Hacking Your Machine, 1910 Style

Mac OS 7 Startup Screen

Mac OS 7 Startup Screen (via operating-system.org)

I spend way less time these days tweaking and fixing my computer than I used to. Back in the early-90s, I spent hours each week messing around with on my Macs trying to find the optimal configuration for the control panels and extensions.   I gathered custom system software that optimized my machine for home and work, but it was always a challenge figuring out how to get rid of conflicts and make sure that I still had enough ram to run things.  Watching those icons scroll across the bottom of the screen as they loaded during startup. And when they went to a second row, I was in heaven!

I always figured that I just grew out of that “tweaker” phase. These days, I like stuff that just works. (That’s not code for Apple. I let our temperamental Jetta go and have a much less fun Honda now.)

So I was intrigued by a fascinating account at the MIT Technology Review of a “Turn-of-the-Century Road Trip” from Newton, Massachusetts to Portland, Oregon in an Oldsmobile. And by turn-of-the-century, I mean the 20th century.  1910, to be specific!

The cool part is that the travelers kept a journal.  One typical entry:

Chicago, Illinois, July 4

Left camp just outside of South Bend yesterday at 11.30 a.m. arrived in Chicago at 5.30 p.m. Broke one leaf of a rear spring, had one nail puncture and dropped the dust pan. Stopped with friends of Alfred’s last night. Went around Chicago in their machine last night. It is a beautiful city. We are in their machine now waiting for a parade to pass.

What jumps out at me was how much time they spent fixing their car. It seems like each entry listed something that broke or went wrong. This, of course, was before there were garages and gas stations everywhere. As Alfred Hague put it later, “we had to do all of our own repair work including forging. Getting gasoline was often a problem, but inquiry would usually locate some store that had a few five gallon tins.” It sounds downright experimental. “We went from town to town by sighting, on the grain elevator or by compass … Road maps of the west were non-existent … We had to use railroad timetable maps which were somewhat distorted to make the road look direct.”

Given today’s cars and our automobile infrastructure, that all sounds crazy. Hague and his friend Joesph Cheever Fuller had to fix their “machine” constantly, figure out ways to repair things, find resources when few would have readymade solutions, and all without a manual. Car travel was a lot of work!

Sounds like my experience with computing machines in the early ’90s!

Of course, cars aren’t like that today.  The user interface is simplified and standardized, and they often run reliably with minimal tinkering.

But it makes me wonder about whether the change in my experience of computers is really me getting old or the technology simply maturing. Perhaps reliability and opacity of technology go hand in hand.

I certainly wouldn’t want to say that people shouldn’t be able to tinker with their computers or their cars.  Systems are more like “walled gardens” today than plots of land you have to coax into abundance.  Heck, you can’t drop an “unapproved” application on an iPad, much less something dangerous like a system extension. I’m ok with that because that’s where I’m at these days; just make it work.

Some folks complain that these closed systems are a profound problem: they represent a movement to disempower users and transform them from technologies of liberation to tools of limitation. And if we go entirely that direction, that would be a problem.  Yet, I don’t think it is a nefarious, coordinated plan to squash our freedom. You can still tweak a car if you want, although you may have to buy one that is tweakable.  It seems to me more simply an attempt to deal with the fact that most of the people using these techs—be they computers or cars—are no longer people who can or want to do their own engineering and repair.

If I have to travel cross country, I’d rather have a 2010 model car than a 1910.  And if I have to navigate my way there, I’ll take my reliable iPad over my beloved but temperamental 1993 Quadra 800.

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1 Comment

  1. Great post. I am still a bit in the tinkering phase with my computer, but definitely not my car. I have an iMac, and keep thinking I would love a Mac pro tower, so I could add or replace parts as needed. But it’s just not cost effective right now.


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