(Photo courtesy NRECA)
(Photo courtesy NRECA)

Looking back all these years later, a headline in the May 1983 issue of RE Magazine seems quaint: “Computing in the Country.” Two other things that jump out are a photo of a lawyer working at a big, clunky PC and the use of the term “electronic mail.”

The article describes a personal computer as a “calculator, typewriter, television, and file cabinet rolled into one machine that fits on a desk top.”

The early days of surfing the internet are described this way: “A personal computer with a fairly inexpensive attachment called a ‘modem’ can, for a monthly fee, plug into one or more of the some 1,500 data bases now being marketed in this country. The person operating the computer simply picks up the telephone attached to the modem and dials the data base computer. Once the connection is made, the modem translates audio (telephone) signals into electronic (computer) signals.”

The article points out that sales of computers had been doubling every year since 1980. “Estimates of the number in use by the end of this century run as high as 80 million.” That turned out to be less than half right.

Rural medical clinics needed computers because it was becoming harder and harder to provide small-town doctors with the medical technologies their counterparts in the city had at their disposal. The demand was too low. Computers could bridge the gap and maybe even save some lives.

In early 1983, Trover Clinic in Madisonville, Ky., began e-mailing lab test results and X-ray images to its satellite clinics. For Dr. Herbert Chaney, who ran the clinic in Dawson Springs, the e-mails meant making an accurate diagnosis the same day instead of waiting for the courier that came only twice a week.

Charles Manley III, a lawyer in Grinnell, Iowa, used the legal website Westlaw every day. Before, he had to drive to a law library in Des Moines every time he didn’t know the answer to a client’s question—and charge them $200 just for the time he spent commuting on I-80.

Manley was willing to add quite a bit to his overhead for the convenience. He paid a whopping $20,000 for his “terminal” and printer and $450 a month for his Westlaw subscription. His rented modem cost $50 a month, and he paid $2 a minute for any time on Westlaw exceeding 180 minutes in the monthly billing period.

He saw these charges as a reasonable price to pay for having legal research at his fingertips. “Attorneys, no matter if they’re on Wall Street or in Grinnell, Iowa, just want to be productive and hold their fees down,” he said.

Farmers and ranchers were also buying computers in 1983. The editor of Farm Computer News estimated that one out of 20 had already done so and, within five years, that 5 percent would grow to 20 percent. They were using them to schedule irrigation, to create the cash-flow charts their bankers required, to monitor weather and commodity prices, and to participate in online banking pilot tests.

I.F. Dinkins, publisher of a similar monthly farm newsletter in Memphis, believed computers would revolutionize agriculture. “In the past,” he said, “new machines gave leverage to a farmer’s muscles, giving him the power to do some jobs faster and to cover more ground. The computer, though, gives a farmer leverage for his thinking, and that’s a lot more valuable.”

So what were electric co-ops doing with computers 34 years ago? The simple answer is a lot, because many were early adopters of new office technology. Co-ops had been using mainframe computers since the early 1960s, and now they were purchasing personal computers and programs for billing, payroll, and inventory.

Line work was also entering the Computer Age. Fred Lewis, the Rural Electrification Administration’s computer expert at that time, estimated that one-third of the more than 900 co-ops across the country were using programs that could break down a job order more accurately than a human could, producing a materials list in minutes.

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