Meet the original digital nomad, who worked remotely in 1984


At one point, Steve Roberts had no peers. He was the one and only “technomad”.

It was 1983, 10 years before the invention of the World Wide Web, when Roberts, a freelance writer and business consultant from Columbus, Ohio, decided to turn his recumbent bike into a mobile office.

“Somewhere along the line, I thought, ‘Wait a minute, freelance writing is supposed to be licensed to be free, but I’m chained to my desk,’” says Roberts.

Steve roberts [Photo: Maggie Victor]

He looked around at the stuff he had collected in his house in the suburbs and realized he didn’t really want it. So he made a list of all his passions – cycle touring, IT, technology, adventure – and wondered how he could make it a lifestyle. Eventually he decided to sell his belongings, live off what he could ride his bike, and write to support his dream of traveling.

Today, a myriad of people call themselves digital nomads. With a laptop and internet access, they can live unhindered lives, able to work just about anywhere. Unattached project estimates that there are currently 10.9 million Americans who match the description, compared to 7.3 million teleworkers before the pandemic. This figure is likely to increase as millions of people continue to realize the flexibility and freedom that remote working can offer.

While people currently cannot travel the same way they did before the Delta Variant appeared and borders were easier to negotiate, working from anywhere has become much more normalized over the past 18 months. , enabling digital nomadism on a staggering new scale. This is something the original and pioneering digital nomad could only have dreamed of.

But while today’s telecommuters have plenty of resources to get started and access amazing technologies to make their jobs easier, there was no plan yet to be productive when Roberts began his telecommuting journey. Staying connected on the road was infinitely more difficult.

“Back then you had hard-wired phones on the walls, the computers were very large, and people were just starting to argue over whether it would be possible to work from home,” recalls Roberts.

He bought a TRS-80 Model 100 laptop from Radio Shack, got a CompuServe account, and outfitted his recumbent bike with a security system pager, solar charging system, and cases for his fitness equipment. camping and hit the road.

In the first year and a half, he rode over 10,000 miles on his bike, writing articles in his tent and filing the pieces via a pay phone. Although Roberts did not invent the technology, he was the first to use it in such an unorthodox way. By posting stories while wandering, he became something of a celebrity. Tons of newspapers, magazines and TV hosts interviewed him almost every week. In numerous articles, journalists have reflected on the implications of these new tools: what could this mean for the future of work? Did people really need to work in an office?

[Photo: courtesy of Steve Roberts]

“I think what gave weight to my story was that it showed the implications of what this technology could do for people,” says Roberts. “People saw computers develop but hadn’t thought about how it would lead to fundamental lifestyle changes or a difference in the way we interact with other cultures. “

At one point, Roberts decided he preferred to find a way to integrate the computer into the frame of the bike. That way he could actually write while riding. In 1986, he installed a keyboard in the handlebars of the second version of his bike. Granted, these weren’t the top five rows of keys that most would recognize. There were only a handful of buttons, and when Roberts pressed them in different combinations it resulted in various letters, as well as keys like backspace, backspace, space, and caps lock.

But he had not finished there. In the early 90s, he designed the last version of his bike, which he nicknamed Behemoth. This bike incorporated all of these earlier technologies and more. It had satellite data communications for international emails and phone calls, a printer, a small refrigerator, and a mouse on his headset so he could control the Mac environment by nodding his head. In total, the bike weighed 580 pounds and had 105 speeds. It took over three years and $ 1.2 million (funded by over 150 sponsors) to build with a team of 45 people.

“It was a lot of end-to-end technology,” says Roberts. Today, Behemoth lives in the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California (with a personal computer he built in 1974, one of the first).

In the years that followed, Roberts shifted his focus from bicycles to personal watercraft; today he lives on a boat off Washington State. He doesn’t travel as much as he used to, but says he’s still a digital nomad.

[Photo: Dan Burden]

“The tools are so ubiquitous now, I don’t know how I would otherwise live or what I would call myself,” says Robert. “We all do it now, but some are moving and some are not. “

Roberts said he often wonders what Behemoth would look like today. Unlike before, when he had to create every detail of his remote working setup from scratch, even until sending files, today these tools are ubiquitous, they are only part of the world we live in. Now experience the same freedom Roberts had decades ago. , you only need a computer, a cell phone and a few solar chargers.

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