Thursday, August 07, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Personal Computer History

I've been reminiscing on tech gone by lately, since I'm kind of sort of in the research stages for a new laptop. I was one of the first generation to grow up with computers in the schools, though what we had was a far cry from what kids have these days. Fancy touch tablets would have BLOWN OUR MINDS.

What I remember most clearly from early grade school days: old Apple computers with green text on a black screen (Apple IIs?). We didn't get much time with them, but did have one class where we were given a sheet with a list of commands (to make the cursor draw a line left, up, right, down). If we entered the entire tedious list correctly, we could draw something as exciting as--a circle! Whoa. And yet, it really was amazing to see a bunch of tiny steps accumulate to become tangible. A good lesson for a kid.

Later, our first home computer was a secondhand IBM PC/XT with two 5 1/4" floppy drives and no hard drive. It had GAMES. Granted, most of the games were very limited shareware text based adventures written in BASIC, but even so. Best of all, because everything was so simple and limited back then, even we as dopey kids figured out how to get into the code and change it. "You are now entering baby at the time's room. A fat, drooling creature stares at you balefully from a four-legged cage in the right corner. Naked miniature plastic corpses litter the floor. What do you want to do?"

We also had Hack, which is now Nethack, which is still perhaps the best dungeon adventure game of all time, and which I still haven't ever beaten. I always seem to end up starving or turned to dust just before the good part. Argh. But this does mean I still play it now and then, and thus my gaming hardware requirements are, shall we say, modest.

We had assorted other secondhand computers over the years, though none that really stick in my head like that first one. I remember games like International Bridge Contractors, and a Winter Olympics game (WinterG) we played for days straight. I also remember composing music of a sort--somewhere one of my brothers still has "Munchkin Dance," which was our crowning achievement. If I ever track it down...I'll link to it. Electronic random weirdness. We were ahead of our time.

The first computer I ever purchased with my own money was a Pentium 90 with 8MB(!) of RAM and a 1GB(!) hard drive, running Windows 95. Just to contrast, my current phone has 2 GIGABYTES of RAM and 32GB of storage space, plus an extra 16GB on a card the size of a fingernail.

But that computer was my first connection to the Internet (via dial-up, of course). It was so new to me, I remember typing random words and brands .com just to see what (if anything) came up. And later, I was able to talk to Mom all the way back in Vermont using ICQ (remember that?). At the time, I was stationed in Germany, and being instantly able to see what she was typing halfway across the world was pretty incredible.

I experienced my first laptop during a project in Germany: it was at least two inches thick, had a tiny screen that lagged behind anything actually typed, and must have weighed ten pounds. And I fell in love. The whole idea of a self-contained computer you could carry around (sort of) just enchanted me. I've *mostly* had laptops ever since, despite the drawbacks. They've come a long way, baby. It's a little ridiculous how I'm now fretting over whether a system weighs under three pounds or closer to four, and if I can afford a Super Duper Ridiculously High Resolution screen or just one a mere gazillion times better than anything I could have imagined all those years ago.

I'm pretty sure any of them can handle Nethack.


notagain said...

I bet you've been enjoying Ted Munk's retro computing work on his blog (as have I) This is a fun post.

Bill M said...

It's always the first that is special and what we remember. We did not have computers in school back in the old days -- we had TYPEWRITERS!

Wasn't it fun way back when changing the 5-1/4 inch floppies around to run programs?

My first computer was a T.I-99/4a.

Ted said...

Yay! Paleocomputing memories :D

I still think BASIC should be installed by default on all computers and taught to 5th-6th graders. Get them on the path of understanding that computers are far more interesting than the applications that someone else wrote for them.

MTCoalhopper said...

Actually, I don't think the idea of tablet computers would have blown our minds. We grew up with the original Star Trek series. Those "personal access data devices" being carried by the mini-skirted crew members look a lot like iPads, in retrospect.

When one of my friends was building his Xerox 8088 computer from scratch, I had my mom's Hermes 3000. When my contemporaries had Atari consoles, I had a Smith Corona Corsair. My first interaction with a real computer was my uncle's Compaq "portable." It probably weighed twenty pounds and had a three or four inch, monochrome screen. I think I still have some 5-1/4 inch floppies, somewhere, full of BASIC programming.

Curiously enough, we were using a digitizer tablet to set up for CNC machining in the early 80's. Now, I'm using a Wacom Intuos unit for drafting. It's a refinement, but not a technological leap forward, rather akin to the fact that we still have qwerty keyboards.

It really was a purer time, back in the day. Dial-up modems taught us the value of delayed gratification. Line-by-line programming taught us the correlation between cause and effect... those of us who hadn't learned it from using a typewriter, anyway.

Little Flower Petals said...

@Ted - I think teaching BASIC is a great idea! It'd help with more than just programming: it also helps with developing skills in troubleshooting and logic in general. I'm not a programmer (though I do some troubleshooting that goes into code, albeit not writing it), but I know I use a lot of the things I learned from messing around with BASIC: carefully comparing known-good to something that isn't working, fixing issues via trial and error, etc., etc., etc.

Bill M said...

One of the greatest things lacking from modern computer use is good programmers and programmers that can write good code.

Seems too many have grown up using computers and never fully learning how they work and those who go onto programming never learned effient well structured coding.

I agree, schools should teach BASIC to students in 5th - 6th grades since that is about the time many children start to seriously become interested in a career and / or serious hobby.

Remember 4-bit word lengths and the move to 8-bit?

Anonymous said...

I was into my 30s before PCs were commonly available. Not affordable, just available. "My" first computers filled large rooms, had separate air conditioning systems, and ingested key punch cards. It was before turn key software was around; every system/program was written from scratch. Kind of an exciting time.

I like the idea of using BASIC or even easy COBOL to teach kids the essentials of programming. A lot of life lessons can derive from such learning: trial and error, cause and effect. But I wouldn't wish key punch machines or those huge stacks of cards (one line of code, 80 character limit per card)
on anyone.

Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I'm inspired to get out one of my slide rules and keep it near the Underwood desktop typewriter.

Jeff The Bear

Little Flower Petals said...

Once upon a time, Dad taught us how to at least do basic addition and subtraction on a slide rule. I think. Is that possible? Every so often I see one at the antique store and am tempted, just because, but I've resisted so far.

The oldest tech we had around when I was a kid was a boxy calculator--the sort that had red, lit-up characters and ran off a 9V battery. Not sure how old it was, but compared to the slim solar-paneled models that I used it high school, it was formidable.

Anonymous said...

Hi Elizabeth,

I have a very vague memory that there's a way to add and subtract on a slide rule but they weren't designed for it. Might look it up. I can still use one for basic multiply, divide, squares, cubes and their roots. The log and trigonometry scales are part of a distant, forgotten past. (There's a reason I was an English and Voice major in college.)

The first calculator I recall was in 1968-ish. Used a 9 volt battery, and was bigger than a paperback book and heavier. They were an expensive luxury item and a novelty back then, close to a hundred bucks. A more versatile slide rule that could last for decades cost 10 to 20 dollars.

Jeff The Bear

Little Flower Petals said...

It may well have been multiplication and division, then. It's been awhile!