Saturday, September 08, 2007

Olden days of computers

The APG Association of Professional Genealogists has two threads about "Computers in Genealogy" and "Getting Involved With Computers" which are open to non-subscribers for review at the Sept 2007 APG list archives. Ol' Myrt here made the following posting. I am most interested in hearing YOUR early experiences with computers and genealogy.


A few more comments to add to the mix.

I - Home computers circa 1984
II - Online services predated the internet circa 1984
III - Scanners at BLM circa Spring 1989
IV - FHC computers circa 1989

I. HOME COMPUTERS circa 1984
For Christmas 1984, I purchased a Commodore 64k and two years later upgraded to the Commodore 128, so I could boot it up in CP/M mode Richard Pence just mentioned. I needed CP/M to run an early version of PAF Personal Ancestral File. As a single mom, and teacher, I didn't have the cash for an Apple, but preferred the full-sized keyboard the Commodore provided over the small Texas Instrument ___??what was it??___ also available at the time. I saw the Atari computer as merely a game console.

BBS & FIDONet pre-dated the online services. If I wanted a file from a guy in Alabama, I had to know his telephone number, his computer had to be on, and I had to make my computer dial out to call his computer (paying long distance charges no less) in order to download the file he had for me about our common ancestors.

Initially I started with the Q-Link the online service, whose descendant chart is listed below:

Q-Link - (Commodore computers, with 300 baud modems)
-- PC-Link / Apple-Link
---- America Online

On Q-LINK -- IQ do you? was their slogan. We had a small Thursday night chat in Your Family Tree. Russ Kyger was our leader Message boards were barely taking off, and Terry Morgan was the best at keeping those going. We didn't have file libraries (with GEDCOMs, how-to-info) for a few years. By the timeall evolved into AOL, we had began to enjoy years of expertise provided by the Genealogy Forum Leader George Ferguson.

Over on Prodigy, Myra Vanderpool Gormley was holding chats.

On Compuserve, Dick Eastman held down the fort in the genealogy area.

If Q-LINKERS wanted to hear Dick or Myra talk about genealogy, we had to sign up for that other service.

What year was is finally possible to send email to people who weren't on your "online service"? This pre-dates the internet and ISPs. That's right, we could not send email to anyone outside our own service. Then for a few years, we could send email, but couldn't share files. This meant that things were riskier, because we had to actually send disks to eachother via email, if we wanted to share our genealogy databases. In the early days it wasn't uncommon to do a lengthy print-out of 50-100 pages and snail mail it to a newly discovered distant cousin.

Where previously one had to know the legal land description of an ancestor's property to find the record of his purchase from the US federal government, the index compiled at the time of scanning old BLM land records made it possible to locate the record by the ancestor's name.

In the spring of 1989, the Eastern Division of the Bureau of Land Management invited local computer genealogists for a special tour to view the scanning project taking place at their offices, which were then in I believe Arlington, Virginia. Who attended? The group consisted of a handfull of folks: members of the NGS Computer SIG, local FHC volunteers with computer experience (I was in this category) and a few others including online genealogy forum leader Russ Kyger. We were looking at the process involved in creating what is now known as the BLM and GLO (Government Land Office) Automation website.

The BLM Eastern Division had received funding from Congress to scan the old General Land Office record books, which were falling apart. The pages of those large (probably 18X24 inch) books were literally pulling away from their bindings. Interestingly, the BLM had lobbied Congress with the explanation that it would be more cost effective to scan than to microfilm the records, and the BLM has managed to keep the technology up-to-date so that those scanned documents are still accessible at the website referenced above. The pages were scanned on custom-made scanners (owing to the oversized format of the land record books.) We also met a book-binder on load from another agency, the last of his breed, working on preserving torn pages and damaged bindings of the old books. He had an odd lot of interesting hand-made tools to get his job done.

In November, our local FHC Family History Center in Bradenton, Florida received our first computer. We know other centers had received theirs earlier that year, owing to their greater size and patron involvement. We then experimented with the first searchable IGI International Genealogical Index on CD, the event-based collection of largely birth, marriage, and death records either extracted or submitted by patrons. That was a great improvement over the hundreds of IGI microfiche, easily miss-filed in drawer after drawer of storage space. About this same time, we have the first appearance of a pedigree format database came in the form of the AF Ancestral File on CD.

Initially the AF was the result of the 4-generation program of the LDS Church members, and the efforts of the Medieval Records Identification Unit. Then Salt Lake began accepting floppy disks from any patron who wished to submit names. We had 5 1/4 inch floppies then. Since file servers hadn't been thought of for FHCS, there was a whole lot of CD-swapping going on, to get to the next part of the information recorded therein.

I remember when the first SSDI Social Security Death Index CD came out through our FHCs, because that is how I discovered the death of my maternal grandfather, who had been estranged from our family for decades due to his divorce from Grandma Frances.

Updating the FHC CDs is another topic. Initially the FHCs received new sets of CDs as the databases grew. Eventually addendum CDs were sent out, most likely as a cost-saving mechanism. It was easier to send out an addendum in a few CDs than replace an entire set of CD to include the new information.

If this is how far we've come in the last 22 years of computers and genealogy, imagine what the NEXT 22 years will bring.

Happy family tree climbing!
Myrt :)
Your friend in genealogy.

(c) 2007 Pat Richley All Rights Reserved.

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