Computer History Vignettes

By Bob Bemer

Note - This is a faithful copy of my article in The Reader's Forum, Datamation Magazine of 1984 Sep 15. Some things have changed very much in the 16 years since this was first published. Some remain much the same. Certainly this vignette could be a basis for an analysis of the effect of PCs on the workplace. Students!

It was shortly after I took early retirement from Honeywell, so it must have been September 1982 when Paolo Soleri, the noted architect, brought a group of his disciples and workers to Phoenix for discussions with several HIS people. The topic was the proper integration of computers into the house and office architecture of the future. For Soleri is a futurist in action, in the process of building a city called Arcosanti, in the desert north of Phoenix. I was invited because I had been involved in using a computer from home since 1972 [Note: actually 1966, via a Model 33 Teletype].

I had considered the matter before that, however. At the first Software Engineering Conference in Garmisch, Germany, in October 1968, I had met Dr. Edward David, then in charge of the Picturephone project at Bell Laboratories. I was planning to build a house atop an old volcano in Phoenix, and wanted to plan it as much as possible for future computer work. Even then we sensed the tremendous potential of integrating computers and communications. The house would be sited clear of interference for microwave, if that option should open. A wall would be reserved for a holographic screen, if that science fiction should come true.

Ed said he would try to get me the first Picturephone in Arizona as a test bed, and recommended bringing in 25 telephone lines to the house as a precaution for high bandwidth requirements. I had to go quite high in the hierarchy of Mountain Bell to get that done. Everyone thought I was out of my mind to want 25 telephones! Finally they agreed, and put in quite a fancy switchbox, at no particular cost to me at that time, with AT&T still integral.

The Picturephone project did not fare well in the original two cities chosen for test marketing. In addition, Dr. David left the project to become President Nixon's Science Advisor. I did have a need for the lines, however. In 1972, I became editor of the Honeywell Computer Journal, a now-defunct magazine that we nevertheless published well enough at that time to win over Scientific American in a contest sponsored by the Printing Industries of America.

Writing and creative work is not called up by opening the tap between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Inspirations really do come at odd hours. I convinced Honeywell to tie one of my lines to its telephone switching network, and brought home one of their Terminet 300s -- a hardcopy terminal, since there were few video screen terminals in existence at that time, and they were not fitted out for word processing. That term, you may recall, was unknown then. I was setting out to do it, however, because we were going to put on magnetic tape the files we created on a Honeywell computer, to take to Datagraphics, a Phoenix firm, for photocomposition directly from our own copy. But that is a different story, and has nothing to do with working at home.

Although the journal ceased publication in 1974, whereupon I returned to more of a programmer status, I discovered (rediscovered?) that programming, too, is creative work. From then until this day, I apparently program during my sleep, and cannot wait to get it into a permfile on the computer. What with showering, dressing, breakfasting, and driving to work -- I could possibly lose the most important parts of my new code.

So I have worked at home for over a decade. This qualifies me, I believe, to assert some of the advantages and disadvantages of this mode of operation, perhaps in a manner that will amuse as well as instruct.

First, are you married? If so, your spouse is obviously the key element in the way you work, Mine, a woman, knew little of the technical details of the computer profession despite having been the receptionist for IBM World Headquarters. Her most pressing concern was why didn't I go to the office more? Wouldn't Honeywell fire me for not being there so someone could check on whether I was actually producing something useful? Eventually she began to see articles in periodicals and newspapers about this mode of working and became more comfortable with it. I got no pioneering credits, however.

Here are some of the advantages of this mode of work:

There are, however, some disadvantages:

Now we discuss the relative physical comforts of the home office vs. the office office. You may think I am going to discuss the square footage and the desk available. I am not.

The advantages:

The disadvantages:

The last comparison is on the matter of intellectual stimulation and ongoing education. In the meeting with Paolo Soleri, I was introduced as an ardent advocate of working alone (they didn't say at home, which is different). I protested vigorously, saying that there were two types of information transfer -- directed and broadcast -- and they must not be confused.

The advantages:

The disadvantages:

Working at home is advantageous in more ways than just cutting transportation costs, but I think it has been successful only because I have not acted the hermit as a result of it. Having my own business would be less effective without my ties to Honeywell -- using new software as it is tested, reading and following those good mail suggestions, and talking to people when I go to pick up listings from the page printer. These are my links to broadcast information. With them I can function effectively at home, via directed information, without becoming out-of-date.

Before sending in this article for publication, I naturally composed it into a readable draft, and notified a friend or two by electronic mail, to get their usual good ideas and have them catch mistakes.

One was the Gerry Despain just mentioned. I thought his comments could add a certain flavor, and validate and augment my own experience:

"Being at Camelback, I sometimes feel left out of 'broadcast' information myself. There is not a large group of us, and some of the people I would like to be in closer communication with are at the Deer Valley Plant.

So even working in an office sometimes requires overt action to involve oneself in broadcast information. It is partly to satisfy these needs that I spend time every day in reading the Multics forums. Even for people at Deer Valley, the forums give access to discussions carried on by people all over the country (in fact, the world) that is more like broadcast than directed information.

One of the things I miss at home is easy access to a printer -- or in your case a high-speed printer. I have only one telephone line. My wife wishes I had 25.

Working at home you are more susceptible to problems. For example, parity errors and "RETRANSMIT LAST LINE" for 24 hours every time we have a heavy rain (or our neighbor waters his garden -- in the middle of which is our telephone post), or lightning hits on mountaintops.

Is Moon Mountain really of volcanic origin?"

My kudos to the electronic meeting software are endorsed, and the answer is yes, Gerry.

Note: A later and more detailed historical perspective on working with computers from home is found in Home Terminals by Tom Van Vleck. If you read my piece this far, you'll love his.

Back to History Index            Back to Home Page