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Congress Before the World Wide Web

Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, takes a break from arranging his office to work on his computer. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

With computers in every congressional office and smartphones attached to lawmakers' and staffers' hands, it might be hard to remember what Congress was like before the Internet.  

But for former Rep. Jim Coyne, it feels like yesterday. The Pennsylvania Republican reminisced about the early stages of computer technology on Capitol Hill during a conversation with WAMU's "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." During a Tuesday segment of the show's weeklong stint on Capitol Hill in partnership with Roll Call, WAMU’s Metro Connection and the Folger Shakespeare Library, Nnamdi was discussing how the Internet has changed how Congress operates. That's when Coyne was compelled to call in and bring a "historical perspective" to the discussion.  

"Back in 1982 I set up the first email system for folks, constituents, to contact their congressman, 33 years ago," Coyne said. "So I heard a comment earlier that Congress was a little slow to embrace new technology, but we did our best back in the early ’80s to open up.”  

Coyne described how the email system was a way for constituents to voice their concerns and for the congressional offices to connect them with the right branch of government. But, at the time, sending the constituent's message to the right agency was a tad more arduous than clicking "forward."  

"The vision was that we would be able to just electronically send the constituent’s inquiry off to Social Security or wherever," Coyne said. "But typically we had to print them out and send them to the other part of government to make sure that they got the message.”  

Coyne also described the archaic "correspondence management systems" that were used to transpose letters or faxes, noting "the fax was the big new technology then." He said the system used primitive computers and offices were billed based on the amount of kilobytes used.  

Though Coyne said he was often eager to try new technology and was interested in ways to advance "electronic government," other members were not as quick to embrace the new means of communication.  

"I think in the first year we probably had maybe 80 members of Congress who embraced it to some degree or another," said Coyne. "Of course, within a few years every member of Congress was using email.”  

And Coyne said he worked to bring technology to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, as well. After leaving Congress, Coyne worked for President Ronald Reagan's administration, and he told Nnamdi he was the first person to bring a personal computer into the Oval Office.  

Apparently, RadioShack's Jim Roach brought a laptop to the White House and Coyne decided the president needed to see it.  

"I had programmed a little thing in it to play 'Hail to the Chief' to the president. It was the first time a computer was ever in the Oval Office," Coyne said. "So I've been playing my small, very small part in helping to advance electronic government.”  

Related: Kojo, Will and Roll Call on the Hill Kojo’s #Flashback Friday: Covering Congress, 40 Years Ago Roll Call’s Coverage of the Capitol and Congress as a Community The Kojo Nnamdi Show The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.

Topics: techie