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.
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.