Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 21, 2017

Box of Ironies

Quite a few years ago, my original line of work gave out, I went back to school and changed careers. I had a general idea about what job I’d pursue, which turned out to be almost entirely mistaken, but it’s worked out okay.

Being back at the university as a graduate assistant after an 11-year absence, everything was different from my undergraduate days.

Then, I lived in the old world, typing papers on a manual typewriter, researching in the library using the card catalog, and I called home (rarely) on the pay phone down the hall. Little of that era remains, and the contemporary world was coming into existence in the mid-80s during my second stint at school.

This week, I encountered a relic from that watershed era.

I was in an art supply store The Counselor and I hadn’t been in for several years. It’s a cavernous place in a warehouse, and they use some of their extra space for a wacky mix of side businesses, including “e-waste recycling.” The dim, dusty back of the warehouse had shelves full of obsolete electronics: analog stereo receivers and oscilloscopes, outdated computer monitors with pitiful screen resolution, and other castoffs.

I poked around there while The Counselor was examining the art supplies. In the furthest corner, on a low shelf, I encountered a duplicate of a machine that revolutionized the way I work, and everything to do with the career I’ve had since, working for technology companies: writing, directing and producing various forms of media and events. I was startled to see it.

Apple IIe Brad Nixon (584x640)

That’s an Apple IIe computer lurking in the gloom, introduced in 1984, more or less identical to the one my department acquired that same year, as I was finishing my master’s degree.

It’s ironic that the department bought it for their administrator to use for typing and record-keeping, when, in fact, it and a kazillion other computers were about to revolutionize the entire business the department was in, which was the instructional application of media technology. Every technology I was learning in my program and teaching to future educators — photography, 35mm slides, projection transparencies, sound recording and playback, film and video — was due to be either utterly transformed or made redundant by digital computers.

I was lucky, because I figured out what it signified — at least in part — and stole as much time as I could using that primitive machine (and its two 5-1/4″ floppy disk drives you see on top). Within 6 months I was working at a longtime business machines company that soon introduced its own (doomed) line of personal computers. I spent the next 30 years at technology companies, using a succession of descendants of that little IIe. Now, here we are, relating over something called the World Wide Web.

I have no idea if that model on the shelf worked. Probably not. I’m not so nostalgic that I’d want to slide a floppy into the drive and boot it up, anyway.

The final irony is that I took a picture of it with my phone, something that would’ve been inconceivable in 1984. The phone I used is made by the same company that built the IIe. Taking a digital photo is mundane now, , but in those first months I sat at the keyboard of the IIe, I was teaching undergraduates the techniques for effective classroom presentations with overhead transparencies and how to thread 16mm film into a projector. Sometimes the circle turns, and sometimes it turns inside-out.

© Brad Nixon 2017



  1. I was walking down Vine St. in OTR and glanced in a pawn shop window and saw an IBM Selectric ll. I know Cincy is behind the times but this was time warp stuff. I went in and the guy knew nothing about it except that it was $50. and English was his third or fourth language. We completed the transaction in German for $25. and it came with a case and several type balls. I’ve had a ball using it after thirty years and I’m keeping it with the herd of Kindles, Samsung tablets and Dell laptops. Cells and landlines confuse me if I even start as much as texting much less emojis.
    Still love your travelogue. Broomfield and I have several of your recommendations on our bucket list. I should clarify my bucket list. I’ve got a mobile and coherent fifteen years to work on my bucket. Bob is eternal to all of us who knew him. Best Wishes for the holidays Jim Black


    • If you bought a working Selectric for $25, you’re an extremely good bargainer auf Deutsch. They’re great machines. Plenty more travel to come, but the nearby things are often as interesting, and there’s a lot to cover!


  2. The only thing you didn’t include in your “Where are they now?” list was the fragrance of that blue ink the mimeographs used. I still can smell that stuff without half trying. Of course, I remember a family phone without a dial, and a nice lady who asked, “Number, please?”

    I was a very late adopter, and still run around with a Samsung flip phone. But I’ll never forget the experience of watching the livestream of the May, 1999 Oklahoma tornado swarm on my first computer (Gateway, Win95, AOL dialup) and thinking, “I need to figure out what else this thing can do.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Somewhere in my storage shed I have a Apple IIE system, with not one but two floppy drives AND even a 5MB hard drive. *** those were the days


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