Gizmo's farewell at The Courier-Journal

It was 1982 when this column first appeared in these pages. Back then Scene was a tabloid with a color cover that wrapped around the Saturday edition of The Louisville Times. In those days, it was all about restaurants, music, movies, entertainment and anything that was cool, unusual or fun. It even had its own local comic strip.

The editor, Greg Johnson, thought it should also have a column that covered audio, video, electronic games and the exploding world of personal computers. I didn’t bribe him to get the job, but I would have.

Some of the topics I wrote about that first year included the long-awaited home version of Pac-Man; new computers from Commodore, Atari and Texas Instruments; the battle between two online giants (CompuServe and The Source, not Facebook and Google); why high-bias cassette tapes were worth the extra cost; and the first movie to use computer-generated animation. It was called “Tron.”

Over the years, the column featured a steady stream of gadgets that were new and different if not always affordable or practical. There was the $8,000 grand piano that played music from a floppy disk and an $8 kit for making a clock out of paper.

I wrote about a phone you could wear on your wrist and a watch that was powered by water. One year I told you about a racetrack where the jockeys were robots, the next year about a wind-powered car that was going to “save us from dirty air and $2-a-gallon gasoline.”

I covered the fall of digital audio tape and the rise of the compact disc; said goodbye to the Betamax and hello to Netflix; complained that cable companies wouldn’t support stereo and cheered when DirecTV came to town; played digital games from Zork to Call of Duty; and watched Apple stumble with the Lisa and the Newton, then strike it rich with the iPod and iPad.

Most weeks, the column focused on hardware or software, but it also told the stories of the people behind the ideas, many of them homegrown pioneers and entrepreneurs.

There were tinkerers like Ray Rommel, who rigged his ham radio to broadcast video, and Andrew Prell, who built virtual reality arcade games in his garage. Mike Kibbey, Larry Fields and Carolyn Hoskins launched Louisville’s first computer bulletin boards.

Long before Best Buy, we had boutique stores owned by people like Scott Horan, who took the mystery out of home computers, or audiophiles Larry Staples and Kermit Knutson. Their stores sold high-end audio gear that you couldn’t find at Circuit City or Tokyo Shapiro.

Elizabeth Lawler, Shamir Dasgupta and Chaz Rough were digital designers who made the new World Wide Web a place that was easy to explore and fun to visit. Jane Metcalfe was one-half of the partnership that launched Wired magazine, Lonnie Falk built a thriving magazine around a $400 Tandy computer, and Doug Cobb turned a book about Lotus 1-2-3 into a tech publishing empire.

Steven Roberts aboard the Winnebiko
And there was Seneca grad Steven Roberts, the first digital road warrior. In 1983 he wrote a book called “Computing Across America” while pedaling coast to coast on a recumbent bicycle equipped with a solar panel and a Radio Shack Model 100 computer.

People like them helped us learn how technology could not just keep us entertained but also make our lives easier and maybe teach us a few things. And that’s what I tried to do in this space.

After 30 years and about 1,500 of these columns, this one is the last. It’s time to reboot. In a few days, I’ll be leaving The Courier-Journal, but I won’t be unplugging my keyboard. I plan to continue writing about personal technology, and I should be pretty easy to find. After all, we have this new invention called the Internet.

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