Tuesday, December 30, 2014

How I Invented Texting in 1957

[Right now the AC 767 has just taken off, en-route to San Francisco. Then, on to Hawaii. Figured this was a good time to write a blog post. Hope you find it humourous. It’s true too!]

As early as eight years old, I was fascinated with “two-way radio”. Back then, the pace of technology was slower than today. Dick Tracy had the best tech – his two-way wrist radio was what every boy wanted. This was in the days of vacuum tubes, before transistors, and way before integrated circuits. There were some “miniature” vacuum tubes, the Dick Tracy unit was way too small for that. My dad showed how two tin cans, when joined by a taut string, could function like a “walkie-talkie” provided the two kids on either end had the time and imagination. Since this was also before anybody on my street had television, we had plenty of both.

Around that time, the local store had a neat toy in the window. It was a control panel sort of thing, with a microphone / speaker and a second such mic. One of us could play “dispatcher” and the other the cop or maybe air traffic controller and pilot, or … . The control panel had lots of knobs to turn and switches to flip. None of them actually did anything, you just had to imagine they did and what they did. Come Christmas, there it was, under the tree. Great present!

By twelve, I had discovered electronics. First was Radio Control for airplanes. You had to build them, as the manufactured stuff was way too expensive. And, this was one-channel stuff too. Rudder control only. Basically, you could use it to keep the powered glider in the same field you were in so that when it ran out of gas, it landed near you!

Next was Ham Radio. Morse code and real speech too. I recall talking about this to a school chum, expecting him to be impressed I knew about this stuff. But, he said he knew all about it, his neighbour was a Ham operator. Then, he fired the big guns, saying “He even has Teletype machines connected to his ham radio and talks to people that way.” My eyes must have been huge and my jaw must have dropped a mile! This was way beyond my knowledge and I had not even imagined it. But the idea stuck in my mind… .

At the time, my seventh grade school teacher was Mr. Mooney and he was pretty progressive. He had the idea that he would have some students at the upcoming Parent-Teacher night to join in a discussion normally between him and the parents only. We had a class discussion about what to say to the parents. At the end, he picked a few of us who had the most to say to come that night. I was one of the kids chosen. This was seen as quite an honour and got my mind racing. Since it was not long after hearing about the Teletype the ham radio guy had, I sort of combined the two.
I figured that if each of the four kids had a teletype machine, we could exchange messages to each other while the parent-teacher meeting was going on. I was not too clear on what we would say to each other and how it would make the discussion better, but it was a great and exciting idea. Today, this would be called texting of course, and since just about every twelve year old has a smartphone, it might be hard to not have the kids exchanging messages during the meeting!

So, that’s how I invented texting back in 1957.

I should say a few words about how impractical this idea of mine was back then:
1.       Power – teletype machines were motorized and ran on AC. I doubt you could run four of them from one outlet and I doubt a classroom had more than one outlet’s capacity (15 Amp) and maybe not that!
2.       Noise – At the time, I may have seen one of those machines on our relatively new TV, but I had not heard one up close. Noisy! And that’s a vast understatement. Having four of them chattering away and typing on paper while the adults talked would have been ludicrous. And, they made noise even when not typing. Typing just made it worse!

3.       Typing Skills – Hm, back in Grade 7, my fingers had never touched a keyboard! If someone had said “QWERTY” to me, it would have made no sense all. It would not be until I was in Grade 8 that I used money from my paper route to buy a portable manual typewriter and spent hours learning to touch type on it. So, back in Grade 7, any use of a teletype would have been painfully slow. Peck…peck…peck.

So, I guess my claim to have invented texting might be a little flimsy. I did have a social context in mind, something useful, sort of, but really, it was the technology that excited me.

In the end, I did get a degree in Electrical Engineering, and in 1968, I did work in the then beginning world of computer time-sharing. That did have me learn more than I really wanted to about teletype machines. [That’s when I invented China to Canada timesharing, but that is another story.] This was before “Glass Teletypes” and before Personal Computers. There was lots still to come.


I wrote this blog post mostly for my Granddaughter Emma. At 3 she told Dianne “Yes Nanny, this computer does play CDs, Mommy puts them in a slot on the side of the screen.” and pointed to the slot in one of the first kitchen style PCs. Over Christmas this year, Emma defended me about claims of being a Dinosaur, given my age, and I wanted her to have some insight into how it was to live in the dark ages of technology, when Dinosaurs invented texting.