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Before there was Photoshop

vista video graphics adapter circa 1987

I don’t know how many thousands of dollars this baby cost new. Several, many. Can you get a feel for the scale of it? I should have shot the picture next to a Junior High School gymnasium for comparison. This is a Truevision videographics adapter, but everybody called it a Targa board. They were the only game in town for image manipulation in 1987.

Before there was Photoshop, there was this. Before there was this, people had a touching and almost religious faith in the veracity of photographs. It was my job to crush those tender feelings under the heel of my sneaker.

Truth is, we didn’t really need the bzillion dollars worth of graphics computing we bought in the ’80s. In some measure, the main purpose was to make our customers go, “woo!” My computer room was a stop on the company tour for every client. My boss would keep up a snappy patter about what the machines were capable of while I demonstrated in real-time. Like a freak show.

Or sometimes an engineer would drop me the client’s annual report before a meeting, and I would digitize a picture of their headquarters and set fire to it. They walk into the meeting, see a picture of a half-destroyed Conglamco Industries’ flagship facility projected on the back wall and dive for the phones. Ah, it was sweet.

Then there was a time I almost bought myself a lifetime of unwanted attention from the Feds. See, somebody was going to talk to Boeing, and he gave me this really crappy, blurry picture of a jet to use on the title slide. That wasn’t right, so I cleaned it up. Sharpened it, drew in the obvious lines. My boss saw it and nearly wet himself; it was the first released photo of a certain stealth bomber; it was supposed to be all blurry.

All our computer graphics stuff lived in a small, purpose-built room with a real door. A real door, and walls that went all the way to the ceiling. It was that important. Two complete graphics workstations, five monitors, assorted cameras and bernoulli boxes. Things that whirred and things that hissed, blinking LEDs of every color (except blue…those came later). The bridge of the Enterprise wasn’t a patch on it. The whole room worked on one circuit that was operated by a single knife switch by the door. I got to work before dawn and it was my great privilege to hit that switch and bring the whole glittering, wheezing chromium beast to life every morning.

I couldn’t possibly have used this board. It was nonstandard in every way. But my boss is a great thrower-awayer of things, and I’m a hoarder. (They had to wait until I was on vacation to biff our original three computers: an IBM XT and two ATs. Oh, god. Where are they now?). And I have the monitor that this board drove (also useless). But, you know…it just wasn’t fitting to let something this amazing and world-changing go into a dumpster. It had earned itself a flaming Viking funeral ship, at the very least.

Eh. I’m sure I’ve told you guys these tired old stories before, in some thread or other. Indulge me. It makes it easier to say goodbye.


Comment from Steamboat McGoo
Time: August 21, 2007, 7:10 pm

Aaaww…look at the widdle ram daughter boards! They so cutesy! And…and…are those address decoders and/or bus drivers up there on the edge – like little sentinals – gate-keeping access to the ram fambly?

That’ so cute.

Weasel! Are you implying you’re getting RID of it???!?

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: August 21, 2007, 7:13 pm

You want it, McGoo? It’s yours for an address.

Comment from Steamboat McGoo
Time: August 21, 2007, 7:15 pm


Comment from Steamboat McGoo
Time: August 21, 2007, 7:44 pm

I sent you a photo of some property too, Weas, so don’t be alarmed at the attachment.

Comment from Steamboat McGoo
Time: August 22, 2007, 9:19 am

Off-topic but:

Record numbers of folks are leaving the UK, Weasel. See:


The way I figure it, soon England will be empty except for you and a few other die-hard Brit-like folk.

If that happens, can I have the White Cliffs of Dover? I want to sing the song of the same name and shoot skeet there.

…And what the f*** does that “why=the_teeth” mean in the link? It looks threatening. Should I brush again this morning just to be safe?

…And yes indeed, I am really coffee-enhanced at the moment. Everything…vibrates. Bye.

Comment from Pupster
Time: August 22, 2007, 11:31 am

I met a soon-to-be retiring gentleman on the campus of a local university, who told me that the first 1 MEG of memory he was able to purchase was delivered by box car and installed with a fork-lift. One of the original “Super Computers”.

Comment from Steamboat McGoo
Time: August 22, 2007, 11:48 am

I wonder – Musta been one of those magnetic core memories. God those things were so neat! And so huge! They combined very pretty mostly-discrete electronics, itty-bitty torroidal cores (which always look futuristic to me), and……wait for it………….knitting! Those woven wired arrays of elements always facinated me.

BTW: I knew a co-worker who actually worked as a tech repairing them at one time.

Comment from Dawn
Time: August 22, 2007, 1:03 pm

I saw a model of one once in the Smithsonian.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: August 22, 2007, 1:13 pm

I used to spend a week at the Smithsonian every year. You never see it all.

We’re a funny old species; forever misreading the trend line. Computers were big and all we could imagine is that they would get bigger. It was a future of huge, godlike machines we were braced for. Nobody was expecting little machines that Mom could use to store her recipes (not that this sort of hypothetical application ever panned out, not once Mom realized she’d have to input those recipes for herself).

