Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Ghost of the machine

Often it seems as though time moves at variable speeds in different disciplines, and nowhere so fast as in computer technology. Why, I remember as if it were yesterday a trip to a West Coast college in the 1980s when I saw my first computer lab: a room full of terminals where nearly everyone was playing MIST. Life seemed simpler then.

Take, for example, a 1989 edition of the user guide for A2K, recently donated to the archives by an historically-minded hospital staffer. An early model of an electronic records system, A2K is still in use in clinical settings around the country. It included patient indexing, case reporting, and financial and insurance information management.

In 1989, the user guide for new software needed to spell out a few things that would seem glaringly obvious to today's youth. Chapter 1 of this A2K guide, "Computer Hardware and Software", includes helpful line drawings of such oddities as "Terminal," "Light pen", "Keyboard," and "Printer."

In an early indication that computers sometimes don't behave the way you want them to, Chapter 2, "How to Sign on," has the instruction "Press PF22 to access the sign-on screen. You may have to press the ALT or CNTRL key as well." Modern users know that this direction could easily be expanded to: "Then try rebooting the machine. Then try checking all the wiring connections. Proceed to cussing."

The chapters on system architecture and software functionality provide a useful peek into the early development of the EMR, and are a welcome addition to our collection.

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