Archive: Computer Collector Newsletter / Technology Rewind, Jan. 2004 - March 2006

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My father, my tech, my memories

by Christine Finn

A few weeks ago, on a blustery late spring day, my mother and I were seated at an office desk in an English coastal town, giving information to a pleasant female keyboard operator.

We could have been in a travel agency, at a realtor's, with a bank manager, or perhaps renewing car insurance. In a precise rhythm of clacking keys and pauses, the woman worked her way through a slow, pre-programmed sequence, for which she operated her mouse with considerable dexterity.

"Name?" "Address?" "Age?" And then: "Cause of death?" My mother and I were with the local Registrar. We were closing the file on my father's life at the age of 78, after his long battle with Parkinson's disease.

As I watched my still-bereaved and 82-year-old mother giving her answers towards a face barely visible behind a large and ungainly grey terminal, I wondered if my father would have been as stunned as I was at the clinical manner of data gathering. We had already had a long-frocked priest answering his clam-style cell phone as he arranged the funeral, and his reminder that the crematorium required proper CDs of favoured music for playing on the day and "not anything downloaded from the Internet'." But I had not associated our most significant information processing - the first-hand narrative of births, marriages and deaths - with high technology, only with florid handwriting and watermarked paper stitched into tooled leather, and books bound and embossed and stored in the old-fashioned way.

My father, after all, had never used a computer keyboard. His neat handwriting had progressed his career in the bought-ledger department at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, a flourishing concern in the medieval town of Sandwich in Kent, its factory close by a Roman camp. If there were any computers around there in the 1970s, they were not visible to my father in accounts, or he certainly didn't think to discuss them. But at that time Pfizer UK was small operation.

On the journey to the Registrar my mother and I drove past its premises for the first time in years - and found a behemoth, its offices and labs now humming with computers handling data in a manner my father could have scarcely have imagined 30 years before.

My father had worked with other hands-on data technology. As a young salesman in the 1950s and 60s, and living on the Channel Island of Jersey off the French coast, he had tapped the keys of cash registers, and got dirty with checks and bills, and fountain pen ink.

One of the first people to sell popular music in the form of "singles," he was flown over to London to hear the first Beatles recordings at the Abbey Road Studios. He bought me a bright blue Dansette record player, and a cassette player a decade later, but in later life he swapped an interest in cutting-edge technology for old dance band 78s and thick-needled gramophones.

Back home, his collection of early music technology now occupies the same space as my earliest computers. In that glory hole, my redundant Apple desktop and my hefty old Powerbook, circa 1993, nestle down with dad's cherished wooden-cased machines. The emblem of "His Master's Voice" was as familiar to dad's colleagues in the music store of the time as the coloured Apple logo is now to enthusiasts at the Vintage Computer Festival.

For all a working life lived before the familiarity of personal computers, my Dad understood the passion of collectors and collecting. He loved to hear my stories gathered in Silicon Valley, and from the VCF. With him, I had no need to justify my fascination for old tech, and the importance of collecting that heritage.

The rain pattering on the windows of the Registrar's office brought my mind brought back to the present. The woman had concluded her questions. She pressed the print button, and the final version of my father's death certificate slowly emerged from her machine, its pale yellow paper lightly embossed for authenticity.

The Registrar signed the document. And then she reached behind her and produced an old-fashioned ledger, the type with which my father would have been familiar.

She opened it, ran her finger down a column, and with a flourish of fountain pen she entered my father's name: "Joseph Allan Finn." In real ink, on real paper. She blotted the page. And I smiled.