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Commodore 64 and Other Dinosaurs

By Skip Tate

Back in college, my friend Henry often made the mistake of leaving the door to his room open while wandering off to visit a friend or try to impress some coed nearby. We lived in a suite of six rooms, and his lack of closure repeatedly left him vulnerable to the band of jovial jokesters who occupied the rest of the suite, of which, I must admit, I was one.

Once, we decided Henry needed to clean his room and, being the helpful friends that we were, we started the project for him. After hauling all of his stuff out into the hallway, though, we lost interest in the project and decided to leave and get something to eat. Being the responsible sorts that we were, however, we found his keys and locked his door on our way out. Upon our return we found him sitting on his pile of stuff in the hallway.

Henry had a good sense of humor about our pranks, though, including my regular attempts at sabotaging his academic career. Henry was a double major—computer science and chemical engineering—and was the first person I knew who did his nightly homework on a computer. I would take my nightly study break, walk into his empty room, sit down at his computer and start embellishing his chemistry lab reports with details of massive explosions, toxic fumes and forced evacuations of the entire building. English papers would be rewritten to sound like trashy romance novels. CompSci reports became the Twilight Zone.

All of this was done on Henry’s Apple II, one of the earliest generations of personal computers. It required two eight-inch floppy disk drives to operate—one floppy containing the software for the program you wanted to run and another floppy for storing the work.

I also had a computer, although my set-up wasn’t nearly as conducive to nightly homework. It was a Commodore 64—the 64 being the amount of kilobytes of RAM it had available. I guess the manufacturer was proud of that. I would plug a cartridge into a port in the back and fire it up. I couldn’t afford a monitor, though, so I had to wire it to my television. Nor could I afford a floppy drive to save my work, so I had to plug it into a cassette tape recorder. When I wanted to save my work, I’d push the record button on the tape deck and the data would flow onto the tape like a song.

While it wasn’t THAT long ago that I was in college, technology has become such a huge bearing on academics today, it’s hard to remember how we ever learned without it. Or, rather, how we learned using the technology we had.

One of my work-study jobs was in what was known as the Learning Resources Center. The “learning resources” were nothing more than audio-visual equipment. Movie projectors, overhead projectors and slide projectors were the most popular learning resources back in the day. Sometimes professors would ask for a record player or filmstrip projector.

Or, occasionally, someone would ask for an opaque projector, which was this big steel monster that would project whatever was placed inside it onto a screen at the front of the class. The machine was shaped like a Volkswagen Beetle and weighed about the same. This I know because my job was to deliver and pick up these learning resources in a Henry Ford-era van that had rust holes in the floorboards you had to cover with your foot when it rained.

While none of us—except, perhaps, Henry—realized it at the time, we were at the beginning of the technology revolution. Somewhere between then and now, slide projectors were replaced with PowerPoint. Record players became mp3 files. Filmstrip projectors went the way of the Dodo, and opaque projectors, I believe, were recycled into battleships.

I was reminded of all of this when details of Xavier’s new capital campaign were unveiled on Founders’ Day last month. “To See Great Wonders” is the campaign’s name and “Creating a national model of excellence for 21st century students” is the campaign’s mantra. One of the major goals of the campaign is the creation of a new Learning Commons. This new building will be one of the largest buildings on campus and designed to accommodate the new way teachers teach, the new way students learn and the technology both need.

It will be physically attached to the back of the library, so the connection between computers and books will be maintained. It will be wireless, have larger areas for group study and smaller grottos for individual learning. It will also be built to easily adapt to the ever-changing technological advances, and it includes a special experimental center for new technologies and learning tools.

Such a facility would be totally foreign to the way I was educated. Then again, I wasn’t educated in the 21st century, was I? It makes me think, though: With such a large building, maybe they can carve out some space for a technology museum and stock it with my Commodore 64, Henry’s Apple II and the some of the other “learning resources” we used when I was in school. Those would truly be great wonders to see.

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