Hitchcock River had gotten so badly polluted that going for a dip in it would get you one of two things: superpowers or some kind of nasty flesh-eating bacterial infection. And as awesome as it'd be to have X-Ray vision, it was just not worth the risk.

Decades ago, Ed B. was working for an underfunded state research team with an insanely-frugal mad scientist at the helm. They were working together to study the sludge that flowed through Hitchcock River, and had a semi-friendly rivalry with a well-funded lab in a neighboring city ("Shelbyville"). Ed didn't mind the cheap boss or shoddy equipment, though, because the equipment they used had such cool names. Honestly, one of the devices they used was called a "gas chromatograph mass selective detector." Awesome.

Measuring Flux Capacitance

The gas chromatograph mass selective detector (or "gasachromamassaseladetecta" for short) would separate the 90-odd pollutants from a sample and send the quantities of each to a recording device via 300-baud modem. The data was recorded to a standard cassette tape, which Ed would run to the Texas Instruments Silent 700 tape deck (with an accoustic coupler) that would dial the Vax mainframe at a nearby college campus. Then Ed would twiddle his thumbs for about an hour while it transmitted, waiting to edit the data. Edits using the mainframe's editor were tricky, and if the connection dropped during the edit process, he'd often have to retransmit all of the data and start over. On a good night, they'd process three samples.

When Ed got a chance to visit their rivals' lab, he was floored at how much better their equipment was. Everything was computerized, and entirely based on brand new "Apple" computers. What a strange name for a computer, Ed recalls thinking. He was in a state of disbelief when he learned that all of the lab's computers could talk to one another; the possibilities would be endless if he could get that in his lab! He asked how he could get his PCs to do that. "You can't," said Gary with a smirk. "Only Apples can do that."

And to add further insult, their lab had a few good looking female lab assistants! Ed's primary female contact on the job was the overseer of the Vax mainframe – a 67 year old grandmother with anger management issues, who would frequently throw fits, slamming a binder full of the source code on the monitor whenever she suspected someone of meddling with the system.

Ed clenched his fist and gritted his teeth, knowing in his heart that he had to beat those smug fancypants researchers with their adequate funding, their cool Apple computers, and their hot lab assistants. He briefly considered chancing a dip in Hitchcock River to gain superpowers (and therefore an unfair advantage), but decided instead to focus his energies on good old-fashioned manual process improvement.

Making Do

Ed's lab had two semi-IBM PCs. Specifically, they were Korean knockoffs that were less than half of the cost, equipped with 12" amber screens and 3MHz of processing power. And with these PCs and a whole lot of elbow grease, Ed figured out a way to bypass the tape desk, the accoustic coupler, and the mainframe. He'd plug the gas chromatograph mass selective detector's output into a breakout box's input, and the breakout box's output to a PC's serial port. The breakout box had jumper wires that could connect any input pin to any output pin, which he whittled down to the correct configuration by trial and error.

Additionally, he and another researcher rebuilt the FORTRAN-based software from the Vax mainframe in a week and a half using GW Basic (which the computer snobs called "Gee-Wiz Basic") on one of the lab's PCs. The PCs had a better text editor (and he didn't have to worry about dropping connections while editing the data), so the process had improved considerably. Now they could run an incredible 20 samples in a single day, edit the data, and print the results.

Still, Ed wasn't completely satisfied. He couldn't stand the fact that the Apple computers were able to connect and share resources with one another, while his lab's aging computers were oblivious to eachothers' existences. Ed racked his brain, did whatever research he could, and was ready to experiment with some hardware.

His solution involved a stack of auto switching printer boxes, a... *ahem* borrowed copy of software called LapLink, loads of cables, and a few paper clips. No, the paper clips aren't a setup for a hilarious MacGyver joke, they were used to suspend the cables from the ceiling as state regulations prevented them from running cabling through the ceiling. The PCs (including a few old 8088s that he'd gotten from other employees as they upgraded to 286s) and lab equipment communicated via serial ports, so Ed's solution required him to yank the end of a parallel cable off and connect the wires to serial pin outs. The printer boxes of course had no idea they were connected to other computers and not printers, but who cares? The system worked, and it may have been one of (if not the) first PC networks.

Now users could work at their terminals and send their updates to the main PC, dubbed the "Central Laboratory Information Terminal." Some of the newer female lab assistants never seemed to understand the snickering among their male colleagues whenever the terminal was discussed. Not that Ed would complain that there was finally some extra help in the lab.

With some other process tweaks, custom-built utilities, and (finally) the arrival of an on-site mainframe, they were able to increase their sample output by over 1000% – to the point that they could process samples faster than they could be collected.

Fame and Fort-, Er, Just Fame

Ed's lab had become famous, at least among other labs in the area. Scientists from other labs would visit to have a laugh at the messy little lab with cables hanging from the ceilings, their ancient instruments and PCs, and the fleet of nice-looking young women that did the sample prep work.

Eventually Gary came out from Shelbyville to check the lab out. Initially, he was giving a smirk that screamed "how quaint," but after seeing the ingenuity behind it all, he had to admit that he was impressed. With substantially less funding, old equipment, and inferior computers, Ed and his team built solutions to get more work done faster than Gary's. Not one to directly admit he was wrong, however, Gary (quietly) asked for advice on report generation, macro programming, not to mention a few unsuccessful attempts at luring away some of their (more attractive) crew members.