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Lost Empires

Okay, last time, I was talking about Cahners Publishing, and how I got a job there, and how it was all so all terribly, terribly, metaphorical.


Picking up the tale, I had gotten the job at Mini-Micro Systems, and it was terribly exciting. I was a for-real journalist at last...or, well, sort of real. At least real enough to have a desk and business cards. I was working for one of the biggest publishers in the country -- in fact, *the* biggest trade press publisher in the country. And fascinating people, ranging from entrepreneurs to venture capitalists, were asking to meet with me (whoa!) and inviting me to press conferences.


As I say, very exciting. Only, if I’d been a more sensitive man, or at least a brighter one, I’d have realized that there was a sense of melancholy about it all. First, there was my magazine, Mini-Micro Systems. The kicker is in that “mini.” There are multiple kinds of computers. A “mainframe” is one of the real big ones--the kind that fill whole rooms and send you your bills. A “micro” is, usually, a desktop or smaller system. Your PC or your Mac is a micro. So, actually, is your phone, but that’s a tale for another day.





About the photos: As per norm, two today. The first is experimental. It is an AI generated image of a computer animated by the Runway ML technology. I wanted it to suggest the excitement, but also the sadness of the computer market of the 1980s and 1990s.



Okay, a mini is one that’s right between those two. It’s way smaller than a mainframe, but bigger than a desktop system.(1) They were developed in the 1960s and afterwards to rival mainframes, particularly IBM’s mainframes.


For a good deal of the 1960s and 1970s, and even into the 1980s, minis were big, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. They were giving IBM serious competition and making fortunes for companies that sold them -- for example, Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC), Data General, Wang, Prime, and so on.


In the process, they were making Boston rich. A good many of the mini makers were clustered around Route 128. This was the origin of the area’s economic boom of the 1980s, the so called “Massachusetts Miracle.”(2) It was quite impressive, and, in fact, seemed like it was going to propel Michael Dukakis to the White House.


Ah, but there was the rub. Minis were shortly to be challenged by desktop micros--starting with engineering workstations (Apollo, Sun), and then by PCs and Macs. Silicon Valley rushed in to fill the space that 128 once held. The Massachusetts Miracle turned into a debacle, Michael Dukakis didn’t get near the White House, and, slowly, but surely, the Mini makers withered.


My magazine, Mini-Micro Systems, was partially protected from all that by the “micro” after the hyphen in its name. We did write about PCs a lot and that, plus the advertising PC vendors provided, saved the magazine for a time.


But ...still...a chunk of our business came from the mini industry, and we suffered as that industry faltered. Mini-Micro Systems was soon in trouble. I was gone by the time the magazine was shut down in 1989, but it was still a shock when I heard it had folded.


For Cahners, though, there was way worse to come. “Controlled-circulation, trade press publishing” was in trouble as an industry. The Web was making the world complicated. The whole publishing industry was in decline. Magazines began to fold. Companies merged or went out of business.


Mr. Cahners had sold his company in 1977 to Reed Elsevier (today “Relix”), though he remained at the helm until his death in 1986. After that...there were layoffs. Titles were closed. Others were sold. The company shifted most of Cahners’ functions to New York City. By the early 2000s, Cahners was, effectively, gone.


At the end, I’m told, things got kind of ugly. To give you some idea of what it was like, when I worked at “the Cahners Building,” there was an enormous portrait of Mr. Cahners in the lobby. It was a rather handsome piece, actually. I admired it.


But, when the company moved away, the managers contacted Mr. Cahner’s daughter and told her that if she wanted the painting she’d darn well better come and get it. So, she came to the building, but...or, at least according to the Boston Globe...the Powers That Be wouldn’t meet with her in the building itself. Rather, they met her in the garage, handed her painting, and, that was that.(3) It was a sad end for what had been a magnificent, family-owned company.


I hadn’t worked for Cahners for years by that time. Which was good, because I would have found its demise rather wrenching. But the genuine reason I mention all of this is because Cahners’ history is, for me, a metaphor.


If I’d ever had any hope that Boston was still *really* my home, or the Boston that I knew might still be real, and if I ever hoped to somehow regain that part of my life when I was very young and the world was oh so new...


Well...I would have been cured of those delusions on that day. Seeing the Cahners Building, now One Newton Place, would have made certain of it. The industry I used I work in? Changed beyond recognition. The companies I covered? Most of them gone forever. The magazines I wrote for? Long ago shuttered, their back issues only available to the scholarly and the nostalgic on the Internet Archive.(4)


But...but...


Is that really necessarily a bad thing?


The answer, of course, is no.


And I will try to explain that soon.


More to come.






The second is of Martha at a restaurant we like in the town of Wimberley. I will be writing about Wimberley (again) in the near future.





Footnotes


1. Yes, mini-computers have their own Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minicomputer

2. Massachusetts Miracle, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massachusetts_Miracle

3. My source for this story is “Cahners are goners,” by Dennis Johnson, on the Melville House books site, here: https://www.mhpbooks.com/cahners-are-goners/. In the piece, Johnson cites a report by Boston Globe reporter Alex Beam to the effect that the shut down was clumsy in the extreme. Beam quotes Nancy Cahners, the daughter, saying that “”The handoff was so clumsy, they wouldn’t even let me in the building...They gave me the painting in the garage.'”

4. Yes, that includes Mini-Micro Systems. Do the following search and you’ll find it: https://archive.org/search?query=Mini-Micro+Systems. Look long enough in the issues from 1985 and you’ll also find some of my own articles. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad, I’ll leave to your judgement.


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Care to help out?


I provide these blog postings for free. That’s fine and I’m happy to do so. But, long ago and far away, I was told that if you give away your material, that means you don’t really think it has any value.


So, to get beyond that, I’ve decided to make it possible for you to leave me a “tip” for my posts.


If you like what I write or the videos I produce, and feel you could make a small contribution to support my efforts, please go here:



That will take you to a Gumroad page where you’ll have the option of leaving me a few pence by way of encouragement.


Again, I don’t mind if you don’t. I just want to provide you with the option so that I won’t feel quite so much like I’m just tossing my works into the wind.


Either way, thanks hugely for dropping by the blog :-)


~mjt



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