Well, maybe McGoo saw it coming, but the sci fi writers and arty types sure didn’t. We grossly misunderstood the kinds of things computers would be good at, too. We were sure computers would accurately predict weather any day now, but would never be able to beat a human being at chess. We couldn’t wrap our heads around machines that were very stupid and very fast. We thought they’d have to reason to play chess; it never occurred to anyone then they could just have the machine try every single possible move.

Comment from Pupster
Time: August 22, 2007, 2:25 pm

‘very stupid and very fast’ will be my first tattoo.

Comment from Steamboat McGoo
Time: August 22, 2007, 2:27 pm

Hell, I saw nothing coming, Weas! (But my Dad did – bless him). Except maybe that I believed (and still do) that life is a duplicatible electro-chemical process in its’ entirety, having no magic involved.

…And I’m probably wrong. Like Lokki, I have a kind of history…

Speaking of sci-fi, I recently reread some old 60’s stuff. One thing I repeatedly noted is that they climbed in and out of their futuristic flying cars and personal rocket ships – but always had to pull over and find a telephone booth to call anyone.

God did the writers miss that one. And its soooo obvious in hindsight. Portable phones. Duh!

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: August 22, 2007, 2:44 pm

I watched Alien again a couple of years ago. The worst sore thumb? They all smoked.

Comment from Steamboat McGoo
Time: August 22, 2007, 3:36 pm

Yeah. I can’t believe any company (or crewmember) would allow smoking on a spaceship out in space. It’ll never happen. Waaay too stupid. Waaay too dangerous.

Comment from jwpaine
Time: August 22, 2007, 4:07 pm

Ah, DIP switches. Configuring those lightning fast 300-baud internal modems or worse–a combo card–was always such fun.

Comment from Dawn
Time: August 22, 2007, 4:46 pm

I always thought it was strange that the Navy allows submariners to smoke when the sub is underway. I thought that was just asking for trouble.

Comment from Lokki
Time: August 22, 2007, 6:55 pm

First – I am not a programmer, just a humble user. I did take programming in college, but never took it very seriously. I figured that any company big enough to own its own computer would never let an amateur like me touch it. In 1974, this seemed like a very reasonable attitude.

When I first started out using computers, it was 1977. We had operator terminals made by Burroughs. They weren’t even CRT’s. They were like big, big desks with a typewriter (with keys that slapped a ribbon -not even an IBM ball!) built into the middle of the desk. The left desk drawer area had some kind of a big hard drive rumbling in it.
I could type much faster than it could slap the ribbon and print what we typed onto those big sheets of paper.
Those terminals rumbled and shook like old steam locomotives.

I also remember the first email that I ever received. That was in 1984. They had to call me up to tell me to go and read my email. IThe email system was called EMC2, if that means anything to anyone.

Nowadays I carry a crackberry, day and night.

Comment from Steamboat McGoo
Time: August 23, 2007, 7:35 am

Lokki – my story is almost the mirror-image of yours – and I suspect we’re of the same age and generation. I wallowed in computers and programing (Fortran!) all through college and my first ~5 years as a professional engineer. I burned out on programming but have never ceased loving hardware design and analysis/simulation.

But now I will not carry a cell phone, don’t own a crackberry or any other pda, and my only laptop is old and on permanent loan elsewhere. I even still have one phone with a CORD!

I’m not senile – I simply got tired of all the new toys. Ya can’t possibly have all of ’em and learn to use them all.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: August 23, 2007, 8:07 am

I had absolutely no intention of getting anywhere near a computer when my office bought our first one in 1985. I was sure there must be math involved. Me, I was a artiste. When they installed that first turnkey graphics workstation and I watched my boss bumbling around with it, I was instantly, hopelessly hooked. I’ve never been so utterly absorbed by anything in my life as I was by computers that first twenty years or so.

Used to be, though, we’d get a new software package and I’d be, like, “yay! A new software package to play with!” Now, I’m like, “oh, shit. I have to learn a buttload of new stuff.”

I don’t think I want to chase the technology for the rest of my life.

Comment from Steamboat McGoo
Time: August 23, 2007, 8:18 am


After a while – I hate to say – the thrill is gone. Been there, done that. Got the tee-shirt.

I mean, (for instance) how many programming languages am I supposed to learn? I figure I know (used to, anyway) 4-5 moderately well and have passing familiarity with half-dozen more – including all the assembler-types and oddball ones. It gets fuckin’ OLD!

Not to say that occasionally something really, really neat doesn’t come out.

Comment from Gnus
Time: August 23, 2007, 10:57 am

Shoot, back when I started, we had to walk a mile and back to get to a terminal. It was uphill both ways, too. We had the old 99 key mechanical calculators, the ones that the dials spun and they’d scoot over one position and spin ’em again, and so on. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven ’cause I had my very own desk, and I could leave stuff in the drawers and it’d still be there next day. And we quit at 4:15PM and only worked five days.

Anywho, our computer took up a whole room, and the most interesting part to watch was the card sorter. Everything else, excepting the key punch machines, just sort of sat there and hummed and blinked once in a while. I knew for damn sure they wouldn’t let an idiot like me mess with any of that stuff.

Good times.

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