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Taking a Vacation, but--Fortunately--Not From Technology

August 19, 1996|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

This summer my family and I are traveling through the Western states in our 1968 17-foot travel trailer. We packed all the usual stuff--cooking gear, insect repellent, sleeping bags, sub-notebook computer, portable CD-ROM drive, portable printer, modem and cellular phone. I get up early in the morning to do my writing from a picnic table or nearby coffee shop while Patti and the kids catch their last hour or two of sleep.

It's not unusual for me to work from the road. I often write columns on airplanes and send them in by plugging my modem into the modular jack in my hotel room. But campgrounds aren't generally set up to cater to traveling journalists and business executives. Four years ago, when we last took a monthlong camping trip, I filed a story from Yellowstone National Park by using an acoustic coupler that slips over the handset of a pay phone. I didn't have one of those on this trip, so I had to be a bit more creative.

In Bozeman, Mont., I was able to send and receive e-mail from one of the Internet PCs at the library at Montana State University. The library's PC was directly connected to the university's network, which, in turn, was connected to the Internet. I couldn't use it to sign on to my own Internet provider, but I was able to change the options on Netscape to have it send a request to the server at my Internet service provider in California to retrieve and send my mail.

The process is not difficult, but it takes a while to explain. I've posted the instructions on my Web site at http://www.larrysworld/campaccess.

In Greybull, Wyo., we checked into the Green Oasis campground. I didn't think I had a prayer of connecting to the Internet from there, but, chatting with the campground owner, I found out that he had listed his facility in Trailer Life as "modem friendly." What a concept. Now we have cyber-camping.

But it makes sense not only for the occasional journalist who has to file a story en route to Mt. Rushmore, but also for the growing number of folks who live in their RVs several months of the year. E-mail can find you wherever you can find a phone line.

Cyber-campgrounds will make it possible for these folks to maintain their lifestyle and keep up with family and friends. It also makes it easier to maintain a part-time business while meandering across the country. Eventually, we'll have an affordable international wireless network that will make having to hunt for a phone connector a distant memory.

When planning this trip, I was surprised to learn that Bozeman has a computer museum. Though not as busy as the Computer Museum in Boston or the Tech Museum in San Jose, the American Computer Museum in Bozeman ([406] 587-7545) does get its share of visitors. This 6,000-square-foot facility houses some of the most interesting artifacts from the history of computers, including the 1880 Thomas arithmometre, the first commercially successful calculator, the IBM 1620, one of the first transistor-based computers, and early PCs such as the Altair.

The museum gave me a better appreciation of just how far back the computer industry goes. Whereas other computer museums entertain visitors with interactive electronic exhibits, this one concentrates on displaying artifacts.

Generally, when we think about computers, we focus on the present and the future, but it was interesting to note that computational and information retrieval devices date to antiquity. The abacus was used 2,000 years ago, and the ancient Hebrews and Mayans had a device called the Quipu that used knotted cords for record keeping.

Blaise Pascal invented the first mechanical adding machine in the 17th century. Around 1880, Joseph Marie Jacquard figured out a way to use punch cards to automate a weaving loom. Herman Hollerith later used punch cards to automate the 1880 U.S. census. He founded Tabulating Machine Co., which in 1924 merged with two other companies to become International Business Machines, or IBM.

The first electronic digital computer, the ENIAC (1946), took up about 1,500 square feet and required more than 18,000 vacuum tubes (a piece of it can be seen at the Bozeman museum). The 4.2-pound notebook PC that I'm using to write this column has more computing power than the ENIAC or any of the machines on display there. Yet a great deal was accomplished long before we had Power Macs, Pentium PCs, megabytes of memory and gigabytes of hard disk storage. The on-board Apollo Guidance Computer that helped us find our way to the moon had only 2 kilobytes of erasable memory (equivalent to RAM) and 36 kilobytes of read-only memory.

I was struck by how things change yet stay the same. A 1929 ad for the 7.5-pound Monroe Executive Calculator showed an executive using the machine aboard a train. "Now you can take your office with you," boasted the ad for the "first portable calculator." I bet that executive didn't bring his portable calculator along on a family camping vacation. They had more sense back then.

Lawrence J. Magid can be reached via e-mail at

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