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Tales from the crypt: Our first computers

Tales from the crypt: Our first computers

Computerworld editors share stories of their first PCs, from classics to clunkers

1989: Learning to love DOS

My first machine was an IBM PC XT 286 running a 6-MHz x286 processor. Made in 1986, it was purchased by a newspaper I used to work for, and it eventually found its way to my desk around 1989.

I loved that machine and DOS. I was fascinated with learning how it worked, what it did, its little secrets. There was the majestic C:\ prompt on boot-up, asking, challenging. It suggested possibility. It was perfect.

And for browsing the Net, there was never a faster machine. Text-based browsing via Lynx was T1 responsive.

When I finally moved to Windows 3.1 and a white box x486, I realized I had lost my best friend in the bargain.

-- Patrick Thibodeau

1983: Inspiration for young geeks

This nerd-child's friend back in the day was the Commodore VIC-20. At the time, it retailed for around $300, though I didn't buy it myself -- I think Santa brought it.

The VIC-20 wasn't exactly a cutting-edge machine, but I did have an 8-pin dot-matrix printer and the iconic cassette-drive storage. (Nerdlets of the modern era will never know the horror of taping over their code with a Duran Duran song from Night Tracks.)

So, what does one do with a VIC-20? I programmed, tried some of the games and basically just tried to figure out "what happens if I do THIS?" Oddly enough, my favorite thing to do was write fancy new fonts for that dot-matrix printer.

I would've killed to have dialed onto Prodigy, but local access for something like that was just not something we were going to get in rural Nebraska.

The Commodore VIC-20. Courtesy of Cbmeeks under GNU Free Documentation License 1.2 and Creative Commons ShareAlike 3.0.

With my VIC-20, anything seemed possible, and everything seemed important and useful. I wish I was as enthralled today with all my pretty MacBook Pros and tablets and ultramobile toys as I was with that single machine.

I've thought a lot about the VIC-20 as the One Laptop Per Child project has unfurled. It really is the possibility, not the power, that will hook a kid on computing.

-- Angela Gunn

1983 and 1985: Dual CPUs and 'the peanut'

My first tech journalism job was at Digital Review in 1983. We used top-o'-the-line, green-screen DEC Rainbow 100 computers with no hard drive, 128KB of RAM (later upgraded to 256KB) and dual 5.25-inch floppy drives for the program disk and the data disk.

The Rainbows came with two CPUs -- the Zilog Z80 chip for running CP/M, and the Intel 8088 chip for running MS-DOS -- but we stuck with CP/M for all our tasks.

One day we came into the office to find that our amazing tech editor had rigged up a client/server system overnight. He'd put wires through the ceiling and hooked us all into a PC in the storage room with a humongous 5MB of RAM. He put all our programs on that, and we thought we would never need anything more.

By 1985, I was in freelancing-with-kids mode and bought my first computer, an IBM PCjr (affectionately known as "the peanut" by some), for US$1,500. It was like a PC lite -- really lite.

The IBM PCjr with improved (not "chiclet") keyboard.

It had no hard drive and just one floppy drive, so every time I needed to save, I had to switch out the program disk, put in the data disk, save my work and put the program disk back in. The tricky part was that it had so little memory, it held only about a page of text, so it required constant juggling.

But it was really cute.

It also had one cool feature: a remote infrared keyboard (not the original "chiclet" keyboard -- this was one you could actually type on). So I could sit several feet away with the keyboard on my lap, as long as it was pointed in the right direction. I got used to that and still work that way, but, alas, without infrared.

As for connectivity ... well, when I finished a story, I took the disk to UPS.

-- Kathleen Melymuka


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