Nifty gadget for journos on the go | The Canberra Times

news, history,

It’s an object that would be completely unfamiliar to anyone who never had the opportunity to work in a newsroom from the mid-1980s to the very early 1990s. And it’s been gathering dust at home for years, so I thought I’d bring it into my old workplace to show the young journos there a thing or two about the old days. I last recall using the NEC in 1996 and the sports department had first call on them because we were the department that did most of its work outside the office. NEC is short for Nippon Electrical Company and these machines were known by one and all as “Neck portables”. They had their limitations. One of the telecommunications Acts of the day prevented us using a better method of transmission on the telephone so, to get around the legal niceties, we had to attach the machine to the acoustic coupler (that’s the item in the bag that looks like a housing for a telephone handpiece). Once an article was ready for transmission, we would dial a dedicated line at The Canberra Times and await the correct signal that told you that you were connected and ready to hit the transmit button. You would then connect the coupler to its housing and wait for the green/yellow light to glow to give you the go-ahead. Then you would hit the F4 or F5 key to begin transmission. This was a most fraught process. You had to be careful not to knock the machine or coupler during transmission because it would halt the whole process and a red light would come on. You could confirm that the process had stopped by placing a careful ear to the coupler, and the tone would tell you if you were transmitting or not. If it stopped, you had to disconnect the coupler, hang up and begin the whole process over again. This also could have drastic consequences. If you hit stop, you could lose the whole file (it happened to me one ACT Australian Football League grand final night and I had to re-punch the whole report back in again as best I could recall from the original transmission and go through the whole process once again). Similarly, if you hit the wrong key (I can’t remember whether it was the F4 or F5 key), that would bring up a prompt to tell you the file was being “downloaded”. Back then, the “file to download” prompt actually meant the NEC was erasing all your copy. Even if you immediately hit the stop key, it was too late. All of the article was erased. The other possibility was that, even though the machine was carefully set up and not knocked or bumped, and the green light and transmission tone indicated that everything was going fine, it was not necessarily so. When we rang to check that the transmission was received, it sometimes had gone to a part of the computer called “wire fault”. That was much the lesser of two evils because, once we were made aware of this possibility, it was relatively easy to find (the article had arrived safely and in total). Of course I cannot tell you who, but three members of the sports department of the day also contributed to the Canberra sports pages of Fairfax’s Sunday Sun-Herald in Sydney. Even though we were all in the same stable, so to speak, some people feared that this was a hanging offence which might have severe consequences for these rogue contributors. When the NEC portables were introduced, it was quickly discovered that if you changed the parameters of your NEC in settings, you could send your copy by the NEC to The Sun-Herald. This negated a weekly trip to Old Parliament House with typewritten stories on copy paper, where a Sun telex operator had to punch out a tape and then feed that through their machine to send it on its way to Sydney. A far cry for today’s almost foolproof technology. In the bag was the machine itself in a brown cover, with a slightly dilapidated acoustic coupler, the rechargeable battery (normal AA batteries could also be used) and an instruction booklet.