Historic Computer Funnies

By Martin Jansen, Owner of Jansen-PCINFO

Let me take you back a few years to the beginning of computers in business.  I’m not talking about mainframes that require icy cold rooms to operate.  No, I’m referring to the beginning of personal computers.

In the beginning not everyone had a computer in business.  Computer use was rationed to departments, mostly because computers were very expensive.  Back then IBM ruled the market with their new personal computers.

For storage, 5 ¼ inch floppy drives were used.  You needed two of them, one for the Disk Operating System (DOS) and one to load and run WordPerfect with a command template:

Floppy disks are where the “fun” begins.  

One day, someone in the marketing department at Humana decided that magnetic sculptures would be a fun activity for all associates.

Thousands of these units were purchased and distributed to the associates.

It wasn’t long before the help desk was getting calls from associates that their computers were not working.  The magnets on the sculpture were so powerful that they were erasing floppy drives and even the newer hard drives.  Since the cases on computers were metal, associates had stuck their floppy drives to the case with the base of the sculptures!

More Fun with Floppies

 As time went on, 5 ¼ inch floppies were replaced with 3 ½ inch floppy disks and drives with more capacity and slightly better reliability.  Associates still had the old floppy media.  One day I got a call from the computer librarian.  Someone had used scissors to cut down the larger floppy to fit in the smaller drive!  It took a couple of hours to deconstruct the drive to safely pull out the media.

Older Workers with Computers

During the early years of computers, mothers were reentering the workforce after their children were done with school.  The hiring manager obviously had not screened workers for computer skills.  One day I was called to help a new hire with her computer.  I arrived to find that she had placed the computer mouse on the floor.  She was trying to use the mouse like a sewing machine foot pedal!

Mouse Balls

Instead of the optical mice we have today, mechanical mice with rubber balls were used with computers and connected to the PS/2 port on a computer.  One person called the help desk to say that the mouse was not working.  I arrived to find that there were lots of hair and crud tied up in the mouse.  Thus the phrase “do you have dirty mouse balls?” was coined.

Water your Plants (not computer equipment)

Of course most people resided in cubicles while they worked, just as they do today.  One enterprising wood worker started making corner shelves for personal effects that usually were mounted just above the CRT monitor.

One associate decided to put a plant on the shelf.  She over-watered the plant and promptly short circuited the monitor!  Water and electronics don’t usually mix well.

Food Time

Many associates ate at their desks for breakfast and lunch to shorten their hours at work.  In the early days many companies had their own cafeterias.  Some associates were sloppier than others.  You know that a computer keyboard is really bad when the associate has to call to have their keyboard replaced because of crumbs and crud.  I know that sometimes these keyboards were trashed rather than cleaned.  Just turning the keyboard over and shaking it resulted in a pile of crud.  Gross!

Turbo Button and OS/2

Unlike most companies, we bucked the trend on Windows computers and started installing OS/2 as the operating system of choice.  This was probably because our Managed Information Systems (MIS) department was working with IBM at the time.  We were also buying computer towers (costing $2,500) with a Turbo button.  The Turbo button was to be turned off when running older DOS games like Commander Keen (not applicable to work).  Many times we received help desk calls because of slow computers only to find the Turbo button needed to be pushed in! 

By the way, our department was later renamed to Information Technology (IT) because some associates started using the derogatory phrase “Miss Information Services” for MIS.

Yes, the early days of computing in business could hardly be called the “good old days.”  It was, however, a lot of fun and a great learning experience.