30 Jan 2014
January 30, 2014

Houston Hodges – Hooking Up Presbyterian

January 30, 2014 0 Comment

I remember thinking it “novel”, those decades ago, when I saw religious leaders beginning to use the same computer technology I was using in vastly different ways. But that was one more example that Alvin Toffler was right when he wrote in “The Third Wave” that the Information Age would change all our lives in ways we couldn’t yet even begin to foresee. Houston Hodges was one of the people I saw leading the way in discovering how computers could enhance spirituality for those he led. I’m very happy to have his remembrance to this growing collection. – Mike

Houston Hodges, mid-1980's

Houston Hodges, mid-1980’s

My first experience of being “online” came in 1985, during a meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Although it was based in Indianapolis, I was farther west — in my eleventh-floor apartment on San Francisco Bay in California.

But I was “there” nonetheless. An electronic wizard named Merrill Cook had been inveigled into opening a miraculous new connection – via computer! — between the two sites.

Presbyterians, already, had been receiving confusing and virtually incomprehensible instructions. The claim: now it would be possible for any of us to exchange messages with the national gathering, from wherever we happened to be.

All we had to do was use a new gadget called a “modem” hitched to one’s computer. The very idea of a computer being part of a minister’s professional equipment was, itself, an innovation.

I had been in charge of computerizing the San Francisco Presbytery, one of the hundred-plus regional offices of the church body. With no experience to lean on, I’d used the Yellow Pages of the phone book to search out “Computers,” a slender section of the 1984 volumes.

I found out that there were, indeed, computers called “DEC Rainbows,” which sounded vaguely religious (as in Noah and the Ark, in which a rainbow figures prominently). I procured three or four of these formidable and arcane machines, plus an even more formidable printer. The printer used a new technology called “dot matrix printing” on “pinfold paper” … with 500 sheets attached to each other, in one long multi-folded package. By the way, it was noisy, too! We housed that thing in a plywood enclosure to absorb some of its clatter.

After I equipped the office, I invested in a personal computer for myself. This time, not another Rainbow – it used an arcane “command language” called “C/PM” that was just too hard to use.

The Yellow Pages had pointed me to a computer store, where I found something I’d never heard of — an “Apple Macintosh.” The salesperson pointed me to a gadget called a “mouse,” which I slid around on a rubberized mat. Lo and behold: I’d produced a perfect circle on the screen. I’d never been able to do that before. I was hooked!

My helpful sales rep persuaded me to add the hookup box (a 1200-baud modem) to the package, so I arrived home ready to enter the cyber-world.

When the appointed moment arrived for me to “join” the meeting in Indianapolis, I fired up my “Skinny Mac” from my eleventh floor apartment, 2000 miles to the west and typed in the requisite gibberish as instructed ….

Mirabile dictu! I witnessed a message scrolling up the small dark screen, advising me that the transmission wasn’t active yet … I should try again a bit later. I still remember the awe and appreciation I felt, seeing words I hadn’t typed come lurching through wire and onto my screen … via a simple phone call from Indiana. How ordinary this will seem to younger people today – how extraordinary it was to me!

I quickly realized that we had a new thing, a new era in communication: “free from the limitations of time and space,” no longer constrained by envelopes and stamps. That we had moved to an era of being in touch anytime, anywhere … a brand new universe.

I starting sharing the vision: a lonely Presbyterian pastor, many miles from the nearest colleague or resource center, could punch a few buttons and be in touch with helpers on every continent around the world. The Presbyterian affinity for “another meeting” could be managed from that lonesome church office anytime, anywhere.

Shortly after that “meeting”, two more galactic changes occurred in my life.

One was becoming part of a network of unseen but friendly persons from somewhere in the world, on the Unison network. Gordon Laird, a helpful United Church Canadian, offered me a manual for something called “Participate,” a set of commands one could type into the computer, to allow sending and receiving messages to others anywhere in the world.

And Jack Sharp, a Presbyterian from Baltimore, secured a number of refurbished Radio Shack M-100 tablet computers — the “foreign correspondents’ laptop computer” — which featured a built-in 300 baud modem. I think they were available for $250.

I could connect the M-100 to a couple of contacts inside the mouthpiece of a telephone — once you’d unscrewed the plastic mouthpiece from the phone. I made that connection between computer and phone innards with a pair of so-called alligator clips. (I came to know them as “Sherwin-clips,” named in honor of the esteemed Sherwin Levinson, the pioneering guru of the Unison computer network.)

And — flash! — I was “online” … connected.

It was with these innovative electronic tools that Presbynet was born, a nationwide network of individuals and offices. That network, in turn, became part of Ecunet, a worldwide collection of people of goodwill and the urge to communicate it.

The new age had dawned, and I was part of it.

About Houston Hodges:
I’m now a mostly retired Presbyterian minister, who lives in Huntsville, AL, and is Parish Associate at the Big Cove Presbyterian Church, across the mountain from Huntsville in Hampton Cove.

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