It was serendipity that, on the cusp of the personal computer revolution, I discovered a brand-new Mac in a tiny sundries shop.
It was summer 1985, and I found myself at scorching midday deep in the dry-as-dead-bones central marketplace, the souk, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
I was hunting for, of all improbable things at that time, a “personal computer” (PC).
Ever since a fellow American expatriate demonstrated the wonders of his clunky, DOS-powered IBM PC at his apartment a few weeks prior, I knew I had to have one. His machine did something impossibly futuristic: “word processing.”
I was employed in Riyadh at the time as a writer and account supervisor for a New York public affairs company that had a PR contract with the Saudi Basic Industries Corp. (SABIC), a petrochemicals conglomerate. My friend with the computer, Doug Graham, was a general assignment reporter for Riyadh-based, English-language Arab News.
When personal computers and word processing were magical
For a writer anywhere in the mid-’80s, but particularly in such a parched tech desert as Saudi Arabia, a personal computer of any kind was as rare as women in skirts. And digital word-processing capability for any writer at the time was downright miraculous, allowing the comprehensive typing and simultaneous editing of news stories in a single device.
Traditional non-digital “word-processing” in the pre-computer newspaper business involved first hand-writing notes and then crafting them into articles on a typewriter, and then laboriously editing each sentence in pencil, and then, finally, re-typing the marked-up text.
No good way existed back then to edit the text on the page as you wrote. Correction ribbons for typewriters were slow and clunky. But with computer word processing, you could, with a finger tap, delete words, sentences, and whole paragraphs, or rewrite or rearrange them at will. And the final edited text required no retyping to correct typos.
I had heard of a wondrous device named ‘Mac’
Before I was introduced to my friend’s clunky computer in his shoebox-size studio apartment, I had read about something newer: the Apple MacIntosh personal computer, which had been introduced to world markets the year before. The article promised that learning how to use a “Mac” was so easy, anyone could do it “in minutes.” That appealed to me, the most un-techy of fellows. At the time, I had long believed even using a typewriter was inauthentic and only writing by hand served the slower, more methodical purity of prose creation.
But with my then-new job at SABIC headquarters, speed proved far more of the essence than creative authenticity. So, computers. But the only ones SABIC had were the enormous room-filling kind, which I had no hope of using.
So, I found myself wandering the souk at the worst (meaning hottest) possible time of a scorching Saudi summer day, sweating buckets and looking for a computer I was sure I’d never find in a country where the teeming, second largest city still didn’t have many street signs.
But I was wrong.
What I found on a Riyadh shop shelf
After two hours of stopping in any shop that displayed anything remotely electronic in its window, like a transistor radio, I entered one small shop with an electric skillet in the window. I asked the Indian proprietor if he had any personal computers, while I made square-like motions with my hands.
To my surprise, he motioned me to follow him toward the back, where, sitting on a shelf amid stuffed animals, kids’ games and dark-green Melmac dinnerware was … a Mac. And a printer! It was the only one he had, he said. So, for 8,250 riyals, about $2,200 (or roughly $6,000 today), I was quickly part-owner of the future.
I had no idea why this dusty, hole-in-the-wall shop would have a cutting-edge home computer. But, of course, I didn’t care, as long as it worked.
And it worked like a charm.
When I got it back to the office, I immediately unboxed the thing and plugged it in. In less than half an hour I figured out how to get the keyboard, “mouse” (another new word), and the “monitor” (another) to work together. I then typed a couple of nonsense paragraphs, played with the machine’s wonderful and easy word-processing function, and plugged in the “dot-matrix printer” for a test print.
Employees gathered around in awe
As the printer whirred noisily into action, some Saudi co-workers in other rooms who were attracted by the strange sounds wandered into my office with quizzical expressions. I tried to explain in English what a Mac and printer were but, failing that, just showed them how I could manipulate text with the mouse and then print the result.
Within minutes, there were 20 Saudis and another American in my small office, leaning over my shoulder, straining to see and understand what was happening. They were all as mesmerized as I was.
This was the future, I told them. They seemed to believe me.
As sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clark once wrote:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
However, all was not 2,001: A Space Odyssey or Star Wars or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There were some new-tech, beta issues with the Mac. For example, I discovered that the computer’s woefully underwhelming 128K (kilobyte) memory only held enough text to print about 10 pages worth… anything longer I had to store on “floppy disks” (yet another new word) and then print off those.
Slow. Balky. But do-able.
For the first time in my career, I was able to fully write and edit text simultaneously and then print it. No pencils. No maddeningly inconvenient extra steps.
Computer tech advanced with blazing speed
This is how technology can transform life and work for the better and save enormous, unnecessary swaths of time.
Technology in the print media industry continued to rapidly advance. By the time I started working as a copy editor at the Rapid City (South Dakota) Journal, in the late 1980s, computers for word processing were already sitting on every reporter’s and editor’s desk. Then came email, which revolutionized intra-office and later inter-office communications. Then came “electronic pagination” (yet another new word), where editors could meld final headlines, articles, and photographs into page designs digitally on a computer screen, from which hard-copy “plates” were made to put on our massive newspaper printing press.
It was all earth-shaking for us journalists. But it didn’t stop there.
By the time I left the Journal to take another job in Saudi Arabia in 2000, every facet of every page of the newspaper was digitally created on computers, including the printing plates. A human hand never directly touched any of it until the plates were attached to the press and then when the printed newspapers poured off the press to be bound by machine and delivered on trucks to readers.
As I sweated in the Riyadh souk in 1985, looking for a new-fangled computer I dared hope to find, I had no idea how momentous the device would actually become—yet how primitive in relation to what was to come thereafter.
Today’s smartphones put old computers to shame
Michio Kaku, a physicist and popular author, described the computer revolution this way in 2019:
Today, your cell phone has more computer power than all of NASA back in 1969, when it placed two astronauts on the moon.
That’s partly true.
In a 2019 article in The Atlantic, writer Alexis C. Madrigal offered this caveat:
Of course, any contemporary device has vastly more raw computational ability than the early machine, but the Apollo computer was remarkably capable, reliable, and up to the task it was given. You could not actually guide a spaceship to the moon with a smart doorbell. …
Without the computers on board the Apollo spacecraft, there would have been no moon landing, no triumphant first step, no high-water mark for human space travel. A pilot could never have navigated the way to the moon, as if a spaceship were simply a more powerful airplane. The calculations required to make in-flight adjustments and the complexity of the thrust controls outstripped human capacities.
But, we’ve come much, much further in the five and a half decades since the first moon landing.
Computers today, now ubiquitous in homes, offices, and everywhere else imaginable, are orders of magnitude more powerful and more miniature than they once were. And vastly more capable. They’re amazing inventions that are now normal tools of everyday life, like smartphones and “The Pill.”
But on that 1985 day when I first plugged in my spanking-new Mac—my first PC ever—it felt like pure magic.