Friday, July 13, 2007

What The Hell Is A "Modem"?

It was the late 1960's and I was attending the annual Wilson Hicks Photojournalism Conference at the University of Miami. Actually I think that it was before Hicks stepped down as head of the photography department at Life Magazine and was taken on by the U of M to head up the photojournalism department there, back before the conference carried his name. It was still very much a man's field, with few female photographers and fewer female editors, but they were making inroads in the art director field. At least nobody called them "Art Directresses".

That's where I met Jackie Foy. We started chatting over coffee between seminars. We were both in the minority there, that rare breed of attendees who actually lived in Miami. She told me that she worked as an art director for the in-house art department at Milgo Electronics. "We make modems."

She immediately launched into what sounded like a well scripted explanation of what modems were. "They're an electronic device that allows one computer to talk to another computer over the telephone." Today it's hard to believe that forty years ago few people had any idea of what computers did or how they worked. Why would one computer even WANT to talk with another?

Jackie said that she needed some photographs for brochures. Pictures of the plant, people building the modems, the executives, the whole nine yards. Within a few days time I was at Milgo's plant west of Miami International Airport, still out in the boonies back then. The drained land was cow pasture, the undrained was swamp, and in the middle of that was a new modern building surrounded by paved parking area. I got the grand tour, saw a computer with huge whirring reels of three inch tape, jillions of IBM punch cards, met the head honchos and went out for lunch and drinks with a few of them. American business ran on drinks and tobacco.

Fast forward thirty-five years or so. Milgo had been bought out by a British firm, Racal, decades ago, about the time I'd lost track of Jackie. A friend of mine GAVE me a computer because his company gives him a new one every year, and he's free to do whatever with the old one. After another four years it decided that it no longer wanted to talk to other computers over the phone. It just stobbornly refused to call them for me. A quick check in the N.M. Chamber of Commerce Directory gave me Solution Computer a couple miles up the road. Two days later I was good to go, tapping the keys as my trusty computer talked with the others once more.


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