The Handy Uses of a Home Computer ()

This family gives new meaning to the term “early adopter”. Though at $7.50 an hour ($40 in 2007 dollars) it would almost be cheaper to send the kid to a casino to play blackjack.

|<<
<< Previous
1 of 4
|<<
<< Previous
1 of 4

The Handy Uses of a Home Computer

* Planning a dinner menu
* Balancing bank accounts
* Doing school homework
* Figuring out income tax
* Printing invitations
* Keeping the budget

Computers for the home have been envisioned by science fiction writers and engineers ever since a huge, unwieldy prototype was developed 25 years ago. The whole futuristic age they prophesied, with an omnipotent electronic monster named Horace in every living room, is still a long way from realization, but compact consumer computers have quietly entered the household. While the market hardly rivals TV sets or refrigerators, the computer-as-home-appliance is now more than just a toy for the wealthy or a mysterious instrument for technical specialists.

Those pioneer families who have one, like the Theodore Rodmans of Ardmore, Pa., have discovered their obedient machine can perform a large variety of useful functions. Dr. Rodman originally brought it home for medical research, but then his family found it could also plan mortgage payments, help out with homework, even play with the children. Although the cost is still high, computers like theirs have come within possible reach of a two-car family budget. A small, self-contained model is available for $8,000, complete. The Rodmans’ computer system, called time-sharing, uses a Teletype terminal connected to a big central unit via telephone. It costs $110 a month to rent, plus $7.50 per hour of use.

The Rodmans’ computer is no anthropomorphic robot that can accomplish physical feats. It cannot flip the light switch, monitor the thermostat or do the cooking. Rather, it is a sophisticated mental appendage with a capacity for problem-solving that is limited only by the family’s imagination. Neither Dr. Rodman nor his family had ever operated, much less programmed, a computer before a terminal was installed in their home last August. Since then they have assigned it so many chores that Mrs. Rodman says, half seriously, “It’s really become a member of the family.”

For me, the main physical effect of having a computer at home is that I’m able to spend a lot more time with my family,” says Dr. Rodman, who is a lung specialist on the faculty of Temple University medical school in Philadelphia. “For all of us the real impact is mental. Programming a computer is like thinking in a foreign language. It forces you to approach problems with a high degree of logic. Because we always have a computer handy, we turn to it with problems we never would have thought of doing on one before.”

Mrs. Rodman heads the Department of Consumer Affairs in the Philadelphia public high schools. When the budget for which she is responsible failed to match the schools’ figures, her husband fed it to their computer. Then, armed with a lengthy print-out, she confronted her startled supervisor, who had been all set to explain her errors to her by using a print-out from his computer.

David, 14, the Rodmans’ oldest son, did a similar favor for his father one night. Seeing him struggle with pencil over the family bank account, David programmed it. The Rodmans now compare every bank statement against those prepared by their machine.

The youngest Rodman, Kevin, 11, is a picky eater with tastes limited to tossed salads, pies, steaks and sloppy joes. Some nights his mother made meals he would scarcely touch. This gave his older brother, Mitchell, 13, the idea for a computer program he named, appropriately, “Eat.” Mitchell first asked Kevin all the foods he was willing to eat and divided them into categories by course. He then wrote a program that can print out, at random, a weekly menu listing dishes for each meal and day. Three thousand different meal combinations are possible. (If Kevin would eat just one more kind of salad besides tossed, there would be 6,000 possibilities.) The print-out, after serving as Mrs. Rodman’s shopping list, is posted on the kitchen wall, always with the same message that Mitchell has instructed the computer to print at the bottom: NO SUBSTITUTIONS PLEASE UNLESS ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY.

Although Kevin himself has not yet shown any interest in programming, he does interact with the machine through stored demonstration programs. One of them is the card game Black Jack. When Kevin activates the computer, it grants him an imaginary $500 to gamble with. The machine then “deals” by printing both its own and Kevin’s cards from a random selection. After totaling the visible cards, it asks if it should deal another. When each hand is finished, it computes how much of Kevin’s money is left and offers condolences if he has gone broke.

When he got the computer for his home, Dr. Rodman had no idea his family would become so involved with it. His original project, which he is still working on, was to write a program for diagnosing lung ailments through test readings. Because a successful program will mean instant written diagnoses and also teach interns, Temple University agreed to pay for it.

Because he was a novice at programming, Dr. Rodman required uninterrupted access to a computer. The service he purchases hooks his terminal, a standard Teletype, through his telephone to a large computer 90 miles away in Teaneck, N.J. When the central unit is dialed, it responds with an audio pitch. An electronic device connected to the Teletype translates the computer’s messages to print.

