Remembering the command line

I’m currently writing a section for my dissertation about how computers support or don’t support particular conversational cues. I’m writing about some very old stuff, and trying to remember how certain things worked. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

My first experience communicating with a modem provides one place to start. I do not remember the particular software being used, so I won’t be able to ascribe the interface to a particular package; I can say, however, that my friends Robert, Misasha, and I were making use of dial-up modems with DOS machines (belonging to their fathers), when we were in our early teens.

Sitting at one end of the line, Robert and I were faced with a nearly blank screen, working from the command line (text presented one line at a time); there was no graphical interface, no buttons to press. As I recall, commands entered to connect Robert’s modem to Misasha’s remained onscreen as Robert and Misasha began to type to each other. If Robert and Misasha typed at the same time, the computer would show letters on the screen as it processed them — meaning it was impossible to extract which text had been entered by Robert, and which by Misasha. The result was a small jumble of computer commands and bits and pieces of words, periodically separated by a line break or two as my friends attempted to distinguish what they were writing, to make it more readable.

Fast forward to another command-line technology, which I began to use upon entering college: telnetting to shell accounts on UNIX servers, with the “write” and “talk” commands enabled. These were also very simple means of communication; there was little on the screen except for words.

If I used the command “talk kceF95” from the prompt when my friend Kellan was online, UNIX would clear the screen and divide it in half horizontally. Anything I typed would appear in the bottom half of the screen; anything Kellan typed, in the top. An improvement over the modem: we didn’t have to do anything to disentangle our own words from each others’. However, like the modem, Kellan’s letters and mine would still appear as they were received by the machine. This meant we could still be talking at the same time; often, we were, in violation of Sacks et al’s observation that in ordinary conversation, “Overwhelmingly, one party talks at a time.”

So there’s a couple of things I could use help with here:

  • What was the software/protocol Robert and I were using, and was it just computer-based or did we actually have to do something with a phone for dialing? Robert will probably remember this better than anyone else. Robert?
  • I don’t remember how “write” worked on Telnet, and I’ve misplaced my RSA key so I can’t get into the one shell account I still have SSH access to in order to jog my memory. What I need to know is how text appeared on the screen. As I recall it overwrote other stuff on the screen, scrolled up, and there was somehow a means to tell your writing apart from someone else’s, but it wasn’t as distinct on the screen as “talk.”
  • What were the ways to manipulate how “write” appeared? I remember something like “echo,” but I don’t recall how it worked.

Any reminders would be much appreciated.

Comments 2

  1. Roger wrote:

    Posted 10 Jul 2009 at 3:41 pm
  2. Roger wrote:

    That first one — Hayes commands, also known as “AT commands,” were the way you controlled your modem if you didn’t have software that provided a more user-friendly wrapper on it and/or if you wanted more precise control over what it was doing.

    The details of how “write” and “talk” work are, I think, somewhat dependent on what particular flavor of Unix system you’re using.

    Posted 10 Jul 2009 at 3:44 pm

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