Victor McElheny was The New York Times' go-to tech reporter in the 1970s, a decade marked by a series of tech-world firsts that moved computing beyond labs and into homes, including the release of Apple's first computer, the introduction of the digital camera and the debut of the Altair computer.
For our "Life As" series, McElheny talked about being a tech journalist at the dawn of the PC era.
The New York Times hired you in 1973 to be one of just two or three writers covering tech at the paper. What did your job entail? In 1976, The New York Times restarted a column called "Technology." They had had such a column once before in the 1930s; then it had lapsed, and they had sought for years and years to have such a person write the column. In fact, they had hired two to three people in succession under the notion that this person would be the New York Times tech reporter, and I think two or three people in succession signed on, but immediately contrived to escape from covering tech and do other things. The paper hired me in 1973 to be a technology reporter, and I actually did it. I was their principal technology reporter for five years, and I was the second person to write their "Technology" column.
What did you cover as part of the technology beat? The New York Times didn't have a totally clear idea of what they meant by "technology." They just wanted the other things besides what science covered. The New York Times just thought that you had all these machines -- whether it was copiers or computers or the telephone system -- that you put under the broad label "technology." But that word refers to a combination of skills and insights and devices and systems.
In a sense, what I was trying to do during that five-year period was teach the paper what "technology" meant. It's not just the latest copier, it's the electric power system. It's not just the subways, it's the sewage system. I covered Apple, and I covered Kodak's introduction of the digital camera. I profiled Andrew Grove, who later became CEO of Intel. I was writing about experiments with cell phones in Jersey City and also doing stories about Chinese agriculture and the anniversary of the mechanical cotton picker.
New technology always seems to elicit new phobias and fears. Now, we worry about privacy, dwindling attention spans and whether Facebook is making us lonely. What were people's biggest tech fears in the 1970s? I think people felt that they were being pushed around by all these new capabilities and made to feel inadequate a lot of the time. When some new stuff comes along, whether it's 1760 or today, new stuff means new skills. It's new stuff someone else may know more about than you or a new machine in the office that you have to learn to use.
The big thing that bothered everyone in the '70s were copiers because they were always crapping out. And you were always in a hurry because someone needed the copies you were making. You felt like a klutz a lot of the time.
What was it like covering Apple as the company was just starting out? I was invited to witness a demonstration of the Apple II, which Mike Markkula, who was then the chairman of Apple, demonstrated to me at the Plaza Hotel in New York City in 1977. The top PR man in Silicon Valley, Regis McKenna, had arranged this demonstration. It was amazing because there were peripherals -- a printer and some devices for reading some kind of memory disk -- all over that hotel room and connected to the Apple II to show its potential as a word processor as well as a calculating machine. I was thrilled. I absolutely loved it.
You've seen a lot of technologies hyped, launch, then fail. What do you see as overhyped now? The obvious answer is social media. There's a lot of practical usefulness to social media, but at the same time there's an enormous amount of hype about this, and people get tired of that. There is a realistic maximum you can spend on social media. There are the classic things that human beings do that people have to leave space for. You can't run life on gossip. You have to make useful things. Whether you apply yourself to writing a speech or hammering away at something, you can't be texting while you're doing that.
What was the most memorable thing you covered as part of your beat? The most dramatic moment took place around 9:30 p.m. on the evening of July 13, 1977, when I was in my apartment in Brooklyn looking across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan, and the lights start going out in Manhattan as well as in my own apartment. That was the blackout of 1977, and it was certainly the most dramatic moment of my career as a technology reporter at The New York Times. [My story on that] was the most important thing in the paper. And usually my stuff was not the most important thing in the paper.