On 12 March 1989 Tim Berners-Lee wrote a proposal for what would become the “World Wide Web”, now enshrined in the “www” that is part of the name of many websites. This is often now voiced as “dub, dub, dub”, causing many people to cringe. Through 1990 and into 1991 Tim’s idea was refined until the idea was announced publicly on 7 August 1991.
Granny would have about 30 at the time, or maybe younger.
It’s worth remembering that the Internet had been around for a decade or so, in rudimentary form, so the chances are that Granny might have come into contact with it if she was working in it at the time, maybe at a university. It’s far more likely though that Granny’s first contact with computing would have come from working at a large firm where they had a mainframe computer.
Maybe she sat at an IBM 3270 screen and typed accounting data into it, or maybe she was one of the people who loaded punched cards into a reader or tended the huge printers that spat out piles of paper with horizontal green stripes and sprocket holes down the edge. Or maybe she loaded magnetic tape reels into one of the tape reader machines which for some reason came to signify “computing” in many films of the era.
The Internet started as a linked network of computers, running online databases, using names such as “Archie” and “Gopher”. Everything was text based and there was no linking. That had to wait for Tim Berners-Lee’s insight. Universities embraced the new medium and most databases were held on University servers.
When you blithely click on link to visit a web page a number of things happen. Firstly your computer recognises that you want to do something. A program on your computer called the browser (Firefox, or Chrome or Internet Explorer) analyses your input and decides what you want it to do.
This may involve sending a request to a remote server, but your computer doesn’t know where the server, so it needs to find out. This is done by sending a message to yet another server which has information about where the requested server is on the Internet, or knows how to find out.
In the early days of the Internet, when Granny may have first come into contact with it, this system did not exist, so every computer on the Internet was required to know the whereabouts of every other computer on the Internet. As you can imagine, updating the address information became a tedious chore and that is why the system that I sketchily outlined above was invented.
Once Granny found a document whose title looked interesting, she would have to download it. Today we click on a link and the document appears on our screen. But Granny would have had to tediously search likely sources for the document, then she would transfer it to the server that she was connected to, and finally she would be able to print it on a printer. If she was lucky the printer would be nearby and it would actually have some paper in it. Granny’s document would be printed in a fixed width font on striped paper by a printer with a ribbon and little hammers, like a glorified typewriter.
Granny would have been around 20 when IBM introduced the first “IBM Personal Computer” in 1981, but she might have first come into contact with something like a Commodore 64 or Sinclair ZX 81 or Spectrum. She might have played games loaded tedious by command line commands from cassette tape. It’s possible that she was amazed by the blocky coloured graphics and the clunky game play, considering that the next best thing around was “Pong”, a primitive tennis game on a fixed device, sometimes set into a tabletop, or maybe “Space Invaders”, also hosted on a single purpose device.
If Granny had anything to do with computers in the early days of personal computers she would have had to deal with machines that by default booted into BASIC. That’s pretty much a fall-back as usually would have inserted a floppy disk with some version of DOS into the machine. Then she would have had to have loaded whatever program she wanted to run by using another floppy disk.
She would have had to become familiar with the DOS command line, including such quirks as the A: and B: drive referring to the same device. Most of the time. She might even have edited configuration files by hand.
When she got her first hard disk she would have installed DOS or even Windows on it from maybe three or four floppy disks. The first Windows versions ran as a shell on top of DOS, so she would have still needed to have a knowledge of DOS.
In addition she would have had to handle the dreaded device drivers. These were (and still are) small programs that handled interactions with specific installed hardware. Which in the early days of DOS and Windows meant just about any piece of hardware.
When Granny installed her new scanner she would have received a disk with it containing the drivers. She would know from prior experience that installing a driver could possibly make her system crash and be unbootable. But she would have still installed it and most probably (eventually) come out on top of it.
In addition before Granny got broadband she would have experienced the doubtful pleasures of using a dial-up modem, and would be familiar with the weird little song it sings to itself when it is handshaking with the remote modem. And she would certainly be familiar with waiting for half an hour to download a megabyte file and Grandad picking up the phone one minute before the end and breaking the connection.
So, now Granny has bought an iPad. Don’t be surprised if she takes to it like a duck to water. After all, she probably has decades more experience with computers and networks, the Internet and downloading than you have. You weren’t born when she started!