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Living With 1990 Tech For A Day - Part 2

[Continued from here]

... They'd have had all-singing, all-dancing word-processors instead. As luck would have it, one appears on Trade Me for $60 (about £30). I click "Buy now" and arrange to pick it up later in the week – on 1990 day itself.

We wake up late because the previous night I unplugged the not-1990 alarm clock. My children complain about the cold, asking me to turn the heating on.

"No. It's 1990 and heat-pumps haven't been invented yet."

They look at me like I'm an idiot, with some justification. I resist the urge to clip them around the ears, though that was probably acceptable in 1990, and instead light the wood-burner: central heating, retro Kiwi-style. Slowly the house gets warmer.

After dropping the kids at school, which has barely changed in the past 100 years let alone the past 24, my wife and I drive into Wellington to collect my new/old writing device. Thanks to a friend with an ancient cassette collection, our accompaniment over the hill to Wellington is The Stranglers' Greatest Hits. I resolve to watch out for the skin-deep.

There's a glitch in my careful planning. I have no map of where we're going, just the address. I can't use GPS on 1990 day. I could phone the seller for directions, but not from my mobile, which in any case is still in a drawer at home. My wife notices that we've passed the same shop twice and asks if I'm lost. I grunt. Her next suggestion raises my ire.

"Ask for directions, me? Men didn't ask in 1990. It's my job to drive round and round in circles pretending we're getting closer, and complain that you can't map-read. You're the one who's supposed to ask for directions."

I'm treated to another of those looks, so I stop the car and ask the nearest person for directions. He smiles and reaches for his smartphone to look up the address for me.

"Please don't use your phone. It's 1990."

His stance shifts perceptibly. "What's that, bro?"

This could get ugly. But I explain and his face lights up in amusement. "Cool story, bro, but I don't know where that street is." Luckily the next person does, and we pick up the word-processor without further incident. It's huge.

Appetite for Destruction by Guns 'n' Roses is our soundtrack on the way back. Oh won't you please take me home? We do so, arriving home at 12.30pm. We celebrate with lunch, heading to the local pub for a healthy 1990 meal of fish and chips slathered in ketchup. By standing in the smoking area for a few minutes and then deliberately spilling beer on my T-shirt, I'm able to return to my 'office' at 2.20pm bearing an authentic 1990 aroma and work ethic.


I fire up my new writing machine, a Panasonic KX-E700m with all the trimmings. Made in 1989, this would have seen heavy use in 1990. It's not just a word-processor: this is the crème de la crème, the pinnacle of 1990 office productivity machines. According to the 211-page manual it's a "video-typewriter."

I am genuinely impressed. Semi-automatic paper-feed, bi-directional printing, A3 platen, 25KB text memory, separate linkable macro memories, CRT monitor with wonderfully-ghosting yellow/green phosphor, multi-column printing, bafflingly comprehensive mail-merge facilities, 500-character 'undo', the list goes on. It even has a floppy drive, so I could post my electronic copy to the IDG Connect office. Though given the obscure encoding format and obsolete medium, I might just as well mail in a photocopy of the Rosetta Stone.


It takes me a while (OK, three hours) to get to grips with the machine's intricacies, after which I write my copy. And then write it all again when the lifeless lithium battery fails to store my words as I break for coffee. Sinéad O'Connor's Nothing compares 2 U provides an ironic refrain. Tired, I eventually feed the Panasonic a sheet of paper and instruct it to print.

The typing noise, like a silenced machine-gun, is comforting, even reassuring. I think I read somewhere that the offices of The Times of London have introduced the recorded background sound of typing to help motivate their staff. Sadly, without the internet I have no way of checking that story, or including a link to it. I feel disconnected: it's lonely back here in 1990.

On the other hand I do feel more productive and motivated without online distractions, and the liquid lunch has eased the pain of the mid-afternoon lull.

My search for a working fax machine draws a blank. I thought the local library might have one, but no. Again, without a similar machine in the IDG Connect office it would be useless anyway. So I post my printed copy to Martin by airmail, suddenly aware that tomorrow I'm going to have to either use OCR on the printed text, or try to decode the Panasonic's disk format via some low-level tools, so I can email it to him in digital form too. Neither prospect is appealing.


Stop. Hammer time. At 10pm, as the final bars of U can't touch this by MC Hammer fade away, I call a halt to 1990 day. I switch on my phone, log into my email and begin sifting through the new messages, none urgent.

It's been an interesting experience and I've barely scratched the surface. The biggest lesson for me is that the business machines of 1990 were far more capable than I remember. This video-typewriter sat on the cusp of the transition between dedicated word-processors and multi-function computers, and it has elements of both, painstakingly put together.

The Panasonic was a Rolls-Royce of its time, yet it and others like it were made obsolete in just a few short years by a completely new paradigm. You can almost smell the desperation of an office machines supplier gamely fighting back against the tide of encroaching PCs. That battle was only ever going to go one way.

I'm glad to be back in the connected world again. 1990 was nice to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there. Once was enough.


Freelance technology journalist Alex Cruickshank grew up in England and emigrated to New Zealand several years ago, where he runs his own writing business, Ministry of Prose.


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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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