Paleotechnology: A Curious Glimpse Into An 80s Computer Book

cover 1986


THERE”S always a good time to be had touring through old computer books, especially if there’s lots to point at and laugh condescendingly. Technology has advanced so exponentially that a 1980s computer textbook may as well be ancient Sanskrit written on palm leaves. Suffice it to say, things have come a long way in just a short amount of time, and it’s a lot of fun to look back. So, let’s jump into Living With Computers by Patrick G. McKeown (1986).




“A complete computer system – user, software, CPU, internal memory, secondary storage, keyboard, monitor, and printer – is shown here.”

Below each picture from the book, I will copy the image captions verbatim. In this case I find it interesting that they included “user” as part of the computer system. Also take note of the hulking behemoth that served as a computer monitor in ’86. Those things were so damn heavy you needed a hydraulic wench to move it five inches.




“Zap Mail is a form of electronic mail that allows a user to send a document across the United States in the same day.”

Zap Mail was a horribly complicated and expensive fax service provided by Federal Express which started in 1984. Basically, it went like this: (1) a FedEx delivery guy comes and picks up your document and brings it back to their station where they keep the hallowed fax machine. (2) The document gets faxed to another FedEx location which also happens to have the expensive and amazing fax machine. It’s hopefully somewhat nearby your intended destination, so (3) another delivery dude drives the fax over to your ultimate destination.

If that seems confusing and utterly ridiculous, then you’ll understand why the Zap Mail died a horrible death a mere two years after its inception.




“A mainframe is a very large and expensive computer (usually costing over $1 million) that requires a special support staff and a special physical environment (for example, an air conditioned area).”

Adjusted for inflation, that’s approximately 2,134,000 USD (1,284,000 GBP). I’m no computer expert, but that seems a bit steep. It’s even more unbelievable when you consider that you can get a decent mainframe these days for around 77,000 USD that can do exponentially more than this ’86 model.




“Computer users can choose from a wide range of applications. Families find that the personal computer and printer can be used for both work and play in the home.”

That table used to be where he ate his ham sandwiches and drank cold beer. Now it’s where this infernal machine makes its nest. If only the manufacturers of the monitor had thought to include slots to make toast, things might actually be okay.




“The office information system converts field data to a form that can be entered into the computerized data base.”

The modern office environment with its endless honeycomb of cubicles housing data entry zombies has officially begun. Can somebody please hurry up and invent a time machine so I can go back there and tell them it’s not worth it?




“Using personal budgeting software, a family can better track finances and plan for future expenditures.”

Now you can do personal finances on the computer. And since you’ve spent your last cent to purchase this contraption, you’ll be needing those finance programs more than ever.




“Computer networks can offer several types of services. The Electronic Mall is only one of many telecommunications services offered to subscribers by CompuServe and The Source. When a company needs to send mail electronically, the digital facsimile transceiver can send a business document anywhere in the world in less than 30 seconds.”

Now it’s hard to imagine a time when we weren’t tethered to the network. What began as a glorious freedom – to be constantly within reach, to go “paperless”, to send and receive documents with ease – has turned into a curse of sorts. I won’t pretend to be a Luddite (especially considering this very article is a web document), but I will say that the First World is officially cyberwhipped, and it all began with clunky equipment shown above.




“A home computer can draw a family together; different generations find enjoyment in friendly competition in computer games.”

Now, dear ol’ dad can play Grand Theft Auto V with his teenage son. Oh, the memories the can share as they torture and kill people without remorse.




“Tape secondary storage takes many forms. The computer operator is mounting a tape on the tape drive so a mainframe or minicomputer user can access the data stored on the tape.”

If you can’t get enough of these whirring leviathans of plastic and steel, I suggest you check out an earlier article When Computers Were Giant. Call it a fascination, call it Data Processing Porn – I can’t get enough of these old gargantuan reel-to-reel computers.




“Bill Gates and Paul Allen, the founders of Microsoft, are the developers of the first BASIC for personal computers.”

Today, Gates is worth around $77 billion and Microsoft co-founder, Allen, is worth around $15 billion. To those of you keeping score, that’s freaking $102 billion between these two rather unimpressive looking gentlemen.




This picture doesn’t have a caption, but I don’t need one to tell me what’s going on here. Clearly, they are using a 3D printer to create carpet squares.




“The environment of a student’s academic subsystem includes fellow students and computers.”

More accurately, a student’s subsystem includes computers, dangerous quantities of drugs and alcohol, and sex without consequences. But I won’t quibble over details.

There’s plenty more of this book left, but I suppose this is a good point to call it a day. I enjoyed it, and I hope you did as well.

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