Daily life transformed by technological innovations of 1980s
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first installment in a series of stories about the 1980s in the Mitchell area and the decade’s impact on modern life. Further stories will be published periodically in future editions.
Tony Kinneberg’s entire science class gathered around the computer’s glowing green screen. A junior in high school, Kinneberg had never seen or worked with a computer before going to class that day in 1983 at Richland No. 44, a small school district south of Fargo, N.D.
Though it has been more than 20 years since that day, his recollections of seeing his first computer, a Tandy, are clear. At that time, it was the only computer at the school.
“You’d spend the whole hour working on a program and spend so much time saving things,” said Kinneberg, now the technology coordinator at the Parkston School District. “It was so tedious and it took forever to run a program, but that was the only thing we had, so we didn’t know any different.”
From his childhood through his adult working life, Kinneberg has seen firsthand how the technology explosion rooted in the 1980s has molded the world we inhabit today. Just prior to Kinneberg’s first interaction with a computer, Time Magazine in 1982 chose its first non-human for its annual Person of the Year. It was the computer.
That first year computers entered Kinneberg’s life, it took an entire class period’s time to program a basic task such as rolling dice to play Yahtzee, or choosing random numbers. To do that, the teacher and students wrote code that was put on cassette tape.
“The class would gather around the teacher and watch him work with it because he was so big into the computer and technology,” Kinneberg said of his then-teacher. “By no means was it as exciting as it is today.”
In 1977, Radio Shack introduced its first model of the TRS, or Tandy Radio Shack computer. Throughout the ’80s, the TRS improved. The first Apple Macintosh was rolled out in 1984, and the Windows operating system from Microsoft came out in 1985.
Rob VanLaecken, activities director at Parkston, who moved to town in 1975, said he believes computers were introduced to the Parkston School District in the early to mid-80s. He said a line of Commodores, likely the C64, was the first at the school.
Even today, more C64s have been sold than any other single computer system at about 17 million systems. The Commodore, including models C64 and PET, was widely used in classrooms and Kinneberg said he remembers seeing his first Commodore in 1985.
Kinneberg started with Parkston in 2000. The school added his position because of the rise of technology in education. Besides teaching a media class and leading the media club, he is in charge of the district’s computer security, filtering content for educational purposes, and repair work.
Kinneberg said each student in Parkston from seventh to 12th grade either has a laptop or an iPad, and the elementary has about 60 to 90 iPads available for teaching lessons.
“It’s a scary thought how much we rely on technology and computers now,” Kinneberg said. “Back then, it was exciting to see a computer, but what you could do with it was very limited.”
“There are so many things that are electronic that if the power went out, you’re pretty much at a standstill. If all that stuff goes down, you’re just lost.”
That’s a far cry from the educational system of the early 1980s, when chalk was still a primary teaching medium. Burnell Glanzer and Bob Krietlow, both superintendents of area school districts, said computers and technology have significantly changed education during their careers.
Glanzer started teaching in Armour in 1975 after graduating from the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. Glanzer, who is known as a successful high school basketball coach, was also a math teacher in Armour, where he recalls drawing pie graphs on chalkboards during teaching lessons in the ’80s. At the time, calculators that had a square-root button were hard to find and cost about $50, he said.
“School has definitely changed, that’s for sure,” said Glanzer, who taught for 35 years before becoming an administrator at the school. “There are PlayStations and Xboxs and other computer games. Kids are used to those flashy things and aids for teaching. If you went back to a chalkboard with teaching, you’d be out of date. You couldn’t capture their interest anymore.”
When Glanzer was in school, his first typing classes were on a typewriter and were introduced when he was a sophomore. These days, formal keyboarding classes begin for third-graders in Armour.
“Can you imagine trying to type with the hunt-and-peck system?” he said. “You’d be in trouble.”
Krietlow also started his teaching career in 1975 and worked in the classroom through the ’80s until becoming a school administrator in 1990.
“So much has changed,” he said. “It’s something where the younger generations are accustomed and used to, and for us older people it’s a transition. Some teachers have readily embraced it and others haven’t.”
The ‘brick’ phone comes to SD
Besides the transformation wrought by computers at school, home and work, another 1980s phenomenon that deeply impacts modern people every day is the invention and spread of cell phones.
On Sept. 21, 1983, Motorola made history when the Federal Communications Commission approved the 8000x, the world’s first commercial, portable cell phone. It cost $3,995, was 10 inches tall and weighed 2.5 pounds.
By 1985, about 340,000 people in the United States owned a cell phone. By 1990, 5.2 million owned one.
“Cell phones were a brand-new concept and difficult to sell,” said Rod Boyd, 70, of Huron, who claims to be the first person to have sold cell phones in Mitchell, Huron and much of the eastern part of South Dakota. “I’m positive I can say that. It was a fun ride.”
While cell phone sales started their major rise in the late 1980s, Boyd said it wasn’t until 1990 when South Dakota started seeing a trend of more people with them. Boyd said he interviewed with CommNet Cellular in March of 1990 and went to Denver from May to July for training to learn how to sell mobile phones. By August, he was back in the state making sales pitches.
“The only place you could purchase mobile phones in the state prior to when I began was in Sioux Falls, and it was a really limited market,” he said. “Our whole theory for working for CommNet Cellular was to get service out to rural America.”
Boyd said he sold two different types of phones, one that was carried in a bag and one he described as a brick. The bag phone was usually kept inside vehicles and cost between $499 and $699. He described the size of the brick phone like a carton of cigarettes at about 2 inches wide, 12 inches tall and 2-3 inches deep. It cost $399.
Much of his selling was done while traveling, Boyd said, but he also put up booths at the state fair and at the Corn Palace. Boyd stayed in the mobile phone business until 2004, when he sold his Huron shop, now called Cellular Connection.
Today, there are more than 300 million cell phone users in the United States.
“My gracious, what it has transformed into is wonderful,” he said. “When we started selling mobile phones, we transmitted calls and talked. We didn’t know of texting or data transmission or picture and videos. What’s going to happen in the next 20 years?”