A Time Computer – an Object “Biography”

Biographies usually focus on the lives of individuals, or sometimes groups, but the best of these usually reflect the context for those lives, in public and private events. A factual list of dates, like births, marriages and deaths, is really the territory of the genealogist, leaving much for interpretation.

My brief “object biography” of an old computer reflects this need for “a life and times”. The bare facts are unexciting – manufactured and purchased in 2000, superseded from 2004, still alive but in a coma that may be permanent. Even if every detailed event could be recounted – when specific software was loaded and deleted, when peripherals were added and removed, when it was sent for repair (and finally condemned), this would only provide minor background. Such details would be like a medical history of a patient, telling us much about very limited aspects of a life. Not that such details would be irrelevant – the first diagnosis of dementia, for instance, or another major medical condition, would explain much about our subject’s life around that time. But, like an elderly hospital patient nearing the end of their life, their state would reveal little about their experience, the significance of their life.

This is even more the case for my TIME computer. A metal box full of electronics, it is its part in my life that is important. That part reflects major events in my life, and also in my use of technology.

I recall the birth of my involvement with TIME Computers. I had access to a computer at work, and a very old, battered one at home for word-processing, and so I ruminated for a long time before buying a new machine. A glossy brochure featured Leonard Nimoy (the 1960s Mr Spock from Star Trek) on every page, and it all seemed very futuristic. One of the computer technicians at work encouraged me to buy a TIME machine: they were cheap and easily repaired, she had one herself, and would be happy to repair mine. I found TIME machines to be among the cheapest, cheaper than competitors like Dan, Tiny, Evesham and Dell (all but Dell now finished) and so purchased a package which included software and peripherals for about £1,100. It had a limited warranty, but I avoided the blandishments to acquire an extended warranty.

It all duly arrived, in a series of boxes, with assembly instructions. I laid it all out on the floor of the living room, the same one in which I am writing this on TIME’s successor. I still have the delivery note, from September 2000, and an instructions booklet. The same included a large number of address labels to return the machine to the Burnley factory at which it had been made. The number of labels was ominous, as was the insistence that the whole machine had to be returned in its original packaging if anything went wrong. On the one occasion that I did telephone the TIME helpline, paying £1 per minute, I was told that the machine would have to be picked up by courier, at a cost of £75, and that there would be a minimum labour charge of £35 even if the repairs could be completed in a minute. Needless to say, I did not return the machine, and my technician at work soon fixed the problem for a bottle of wine.

I had used emails at work, but with little interest, and had bought the TIME machine for word-processing and storage – a whole 20GB hard drive seemed a huge amount then, and one that would never be filled. I moved much of the contents of my boxes and boxes of floppy disks – some with files composed in Wordstar and WordPerfect, and still had a great deal of space.

I discovered that my new machine had a modem, and decided that I might as well see what dial-up would involve. I threaded an extension telephone cable from downstairs into my upstairs study, and connected up. It would prove expensive and erratic, but I suddenly found myself with a Supanet account, and able to surf the Net.

I soon found a practical need for that Internet connection. About six months after I acquired my TIME machine, my first wife B fell ill, and cancer was diagnosed. We looked for advice in various leaflets, but I became aware that I could find more help on the Internet; an American medical university website proved especially helpful. After surgery to remove the tumour, I reassured myself with online information. The cost, and inconvenience, of dial-up deterred wider investigations. I mostly used TIME for the word-processing facility, spending many hours on the preparation of materials for work, and churning out short articles for local magazines. Although B had worked for many years as an audio-typist (a job that hardly exists now), she did not use the computer at all, preferring to write by hand.

All this changed just after the beginning of 2002. Tests had suggested that my wife’s cancer had been successfully removed and that no secondaries had developed, and she had effectively been discharged. On holiday in Spain, however, she suddenly found it difficult to walk, and later collapsed. The Spanish hospital had no idea what was wrong, and she came home in a wheelchair. About a week followed, while I was trying to prepare a semester’s work on the TIME upstairs, while ministering to her needs downstairs. Then, on a Sunday, we were about to go out for lunch when she had a seizure. The next few days were a nightmare; rapid tests;, a terminal diagnosis of secondary brain tumours, with a vague suggestion that she might have six months to live; being told to wait in hospital for a Macmillan nurse, who was pleasant but had little practical to offer; and finally back home to deal with floods of well-wishers and await our fate.

