Before Working Remote Was Cool

So many people are working remotely today that it’s almost a given that the technology is there to support. A discussion at the bar about this state of technology prompted me to remind someone that this has not always been the case. That conversation, combined with my recent visit to a Radio and Communications museum and some impromptu cleaning brings me to this post. I’m going to take you back in time and talk about technology some of you will remember, but your children and grandchildren may not even believe.

In the early 1990’s the company I worked for had a staff of between 35 and 50 people. It was common for about a third of those people to be traveling on any given day. I was in charge of Information Services, (what other companies called IT). The Senior Vice President of Engineering asked me to make his engineers able to be as productive on the road as they were in the office—a tall order for that era.

We had email, but it was an in-house deal. We didn’t have a website. We didn’t even have a domain name, i.e. nothing to put after the ‘@’ sign. If you had to send email to an Internet email address, we used a service offered by CompuServe. Our employees would send the email, but it would sit on our server. Every 20 minutes, our server would connect with CompuServe and exchange inbound and outbound email. So, an email from you to me and back to you would take 20-40 minutes. We thought that was amazing!

But that was if you were in our office.

If you were home, or in a hotel, you had to connect to a remote email server we had running. You did that over a regular phone line, utilizing a modem. I’m sure some of you remember that sound. As with CompuServe, our server would accept your outbound email, send you your inbound mail and drop the connection. You could read your mail, write replies, and connect again later to complete the cycle.

That sound!

The problem was making this connection while in a hotel. Most hotels did not have Data Ports on their room phones. Some had modular connections that you could disconnect from the phone and connect to your laptop, but some had phones that were hard wired to the box in the wall. We used two bits of technology to get around that problem.

For our engineers, we made a connecting cable that had a phone jack on one end and red and green alligator clips on the other end. And we gave them a screwdriver. Once in the room, they could open the wall jack, clip the red alligator clip to the red wire, the green alligator clip to the green wire and make their call. That call, by the way, required entering a 10-digit number to access AT&T’s calling card server. Then they entered the 10-digit number to reach our office. Then they entered a 15-digit account number. All of this was programmed into the modem in their laptop.

That “system” worked well for our engineers and the people in my department, they liked taking things apart. Traveling employees in other departments were given an Acoustic Coupler, a device that was literally tied to the phone handset with Velcro on one end and connected to the employee’s laptop on the other. The dialing pattern was the same, but the quality of the connection wasn’t quite as good.

While cleaning late last week, I found my old acoustic coupler. I think I will offer it to the Radio and Communication Museum. As I sit here with my laptop connected wirelessly to the Internet, I marvel at the fact that we made that Rube Goldberg connection work.

82 comments

  1. In late 1980s I worked for a startup apartment-location service in a college town. The founder was hell-bent on establishing the service before he started collecting finder’s fees. So for waaaaayyyyy too long, we provided tenants to local apartment properties, and matched renters with roommates…fer nuthin’.

    Needless to say that we became strapped for cash. Though that didn’t keep the boss from pursuing all the best bleeding-edge technology.

    Eventually, he bought a modem and set up a CompuServe account. There was a long stretch in which, after business hours, he, or his girlfriend (who did design work for us) would download clipart. Some nights it ran for several hours.

    Then one day, issued a mandate that we were to never, ever download clipart again. Nobody had even considered that since we were a little off the telecommunications beaten path, that our modem had to dial long distance (to Jacksonville, I think) and the “free” clip art costs up hundreds and hundreds of dollars.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Before I got there, he spent months collecting data on local apartments, inputting the attributes into “Business Filevision”, drawing apartment floorpans…It worked pretty well when we opened; though original database really slow.

        Though miracle of miracles, we had a hard drive die and the Apple reseller repaired it an installed a copy of Filemaker. That was so much faster.

        He put off the fee collection way too long. We’d started taking fees for just a few months when he hired a local artist to dress up our entrance way. Artist got paid two or three thousand dollars. Soon my paychecks starting bouncing :(

        Liked by 1 person

    • I do think MacGyver would be proud of some of the solutions we came up with. There’s always a new unknown region. I hope we always have people willing to explore it. Taking apart the wall jack did feel like I was in a Mission Impossible episode.

      I hadn’t seen a Daddy Longlegs for a very long time. He moved a little when Maddie got up on the step, but if you look closely, he’s sitting the corner. She gave him a sniff, but ignored him. I think he liked how warm that surface gets in the sun.

      Before email – when your computer was quiet.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Another great post, Dan. Your photos, as always, are extraordinary. I’m amazed by your “daddy longlegs”. It’s the biggest I’ve ever seen. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh, you brought a smile remembering dial up and traveling. I remember going on vacation, but running back up to the room every hour or two to check business email on an old laptop that weighed as much as a suitcase full of clothes clipped into the phone system. Those were the days – not. :-)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad it brought you a smile. The connections were unreliable, the laptops heavy and slow, but it did change the way we worked. I remember being so excited when 2400 baud modems replaced 1200 baud units. It was like magic!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have not thought about modems in a long time, Dan, but their sounds are burned into my brain. I remember seeing acoustic couplers, like the one you showed, but have never used one. We are all spoiled with high speed internet connections. I love the shadows and the Maddie’s point of view shots and, of course, the shots of Maddie and the squirrels.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I am blown away at what you and your team were able to accomplish, but mostly by your ability to even conceive how to do it! 👏👏👏👏

    That Daddy Longlegs is a doozy! Haven’t seen one of those in decades. So now the squirrels are coming in groups for their peanuts? You better stock up on peanuts before the hoarders wipe them off the shelves.

