3) from November-December 1978. It’s useful in researching questions about the impact of computing on learning and can lead to a wide variety of other research topics. The 1970s was a dynamic era that laid the groundwork for our still dynamically-changing present.
People learned about computers and computing from other people, hence, the appropriately named magazine “People’s Computer Company” was started in 1972. By the time our example issue was printed, the name had become People’s Computers and was just about to become Recreational Computing. Two years later, it became part of Compute! Magazine, which continued to publish until 1994. Those 22 years represent the dramatic changes in technology, the way we use it, and the nature of the publishing industry.
Browsing through the articles reveals familiar products mixed with now-forgotten topics, products, and ventures.
Speak & Spell
Speak & Spell was introduced as an educational toy that revolutionized educational electronics by using solid state components. Solid state made it lighter, simpler, easier to use, and more likely to survive a young child’s environment. The device used a voice synthesizer that prompted the child to spell the word they heard. This was far simpler than earlier games that required media like cassette tapes. It continued to sell until 1992.
Radio Shack began in 1921 to provide supplies to electronics hobbyists and audiophiles. LO*OP Center founder, Liza Loop, remembers visiting this first Radio Shack retail store with her father in the 1940s. In 1963, Tandy Corporation, a chain of leather craft stores bought Radio Shack with its 9 electronics stores and began a transition from leather to electronics. It commissioned the design of the TRS-80, one of the most popular early personal computers. Liza took a job as a computer sales person at the Radio Shack store in Santa Rosa, California so she could buy computers at the employee price and resell them at her cost to local schools. Schools at the time were not accustomed to paying retail and Radio Shack refused to offer an educational discount. Liza’s strategy made it possible to get many more computers into local classrooms. Radio Shack has finally faded, but in 1978 they were working to stay in the forefront opening fifty computer centers for sales, service, education, and general community support.
Marin Computer Center
On a more local level, the Marin Computer Center celebrated being open for a year in this issue of People’s Computers. Similar to our parent organization (LO*OP Center) David and Annie Fox established a non-profit to “bring the wonders of advanced technology to the people.” That sentiment was echoed in People’s Computer Company motto;
“Computers are mostly
used against people instead of for people
used to control people instead of to free them
time to change all that –
we need a . . .
Before hashtags like #EdTech, academics were considering whether “personal computers raise or lower educational standards.” The magazine didn’t just mention the topic. It included an article written by Howard Peele called, The Case for APL in Education. APL was the acronym for A Programming Language, a language that was already 18 years old, and that continues to be used. The question continues, and Howard Peele continues to teach at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
In 1978, typewriters were more common and less expensive than home printers, which is why hobbyists were interested in modifying their typewriters. APL, the language described in Howard Peele’s article was influenced by the available character set on the popular electric typewriter, the IBM Selectric.
Do It Yourself
We may say DIY now, but in 1978 it was assumed that most computer users would customize or create their own hardware and software.
The issue provides information for hardware.
- Turning an IBM Selectric into a printer
- Building a computer from a MICROSTAR circuit board ($1,270 in 1978 equivalent to $3380 in 2017)
- An RCA board that adds color to a monitor
- An RCA board that adds a music synthesizer
More space was devoted to free software. The original media for installing programs was a printed copy of the program that was typed in by hand. Very open source.
- Starwars Hodge
- TRS-80 Frogs
- Distance and Error Checking coders
In the 64 pages is much more information revealing the capabilities and the culture of the time. The graphics and the layout demonstrate an era when work was done by hand. People’s Computers represents a transition from manual to technological, part of the transition when culture went from being based on paper to being based on electrons.
There are also some fun reasons to browse the magazine. Bob Albrecht, founder of People’s Computer Company, had long used a dragon for a mascot, which led to some playful graphics. There was also a long-running cartoon series called FORTRAN MAN. In this episode, FM fights the “despotic Glitchmaster.”
In a demonstration of cooperation instead of competition, the back page is devoted to yet another publication that had a long history, Dr. Dobb’s Journal – Computer Calisthenics & Orthodontia, which only ceased publication in 2014.
Preserving such documents for researchers and the curious is why we’re creating our virtual museum. Even one edition, like this one, can provide a cornerstone from which to build broader research projects and histories. Tell us where it leads you.