The computer costs $110 a month terminal rental, plus $7.50 to $11 an hour. Once a program is stored, the cost is negligible. “Eat,” for example, costs the Rodmans about 10c for a weekly run-through. The computer, of course, does the bookkeeping for the bill.

Dr. Rodman can also retrieve the program he writes at home by connecting a terminal in his office or anywhere else in the U.S. where there is a telephone. Through a time-sharing system, up to 200 remote terminals can use the central computer simultaneously because the actual time it needs to service each one is a fraction of a second. General Electric, from whom the Rodmans buy their time-sharing, also offers a library of stored prepared programs which range from the Black Jack game to stock purchase calculations. A real mass home market for computers awaits stored programs of broad practical use to homeowners.

Another impetus will come from kids who learn programming in school and accept the computer as a natural tool. Both Mitchell and David use it instead of pencil and paper to figure out their math homework. The teachers are pleased because it forces the two pupils to think out the problems. And classmates often call the boys up for assistance. Meanwhile at home spare-time programming, like “Eat,” has replaced TV as the boys’ major diversion. While both are bright, neither is an exceptional student. And as they grow older, explains Mitchell, “It would be silly not to use a computer if it’s easier and you’re used to it.”

Helping their father program is a regular household chore, and they are now better at it than he is. “One Sunday morning,” recalls Mrs. Rodman, “Ted had to plead with the boys to stop reading the funnies and please come explain to him what he was doing wrong. Since we got the computer,” she adds, “no one’s ever bored around here anymore. When the medical project is over, we’ve decided to buy our own terminal. It’s certainly a better investment than an automobile.”

Michael Shamberg

22 comments
  1. Al Bear says: April 14, 200810:58 pm

    The Handy Uses of a Home Computer

    What? no looking at porn? ;)

    And oh yes, I use mine all the time to plan dinner menus. I have my dinner menus planned until the year 3145

  2. Casandro says: April 14, 200811:34 pm

    I like the last picture.

  3. Ben Blok says: April 15, 20083:25 am

    It is indeed the perfect paperless office ;)

  4. Matthew says: April 15, 20085:21 am

    Hurrah, he’s still going strong (or was three years ago)

    http://judiciary.senate…

    I like that – it always slightly depresses me when computer pioneers die, knowing that they only had crappy 1960s and 1970s technology to play with.

  5. Mr Ascii says: April 15, 20086:12 am

    @Al Bear:
    As a veteran of 1977 computing (Sol 20), I can assure you that there was computer porn back then. Check out the “Naked Ladies” section of http://chris.com/ascii/ (NSFW if you squint) for examples. Some of those are more modern, but I fondly remember numbers 4, 5 and 7 hanging in various computer rooms.

  6. Blurgle says: April 15, 20089:08 am

    So he and the boys play games and have fun with it while she makes shopping and recipe lists.

    This is one of those days that I thank the appropriate deity for my being born in 1964, not 1944.

  7. Myles says: April 15, 20089:39 am

    This story reminds me of how once we all had or new shiny home computers the question finally occurred – “Okay what do we do with these?”

  8. Joe Max says: April 15, 20081:39 pm

    I was in 10th grade in 1970, and my school had exactly the same computer set-up as this family: teletype terminal with punched-paper tape reader/writer, telephone cradle modem, and a link to a General Electric mainframe computer at Duke University. I could write programs in BASIC-II (an IBM interpreter – the “II” didn’t mean “2″ it meant “Interim Improvement”). I remember this article when it came out! (I remember the snow monkey cover too.) I showed it to my mom to explain to her what I was doing after school so late.

    Thanks for the nostalgia!

  9. Casandro says: April 15, 20089:12 pm

    What I wonder is if they pay per “hour beeing logged in” or “hour of CPU”. If it’s per CPU then it’s actually rather cheap as, even back then, common tasks only used the computer for tiny amounts of time.

    Of course today you can build your own personal computer by using cheap microcontrollers.

  10. OOkie says: April 16, 20085:13 am

    When I was a kid I took a course on microcomputers at the National Mine Health and Safety Academy. I got to use a “timeshare” computer during that course. It was the forerunner of the internet in many ways. I didn’t know it was available to people outside of government and universities. Cool.

  11. Richard Brown says: April 16, 20085:15 am

    I don’t remember being so excited over a TTY printout as those kids in the last picture… Thanks for the memories, sometimes I forget how far we’ve come in such a short time.

  12. badnewsjones says: April 16, 20086:52 am

    What’s what that kid playing the guitar in the background of that last page?

    I guess poor Johnny’s awesome solos can’t compete with the amazing printing capabilities of the home computer.

  13. taony says: April 16, 20087:08 am

    Badnewsjones: That kid probably ended up one of the developers of Guitar Hero.

