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Stewart Cheifet

The same way kids are addicted to TikTok nowadays, I was addicted to TV as a kid. In the place and time of my teenage years, that is Argentina during the 1980s, it was the times of hyperinflation and eternal crisis (which begs the question: has anything changed in forty years?) Such a tense situation also meant that there was not much content on the telly about a subject that I was definitely interested in since a young age: computers. I mean, you could barely afford food, so, understandably enough, computing was scarce. Maslow’s pyramid, yadda yadda.

There were the occasional programs about video games, like the one I described in the Gaming issue of this magazine, but nothing about other aspects of computing.

And late at night, Raúl Portal would make us wish we had a ColecoVision or a Talent MSX (one of the few 100% Argentine computers of the 1980s) during “La Hora de los Juegos” (“The Hour of Gaming”) on Channel 11. He would jokingly refer to characters in classic games such as Venture, Bosconian, Space Panic, and Time Pilot, with colorful names such as “corbachos,” “popómbalos,” “skrutenhaisens,” “crotófalos,” or “gróceres,” words that, of course, could only make Argentine kids laugh.

Americans were much luckier in that respect. During 19 years, from 1983 to 2002, a unique TV program on PBS provided a live documentary of the growing PC industry. “The Computer Chronicles” was a half-hour weekly program hosted by Steward Cheifet, a journalist graduated from Harvard who also worked for ABC.

The 19 seasons of “The Computer Chronicles”, today available on both YouTube and the Internet Archive, are a treasure chest of historical data. To put it in perspective, “Friends” only had 10 seasons, and “The Simpsons” has just started its 35th. It constitutes a living testimony of an era long gone, with episodes showcasing every imaginable subject: the rise of the IBM PC, Windows, and the World Wide Web; obscure and not so obscure programming languages; spreadsheets and office suites, operating systems, printers, mainframes, microchips, databases, software piracy, networks, fax machines, …and tax preparation software. The list of episodes looks more like a 1980s Computer Science curriculum than a TV show.

The show ended early enough, before Linux, Open Source, Cloud computing, or even Python became mainstream. That should give you an idea of the timeframe we are talking about here. Oh, but there were some episodes about Java and Artificial Intelligence, if you are into that kind of thing.

Each episode of “The Computer Chronicles” followed a very similar structure: a 30-minutes-long magazine program dealing with one main subject, split into various sections and interviews, and followed by a newsreel sequence at the end with some industry information. Couple that with the corny jingle music for the introduction, and the voice intonation of the host (I can only hope Mr. Cheifet did not talk like that at home to his family), and you can enjoy a nice trip back in time.

Most importantly, the one and only Gary Kildall, of all people, was a co-host together with Mr. Cheifet during the first 7 years of the show. Sadly, Mr. Kildall passed away in 1994, and the show aired a special episode in his memory. Kids: Gary Kildall is (in)famous because, among other things, he could have been Bill Gates. Ask your dad if you do not know who Bill Gates is. (Sadly, history only remembers stupid details like these. Let us be clear here: Gary single-handedly kick-started the home PC revolution in the mid-1970s, but because he did not become an eccentric billionaire, just a few history boffins like the author of these lines remember him. Gary is a towering figure in our craft, and one of the main reasons you have a personal computer in front of you at this precise moment.)

The “Software Publishers Association”, today known as the Software and Information Industry Association, and still heavily engaged against software piracy, would sponsor many episodes of the show with the catchy “Don’t Copy That Floppy” slogan at the beginning. Talk about a lost cause. At the end of the show, during the early nineties, you could ask questions to the hosts using CompuServe, using the GO CHRONICLES command. If you do not know how to use CompuServe, call 1-800-522-4477 to learn how to log on. Insert 28kpbs modem sound here.

These days, you can follow Stewart Cheifet on Twitter, if you are into that kind of thing.

In this era of binge-watching TV shows, make yourself comfortable and enjoy the 19 seasons of “The Computer Chronicles” on YouTube or the Internet Archive with a good bowl of popcorn, or some nachos con guacamole. But if this is still not enough, and you would like to watch even more videos about retrocomputing, here is a quick list of YouTube channels that this author can heartily recommend: This Does Not Compute (a personal favorite with superb content), Action Retro, Computer History Museum, Computer History Archives Project (“CHAP”), Gaming Historian, Michael MJD, RetroSpector78, Mac84, LGR, Sayaka’s Digital Attic, and the excellent 8-Bit Guy. Oh, and throw danooct1 in the mix, particularly if you are interested in watching old Windows and DOS viruses and trojans in action without any risks.

Have fun, but remember to get off your sofa and stretch every so often.

Cover snapshot taken from episode 24 of season 10 of the show (Copyright 1993 Stewart Cheifet Productions).

Continue reading Alex Wiltshire & John Short or go back to Issue 064: Retrocomputing. Did you like this article? Consider subscribing to our newsletter or contributing to the sustainability of this magazine. Thanks!
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