#377: The Iron Age of Computing

OLD PC MONITOR

RECORD STORE TALES MkII: Getting More Tale
#377: The Iron Age of Computing

In 1995, the year after I started at the Record Store, we opened our first used CD store that wasn’t run entirely by a cash register. For the first time, the store had a computer, and computerized inventory! We then expanded to a third store in 1996 (the one that I managed), and this time we were going to try something new – two computers! Imagine that? In 1996, having two computers in the same store seemed like a luxury! This way, one computer could act as a cash register, while the other one was used to look up and input new inventory. In theory!

Our software was written completely in-house. Today if you want to open up a retail store, you would buy a point of sale software (POS) system. Not us; ours was entirely home grown by one guy, the uncle of the owner! I believe it was a massive long term undertaking. Meanwhile, staff members input all of the inventory manually – thousands of items.

It’s really funny to look back on this period from today’s point of view. I was not very computer literate but I learned quick. I remember that networking the two computers was a nightmare. It took months for him to get it working with our software. Everything seemed so fragile. If you sneezed funny, you could freeze the computers. By comparison to today it felt like the stone ages. We had no email, no internet, and the actual machines were not what you’d call top of the line even for back then.

Common problems we used to run into back in the day:

  • Backing the memory up. We started with a disc drive, then a tape drive, and finally a second hard drive. It used to take so long to back up our inventory every night (particularly in the tape days) that we just stopped doing it. Nobody was going to stay an hour late (unpaid) to watch this thing backup and make sure it didn’t crash. No way!
  • Inventory would disappear, or just be inaccessible. Nothing like coming in on a weekend morning to find out you can’t access the inventory! This happened due to one file that used to regularly corrupt. If a customer came in with a big box of CDs to sell, we had no choice but to run up and down along the shelves to see if we had copies of them. Couldn’t look them up any other way.
  • Running slooooow. Unfortunately customers used to take this out on the staff. I remember one of our staff, a really sweet girl named Caitlin, had just started and she was dealing with a really nasty woman. At that moment the computer decided to take a siesta. Caitlin said to the woman, “I’m sorry, my computer is running really slow.” The woman responded, “Well do something about it because I am running really fast.” Thanks for the understanding, lady.
  • We discovered that you could not input CDs on two computers at once. They would conflict with each other and give you an error.

Every few years, one of the computers would be replaced. Not with a new one, but usually with another old one that was still superior to whatever we were running. Then a year or two after that, the other computer would be replaced, and we’d keep upgrading like that without ever really running anything brand new.  But we made it work. Rivals would have loved to get their hands on our software, or our master CD pricing catalogue. The master catalogue was painstakingly inputted by just one individual. A hell of a lot of typing and hard work!*

We did the best we could with what we had available at the time. It’s absolutely incredible how much the technology has changed. My cellphone today has more computing power than our first point of sale system. Where did the time go?

*The inputting of the master catalog indirectly triggered my first experience with workplace bullying, something I have been hesitant to speak out about.  Even though it was many years ago, it’s not a good memory.  The story has been written, but it remains in the draft stage and will remain there for the time being.

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24 comments

    1. It’s true. Look at Star Trek the Next Generation. The PADD’s they were using on the enterprise are bigger and bulkier than an iPad without the screen resolution! We’re so far in the future now, we’ve passed Jean Luc Picard.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Neat story. I worked for the first bank to be computerized in Canada. I worked through the changeover and it was unbelievably hard work. We had to input all information on every account. When I look back now it was very primitive but other banks still updated passbooks (remember them?) by hand. Our branches were all linked by computer, so no more calls between branches when someone wanted to make a withdrawal. Now you can make a withdrawal at any atm, anywhere in the world. Our computer room took up one whole floor of the building and the computer had less memory than our first home computer!
    Look at the changes that your grandmother’s generation have seen. Awesome.

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  2. Man, that all sounds really labour intensive.

    I’ve worked as a temp several times in my life, between jobs, and I’ve been sent to places that (I swear) were using your old store computers for the everyday operations. It’s easy now to laugh at old computer stuff but there are still tons of places using them. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I guess. Heck, even the bank where I worked (one of Canada’s largest national banks) had waaaaaay outdated computers with tons of limitations. But they worked, and did the necessary functions, so again… There was talk of upgrading them, just after I was leaving, of course… My old boss (she’d been there 35 years) remembered when they did everything for account information with file cards. You had to dig through the bins of cards to find someone’s account! And they did debit and deposit slips by hand, so that all had to be reconciled at the end of the day. You talk about staying late after closing!

    I remember the old computing days. My buddy Michael had a Commodore 64 (that’s 64 kb!), and then my first computer was the upgrade, the Amiga 500! Imagine 500 kb! Whatever would we do with it all? Haha well, it took 6 discs to store one essay for English class in school, so… not that much?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s funny how we’d happily wait 5 minutes for dial-up connection to get a text only email on a desktop computer in the late 90s.
    Now if we can’t open an HD video within 5 seconds on a phone using a Free wifi connection somewhere, the frustration!

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  4. >The story has been written, but it remains in the draft stage

    You can’t mention it and then not publish it!

    The first time I saw the mysterious “internet” was late 1999. It’s only been a bit over fifteen years…but couldn’t imagine life without the internet anymore!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Liked this tale, Mike – computers … I just don’t get ’em. I can work them, but I have no idea what to do when they start giving me grief. Other than shout at them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well J, I’m probably not much better. Control Alt Delete is about the limit of my knowledge. I can usually guess what is wrong with my computer but not have a clue how to fix it.

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