  14. Dr DUH says: April 17, 20089:28 am

    Matthew – I ain’t dead yet (and am not planning to be in the near future). I programmed my first computer in 1959, was at BBN who invented timesharing, the ARPANET, Virtual Memory, Logo – mostly during my tenure. The PDP-1 played music, the DECscope did the first computer animated film (ball bounce). We had Space War (first real animated Computer game)

    “Crappy ’60′s and ’70′s technology”?? Hey those were that days when this stuff was REAL fun. (Now I just teach Grad students how to use that stuff that was invented back then :) ) – Look what wed did/created/invented with that technology; what’s really NEW (other than faster hardware that can do all our stuff faster).

    Oh, and I use Macs.

  15. Dick Wexelblat says: April 17, 200810:01 am

    There’s something to be said for having been a computer user before words like software were invented and a hacker was someone who used an axe. I wrote my first program in 1959. It’s hard to describe the heady feeling we had in those days. We were our own bosses, we had control. The computer always did exactly what we told it to do. (Though I sometimes had a hell of a time figuring out what it was I told the computer to do.)

    I do remember one amazing event worth mentioning, I suppose. Skipping ahead to 1967 or so. Operating systems had been invented. Compilers were becoming common. I was having trouble with a compiler for an advanced (for then) programming language. It wouldn’t work with one specific program and I couldn’t figure out why. Who could help? Then I realized: I was the so-called expert. No one in the world knew more about it than I did. It was solve the problem or give up. (I did eventually solve it but it was close. Turned out it was a compiler bug. A variable name of exactly 8 letters, with the binary representation of the 7th letter ending in 1 blew the compiler! I’ll never know how I eventually figured it out.

  16. Quizzes says: May 5, 20087:43 am

    Wow now computers are used to get news, find updates, find jobs, refinance homes, enlarge your genitals, and meet your old classmates. who would have ever expected

  17. ERRCOMAN says: June 11, 20086:14 am

    So much for a “paperless society”

  18. Kitty says: September 16, 200810:29 pm

    Son David in the article is now a Doctor of Internal Medicine in PA.

  19. Carol Bremner says: October 27, 20088:43 pm

    Enjoyed the article, but had to laugh at the comment about being able to spend more time with family now that they have a computer. Not the case in a lot of families today – she says from her computer while hubby is alone watching tv.

  20. Tracy B. says: October 31, 200812:16 pm

    January 1970? I was a depressed 6th grader in those days; but I do remember that article. The computer stereotype then was a vacuum tape drive……Starting in the 7th grade our class assignments and report cards became computerized, no wonder the school sent me for counseling with a social worker.

  21. Roger says: January 21, 20095:15 pm

    Ah, My only good memories from the ’70s high school were from my 3 years of computer class.
    I had to write programs first on paper, flowcharting everything. Then when I was sure I knew what would happen with all the variables I could imagine I could use the teletype “off line” to transfer the program to punch tape (or cards depending on the machine I would be using). Only then could I dial up the main frame and start the minute meter. The program tape would be ran with the duplex turned off (so as not to waste paper having the teletype print out the program as it was sent). When the tape finished, I would type in the word “RUN” then push return linefeed and wait for the response. Sometimes it would only be a number or a few words, other times it would be a graph or geometric pattern. If it matched what I expected, I would be elated and probably act like the nerd kids in the last picture. If not, I would be disapointed and have to go back to the code lines and figure out why it didn’t work.

    I thought that was fun back then. Now I just use Mac and or Windows software and don’t jump up and down so much.

  22. Lindsay Gorrie says: November 6, 20095:40 am

    @Mr Ascii – I had Number 4 hanging in my office. Memories! Wouldn’t be allowed these days of course.

    @Dr DUH and Dick Wexelblat – I started in tech in the mid ’70s and I have trouble explaining to the younger set what it was like. You must feel like you are talking to another race!

    I got to work on electronics, computers, networking, routers and all the other bits that go to make up today’s computerised and Internet-connected world before most other people and it involved screwdrivers, soldering irons and magnifying glasses.

    I didn’t get to use tapes (except for teletype machines) but my first computer was programmed by flicking switches and pressing the “Store” button. If I remember correctly my first programme turned on a relay if an input was “on”. Eventually.

    Then came languages (I started with machine language) and the wonder of the flowchart. I still tend to flowchart every major thing I do, even if only in my head.

    Yes, the feeling at the end of the day (usually around 5AM because we in Australia are out of sync with the rest of the world) was usually a good one. It was all new and exciting. Even going wrong was something to enjoy, because it usually meant that you were closer to the result you wanted. Many mistakes became the basis of future work in unsuspected directions.

    These days most people doing “exciting” IT stuff are button pushers and board jockeys. Dull. The future possibilities for NEW things are exciting but there is very little chance for everyday people to be involved with their development because of the cost and scale of the tech involved behind the scenes nowadays.

Submit comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.