At this point my TIME machine became less a means of working from home (I was granted compassionate leave) and more a means of finding anything that might help me and her. I read much about cancer and brain tumours, and found the addresses of support organizations. Contact was still then in the era of leaflets and meetings, but we only got to one meeting in Wirral, before her condition worsened further. She went into hospital as an emergency, and then to a hospice, where she died late in March – much earlier than expected.

That left me a widower, receiving counselling, living alone, with a full-time job, dwindling numbers of friends, and my TIME computer. “Throwing myself into my work” was a clichéd male solution that did not appeal (or work), and it was my TIME that proved a friend over the next year. If ever I write fully about my experiences in widowhood, it will be two parallel stories – one about my attempts to deal with bereavement, and the other about my early experiences of the Internet. Some of the latter now seems quite comically primitive.

I had never heard of message boards, but used a new searching device called Google to try to find websites that addressed the concerns of widowers. After many references to a film called The Widower, the searches eventually turned up a site called Widownet. This was a message board, mostly based in North America, and after reading many contributions I soon adopted a pseudonym and began to post myself. One early encounter was with “Puzzling Pete”, who was near to suicide, and, as I recall, I sent him a message saying that life could get better, and just to hang in there. Pete replied, with thanks, and the board would later record that he had remarried, then that he had lost his second wife, and then finally, four years ago, that he had married for a third time. Maybe my message helped. After this, I found myself posting less about my own situation, and much more attempting to help fellow-sufferers, most of them female. One of these Americans contacted me, and a very long and detailed correspondence by email resulted. Somehow the characteristics of two couples – she and her late husband, and myself and my late wife – seemed to overlap. There was no question of any romance or “dating”, but this correspondence stopped suddenly when I told her that I had met my new partner S.

I found online references to a British organisation for younger widowed people called the WAY Foundation, and joined this in the summer of 2002. My TIME computer helped me meet people here, through an email forum and through a chatroom attached to a message board. By October I had met widowed people, mostly female, face to face, in a local group which is still in existence in 2010. Through contacts on the email forum, I ended up on television, in a programme about widowers. But I also learned that the Internet, even in private areas, can harbour a darker side. I contributed to the email forum, providing help to as many people as possible, and this attracted the attention of a longstanding widower, who started to spread rumours that I was not whom I seemed. The story is a long one, but I sat at my screen horrified at the antics of this and other cyber-bullies and their followers (what we would now called “mobbing”).

This drove me into a deeper sense of despair than even at the time when my wife died. But then a young widower from Manchester contacted me and told me about a site in America known as GROWW (Grief Recovery Organised by Widows and Widowers). This included chat sites that were monitored and hosted, so that the personal invective and bad language that sometimes infest chatrooms could be prevented. I found that the “talk” was all supportive, but participants often appeared and then disappeared without further trace. One contributor went by the nickname “s….”, and I got to know her electronically – she was younger than the others and lived only in Leeds, 85 miles away. In case she or I disappeared and wanted to trace the other, I requested her email, and suddenly we were in email contact. We moved to Instant Messaging, and eventually it seemed a good idea to meet face to face…..and we did.

However, while I have much for which to thank my TIME computer, by 2004, when I met S, it had been supplemented by a laptop. I had decided to scrap dial-up and acquired a broadband connection, but the TIME proved unable to handle this, so I plugged this into the laptop. After this, TIME reverted to use for word-processing and scanning – much time was spent scanning photographs of Brenda. The laptop often sat alongside the TIME, using the Net whilst I typed on its desktop companion.

And then, time began to run out for the TIME. The firm Time Computers itself went into insolvency in 2005, and not too long afterwards the power unit suddenly stopped working. £40 provided a replacement, but the computer repair shop said that the whole machine was outdated and would stop working altogether one day, as indeed it did. Not long afterwards, I bought a new desktop, and the TIME was disconnected and put to one side. The bulky monitor was given away on Freecycle, but I had kept the keyboard in use with the new desktop. Later last year this began to jam, so it was removed. The TIME found its way into my attic. I did not have the heart to destroy an old friend, and also, somewhere on its hard drive, there are email files that I could not remove easily. I have kept it in case easily usable technology is developed to clear hard drives from old computers. Primitive technology though it seems today, I will not forget the part that my TIME machine played in a very dark and sad period in my life.

1 January 2012

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