15 Jan 2014
January 15, 2014

Sherwin Levinson – The Early, Early Years

January 15, 2014 0 Comment

Without Sherwin Levinson, I would never have been called, “Planet Earth’s First Interactive Electronic Journalist.” Without him as one of my co-founders, there would never have been our TRANSCOASTAL Electronic News Service (TENS) … and I would never have covered the national political conventions, Academy Awards, and a wide range of other events interactively via computer with readers around the world. He changed my life. More important, of course, he helped blaze the path from “The Early, Early Years”, as he calls them, to the world we all interact with today. He was – and is – a zealous pioneer. — Mike

Sherwin - 1975, already a techie

Sherwin – 1975, already a techie

I knew that we’d be able to do great things with computers. I just didn’t know what those things would turn out to be.

I learned computer programming (“app writing” if you were born this century) at a National Science Foundation summer program in 1964. We had a ham radio station. It gave us the chance to “meet” total strangers from far away places and experience group chats with them. I was hooked on the idea and would have become an avid ham, were it not for the cost. But none of us ever dreamed of applying the ham radio model to “online” chats and communications via computer.

A few years later, at college, I worked for Sears as a computer operator. All Sears catalog orders from around the world came through that single center, entered on Teletype machines that sent at 50 baud. (As a frame of reference for what that felt like, the slowest DSL speed you’re likely to find today is about 30,000 times faster).

Some of the order entry clerks in various countries discovered that a “real live human being” in Chicago actually would read and notice order errors … then reply with information about necessary corrections. Periodically, they’d enter bad stock numbers on purpose just so they could include a message, like “how’s the weather in Chicago”, instead of the product description. These errors would come out on punched paper tape, which I ran through another machine to print. My replies were punched on paper tape, then transmitted using a different machine. It was laborious but, over time, we learned about each others’ homes and families. People do crave to communicate!

Skip forward about 10 years.

In 1978, my wife, Judee, saw a small piece in the Chicago Tribune about a “computer bulletin board system” (CBBS) and gave it to me. I already had a modem and terminal at home. I used them to work on spreadsheets and databases hosted on a “timeshare” system (a computer mainframe accessible remotely that allowed thousands of people to simultaneously create and run programs).

I dialed up the phone number listed in the article and found the online discussions incredibly addictive. Most of the talk centered around computers. But although there was only a single discussion area, a surprising range of topics cropped up. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CBBS for more info about CBBS.) The creator of the CBBS, Ward Christensen, also designed the first practical way to exchange computer files online.

A few months earlier, walking past Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, I’d seen a sign for a “personal computer” show. I couldn’t imagine what a personal computer could be. I’d first learned programming 14 years earlier and had worked with computers during all the intervening years, but the computers I knew were still massive, at least the size of a car.

(Interesting coincidence: Hank Mishkoff describes a connection to the Merchandise Mart, too, in his piece in this series — entered November, 2013.)

Instantly, I was hooked on “personal’ computing! I used CBBS to get advice about the best “PC” (nobody was even using that term yet.) I then started buying components as rapidly as I could afford them. The first PC I bought, in 1978, had only1 K of RAM and another 4 K of ROM (Read-Only Memory, so the machine didn’t lose its content when the computer was shut off.) By today’s standards, that was puny capability (my iPhone has 32 MILLION times as much RAM!), but it was enough to let me write programs in the BASIC programming language.

The cost of this PC ended up being astronomical – probably several weeks of take-home pay by the time I completed it. By 1979, I’d added 24 K of RAM, installed a copy of CBBS and a database (dBase II), and had begun using the PC to coordinate production and sales for my employer.

I bought my first “notebook” computer (by odd coincidence, from Randy Suess, the same guy who built the first host computer for CBBS.) Now I could communicate with my bulletin board system while traveling. Its screen was 20 characters wide by 4 lines deep, and it stored its files on a microcassette.

Inevitably, we ended up discussing a lot of things besides business on my BBS. I kept looking for better ways to connect. This worked well, and was way faster than paper mail. And unlike phone calls, there was a transcript of any discussion.

Most transformative of all, communication was no longer necessarily one-to-one. Now an entire group could participate in a “discussion” … all from their own geographies, and on their own personal schedules. The online transcript allowed any newcomer to join … catch up on the comments thus far … and then chime in, at his or her convenience.

In less than 20 years, I had progressed from pecking out slow communications on a single, slow Sears Teletype machine … to enjoying he newly enabled ability to keep pace with group discussions including participants around the world, even while traveling.

I knew I had finally experienced something great we could do with computers! Soon, I was to discover “Participate” on the Source (Parti) … a new tool that would lead to even greater possibilities for people interacting with people. The networking of today had only just begun.


Sherwin Levinson is President of S. M. Levinson & Associates, Inc., a management consulting firm with broad expertise, ranging from the effective use of technology to the use of volunteers to assist in radiation emergencies. He’s been a computer expert since high school, and has never stopped growing. With Mike Greenly and Dianne Worthington, he co-founded the Transcoastal Electronic News Services (TENS), the first exclusively online news organization, to “blog” America’s political conventions (1984 and 1988.)

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