I bought a second-hand computer book this weekend. Its previous owner was someone named Allen. And while I don’t know anything about him — well, I feel like I do know something about him.
The book in question is Without Me You’re Nothing: The Essential Guide to Home Computers, by Frank Herbert — yep, the guy who was responsible for Dune. It was published in 1980, early in the PC revolution, and is a peculiar book with very little in the way of concrete information about home computers as they stood at the time. (It’s only got photographs of two of them — the Apple II and Atari 400.)
I can’t imagine that it was very helpful to budding computer enthusiasts in 1980. But Allen didn’t get it then. It carries this inscription:
I hope you find this book helpful. If you have questions I would be very happy to assist you.
By Christmas of 1986, Frank Herbert was no longer with us — he’d died in February — and his book was already long obsolete. (It specifically noted that IBM wasn’t in the PC business, but Big Blue entered the field shortly after the book was published and utterly dominated it in 1986.)
At some point after Allen received Without Me You’re Nothing from Mitch, he folded a piece of paper and stuck it the book. I found it, and found it fascinating. It’s why I’m writing this post.
Here’s the text it contained:
These instructions are for Windows 95, which was released almost nine years after Allen received the book, and their remedial nature tells us that he was still a clueless newbie. Maybe reading Frank Herbert’s book hurt rather than helped.
They take up only two-thirds of the page, yet they told him everything he needed to know — from the fact that this thing called “clicking” was done with the mouse’s left button to the famously paradoxical practice of shutting down Windows by clicking a button labeled “Start.” There’s not a wasted word or an extraneous fact.
Allen apparently wanted to use a computer primarily to do e-mail, using a Windows 95 program called Internet Mail which I’d forgotten about. I believe it came with Internet Explorer 3.0, which was released in 1996; whether Allen used IE itself at the time remains a mystery.
Did I call Allen a clueless newbie? That’s unfair. Today, anyone who needed to have basic mouse-clicking techniques spelled out would be computer illiterate in a way that very few Americans are. But as late as 1998 — which might have been well after Allen got his instruction sheet — only 42 percent of U.S. households owned PCs, and only 26 percent had Internet access.
In other words: Allen may not have known that much about computers, but if he was using Windows 95 soon after its release, the mere fact that he was going online at all made him more of an early adopter than a straggler. He may also have been comfortable with DOS but a newcomer to Windows. And an awful lot of people could have benefited from concise tips like those on this instruction sheet.
Did Allen ever become more proficient with PCs? I don’t have an inkling. But his instruction sheet has a Washington State phone number scrawled on the bottom in pencil. I’m tempted to call it. If Mitch answers, maybe he can tell me.