The other day I received an email from a good friend, and in it, he was telling me that he had overrun his hard drive capacity in his computer.  Or maybe it was his digital camera.  After reading this, I started thinking about what we all have taken for granted. 

I can remember quite clearly (I think) when I had my first computer and it had a massive storage capacity for information of 32k bytes.  And for backing up, there was this audio-cassette.  And then it wasn’t too long before some bright person came up with the idea of storing information on floppy-disks.  Of course, in those days, a floppy disk was a bit over 5” in diameter, and as I recall, the amount of stuff you would be able to keep on one of these was 256,000 doo-wah bits or bytes or something.  Then we went to smaller disks, then to CD-roms, to memory stick-things, to little chip-like things in digital cameras that can store shed-loads of photos on something that is only a couple of centimetres square.  How times have changed.  And to me, what is even more amazing is that we just assume that the fact that one of those little postage-stamp sized storage chip thingys have as much ability to store things as God-knows-how-many of those old floppy disks.   And even though tomorrow will probably result in another massive jump in innovation for our computers, we just assume that this is the way things are.  How soon we forget.

This letter was probably stimulated by the fact that in the past several days, I have been re-reading some old family letters.  By ‘old,’ I mean seriously old.  In 2005, the best friend of an Aunt of mine sent me a serious treasure trove of family documents that my Aunt had before she passed away.  Amongst the box was several sets of letters from family relatives that were their own version of “letters from the village.”  Except in this case, they were letters written home whilst serving in the army during the American Civil War.  Over the weekend I received another set, this time coming from a relative I didn’t even know I had.  I had read the letters when Sue first sent them to me, but it was a good thing to re-read the set that Betsy had sent.  It was whilst reading this treasure trove of family history that I realised that we probably don’t really appreciate all we have today.

The letters, written by both Frank and John Rieley who were both in the Union Army but serving in two different units, were written to their family to both keep them abreast with what was going on at the front and to let them know they were still alive.  Whilst many of the letters relate just ‘stuff’ about being where they were, some of them tell of serious exploits (Frank at one point had been captured and managed to escape from the Confederate force what was holding him).  It was also clear that there were two common themes in all the letters.

One theme was the almost desperate desire to hear from their family at home.  The other theme was that they often didn’t even have enough money to buy paper, envelopes or stamps to send the letters home.  They couldn’t call home because it was eleven years after the end of the Civil War that Mr. Bell finally figured out how to get his phone idea to work.  They couldn’t send an email home because it was, well, that should be pretty obvious.

How times have changed.  Today, we don’t even think twice about whipping out a letter, although most of us do it through the magic of email (or in some cases, we write letters and put them on a website so that many friends and relatives can share our experiences).  We have the ability to send photos and video’s back and forth electronically (from our mobile phones if we want) with no more effort than it takes to make a few clicks.  150 years ago, the best case scenario was to find someone who even had a camera and then wait until the image could be etched onto a thin steel plate and then have to post it…and then wait the several weeks it would take to arrive, assuming it actually did arrive.  If you wanted to find out what was going on, now we just click on some news website.  Then you had to find someone who actually had a newspaper or wait for a letter from home.  When the Rieley boys went home after the war, it took them several weeks; the last time I flew back to America to spend time with my sons, it took nine hours.  And yet, there I was, whinging about the time it took me.  I must admit feeling like quite the wimp after reading the letters written my my relatives.  The very fact that previous members of my family kept them and passed them along is so special.  What are we saving for our children's children, and their children?  Some maxed-out, out-of-date hard drive?

I think we take so much for granted, and perhaps we shouldn’t.  Yes, it is 2008 and things are different than they were in the 1860's, but at the rate that technology is evolving, I cannot even imagine what things will be like for my grandchildren…and what their expectations will be because of it.  At least they will be able to learn, through the letters and photos that have been passed down that their lives will not be the same as it used to be years ago.  Something worth remembering. 



1978...my first computer, without the cassette drive


today, with 262,144 times the power, and it fits in my pocket




John Rieley, my great grand Uncle



Frank Rieley, my great Grandfather, with his wife, Theresa




Frank Rieley's re-enlistment papers from 1864

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copyright 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, James B. Rieley