    Maddie looks so beautiful in the sun. Well, she would look beautiful in the dark! She always chooses interesting subjects for you to capture on your camera. I really like the shot of Smokey out on the limb with his peanut surrounded by all the bare limbs.

    If we don’t “talk” again before then, Happy Thanksgiving to you and the Editor and Faith and, of course, the 3 M’s. And to Mr. Hoodie Leaf, wherever his freedom has taken him!
    Ginger 🦃🦃🦃

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Ginger. I’ll be here again, but if you miss stopping by, I hope you have a Happy Thanksgiving.

      The squirrels have been coming like Ben and the boys in the opening of Bonanza – I feel like humming the theme. We didn’t have a large crop of acorns this year, and with the drought all summer, I’m not sure how much they were able to stash away. Then again, they don’t seem to be wasting away.

      I hadn’t seen a Daddy Longlegs in a very long time. We let him hang out with us. Maddie gave him a sniff, but neither were bothered by the other.

      The Engineering VP really challenged me to make things work. He appreciated everything we did, and he went to bat for me when I requested a budget increase, even when my boss wouldn’t. I got the budget and he had a department full of road-warriors before most companies knew what being mobile meant.

      Like

  6. That soundtrack brought back so many memories!! That was great, Dan. All I remember from our salesmen (at my first job) was them coming back with receipts galore and I pitied their secretaries having to go through and make some order to submit them for reimbursement. And there was that one salesman with the ‘phony’ Southern accent…that sounds just like the Southern accents I love with every day. Whew. Talk about things coming back to haunt you…
    Maddie has the best eye view, and I am so glad you take photos of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I remember the argument as to whether hotel phone charges were to be considered ‘Travel’ and taken by the department or ‘Phone’ and passed to my department. Somehow, it always came down to accounting.

      Maddie seems to have to inspect everything, but she does lead me to some nice photos.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I was thinking about the museum when you led up to that coupler, Dan — not because of when it was from, but because not many people saw them. I saw one or two at work, but only because I’m curious that way. Management didn’t tend to let peons, like I was, in a large office anywhere near the tech stuff. Cool that you added the sound bite. Yep, I remember that. Hugs on the wing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t see one of these at the museum, so I think, maybe they will be interested. I have the original documentation. We didn’t buy these for everyone that traveled. The Radio Shack solution was a lot cheaper ;-)

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Lots of memories there, Dan. Dial-up was such a convenience. We never really thought how long it took. We may have an acoustic coupler around here somewhere. When I got into that area, we were already using RJ11 and RJ45 connections and in the office a LOT of Black Box modems. Our team spent countless hours making cables following pinout diagrams. We eventually installed PROFS on the mainframe side for email – that was before Ollie North tried to delete his trail of misdeeds using PROFS email. Our big improvement when we moved into the new building was installing patch panels so we did not need to rewire every office move. Whew! Hubby’s first dial-up was a dumb DEC VT100. My boss was narrow minded though. He could not foresee a time when every desk would have a PC rather than a 3270 terminal on it. Nice walk down memory lane.

    Liked by 1 person

    • IT was evolving so fast, that we didn’t really think that it was slow. That plus the fact that we weren’t moving media across those connections, so it really wasn’t bad. We moved in 1992 to an office that was wired for voice and data at every location. Moving people really was easy for the computers and almost easy for phones. Phones eventually got easier. By the time I retired, anyone could walk into any office, plug in their laptop and their phone without IT even needing to know.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I admit I have lots of wires, discs, floppies, etc and connectors in a bottom desk drawer. Why I have no idea. Maybe this pandemic will take us all to the modern version of the dark ages and they’ll be useful again? I had to laugh because thinking a museum would contain things we used what seems like a few years ago is a brain puzzle. How can technology move so fast? And btw, no more spider pics please, or at least always put them on the end 😟😒

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Oh, yes, that sound! And that turn-around time for email was astounding! I used to email through a BBS (Bulletin Board Service), and it might take days for an email packet to make its way through the system. It was a lot more like writing a letter anybody could read than emailing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • CompuServe seemed like such a huge improvement over the BBS we had been using for tech-support. We wrote an i-house email system which we used for years, Then we upgraded to Lotus cc:Mail. We used that for many years before migrating to Internet email. The technology moved very quickly, but people change slowly.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I loved your history lesson on road warriors. I used to love to hit the road since communications were now on my schedule. A call to the secretary for messages between flights was all it took. I remember authorizing the first e-mail system. Life changed overnight.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I was doing Product Development for a bank in Denver in the early 80’s when deregulation hit the banking industry. The department gave me one of the first apple computers to create a marketing program for the role out of my first project….wait for it….drive up ATM’s. The first in the Colorado market…..oh how times have changed.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Hey Dan, thank you for liking my blue purple flower! i tried not 4 times to send you a reply, but for some reason my computer is too slow! Meanwhile I moved that image to another post for Wednesday “Happy Birthday” if you happen to wander over and can’t find the post.
    About remote work being cool. When we were in the process of moving in July, our rural area was a much envied area (because it is on the way to lake Tahoe), and house prices shot up!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Hi Dan – oh I remember that sound … we had computers in 1988 at the Chamber of Mines in South Africa – very early ones … it’s been an interesting time – but my knowledge is very limited compared to your IT/electronic abilities. I hope the Museum will be interested in your ‘relics’ … take care – Hilary

    Liked by 1 person

  15. You are certainly very handy, Dan. My office dial ins have become easier over the years too. When I started working in 1997, we didn’t have email. It came in 1998 and we started slowly to make use of it. Now, I can’t work if I don’t have email.

    Liked by 1 person

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