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Tales from the crypt: Our first computers

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

Quick -- what was the first personal computer you ever owned? You don't have to think about it for even a second, do you? No matter how many machines you've had over the years, you always remember your first -- usually with great fondness.

In that spirit, we asked several Computerworld editors to share stories of their first PCs. While most of us joined the ranks of PC owners during the '80s, one didn't buy his first computer until 1995, and one "personal" computing tale dates back to 1970. Some of us were lucky enough to own some of history's great PCs, while others got stuck with turkeys.

We got a kick out of remembering the days of CP/M and DOS -- when programs ran off a cartridge or floppy disk, when a 6-MHz CPU was plenty fast, and when just owning a computer was the mark of a technology geek.

We invite you to reminisce along with us.

1982: Programming in BASIC, playing TI Invaders

My first home computer was a Texas Instruments 99/4A. We didn't have a monitor (we hooked it up to our television set) and there was no disk drive. Applications came on cartridges, and when I wrote my own programs in BASIC, I stored them on, yes, an audio cassette tape.

But it was a 16-bit system, which was fairly impressive for the time (I believe it was the first 16-bit home computer). One of the applications was rudimentary speech synthesis, which seemed exceedingly cool 25-plus years ago.

Having unlimited access to my very own machine was quite a treat. Back in high school, we used terminals connected to a time-shared mainframe, and the school had to pay for computer time used. My computer classes were cautioned not to waste that expensive time playing games (a warning that let's just say wasn't entirely effective).

I could play chess against my very own computer as often as I wanted, as well as games like Munchman and TI Invaders (quite a step up from Pong).

We eventually bought an acoustic coupler for it so we could dial into local text-based bulletin boards run by hobbyists. I've been hooked on online information ever since.

-- Sharon Machlis

1983: Mobile computing, '80s style

In early 1983, I found myself with two choices if I wanted a DOS-compatible system: IBM or Compaq. I was attracted to the idea of buying a non-IBM machine (sort of the psychological equivalent of getting a Linux system today), and got myself a Compaq Portable.

It was popularly known as the Compaq Luggable, because you could actually close it up and carry it around -- the keyboard attached to the front of the machine and folded up. It weighed 12 kilos and included:

  • Two 5.25-inch floppy drives (you got your application on one floppy and kept your data on the other).

  • No hard drive.

  • 256KB of RAM (I added another 128K to the 128K it came with).

  • A 4.77-MHz Intel 8088 CPU.

  • A 9-inch green screen.

    At a little over US$3,000, it was a real deal -- especially because it came with its own display.

When I got it home, the first thing I wanted to do was open it up and take a look at the insides. I couldn't figure out how to get in, but a helpful phone support tech steered me to a hidden pressure point that released the cover.

While the computer worked fine with just floppies, I soon realized that having a hard drive would be a lot more convenient. I loaded the machine with a 20MB "hardcard" -- a cool expansion card that you could slip into your system rather than having to actually install a separate hard drive.

I got myself an external modem to access e-mail and various BBSes. The phone company (I believe there was still only one at the time) charged extra for touch-tone service, so I set the computer to dial the numbers of the BBS or service I wanted using pulse dialing and then sent through any other codes I needed via tone dialing.

When I replaced my beloved Portable (with a Dell, I believe) after a few years, I gave it to my parents. Some time later, they got a new computer and my father tossed out the Portable before I could tell him not to. I always wanted to keep it because it was, for its time, very cool-looking.

-- Barbara Krasnoff

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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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1995: The Mac's darkest hour

The first computer I owned was one of the worst Apple Macs ever made.

I came late to this whole "online thing," as I described it back in 1995. At Thanksgiving that year, I asked a friend whether I should get a Mac or a PC. He told me to go Apple. Within a week, I'd gone shopping.

My purchase? A crippled, cobbled-together Macintosh Performa 6200, complete with 15-inch monitor. The price was around US$2,100, I think.

It came with a shocking amount of storage: a 1GB hard drive. It also came with 8MB of RAM and ran on a 75-MHz processor. Best of all, I could get online using the zippy 14.4K modem that came with it (and which I later upgraded to a 28.8K).

At the time, Apple had an online community (eWorld), and I joined that. Eventually I wound up as an AOL subscriber, where I found myself having a great time tracking down and printing up weather maps. Before long, I took off the training wheels and wound up really online, and I never looked back.

Given how buggy the computer was, how awful it was to upgrade and how often it crashed, it's a wonder I stayed with Apple. I got my first laptop less than two years later, an early PowerBook 3400. It's been all downhill for my bank account since then.

-- Ken Mingis

1985: Attack of the clones

In the summer of 1985, I accepted a technical support position at PC clone vendor Leading Edge Computer. It was there that I bought my first personal computer, the Leading Edge Model D.

The standard Model D included a 4.77-MHz 8088 processor, dual 5.25-inch floppy disk drives and 256KB of RAM. It also included monochrome green-screen graphics by way of a clone of a Hercules graphics card that wasn't quite perfect.

But the price was right: For US$1,495, you could have your very own IBM PC clone. With an employee discount, I paid a few hundred dollars less. As a support tech, I fielded calls all day long on the Model D, so I knew what I was getting into.

This was the era when the BIOS chips in clones weren't entirely compatible, and the Model D had its share of issues. Some programs would not run at all. In other cases, a bug in the Hercules emulation prevented some games from rendering properly. I recall countless calls from irate buyers who couldn't get the chess program Sargon III to run.

Some problems we acknowledged; others we were told to take down as though we had never heard about the issue. The reason: The ROM BIOS chip needed to fix those early problems cost about US$50, and the company didn't want to spend the money. Needless to say, I didn't last long at that job.

As a general-purpose business computer, though, the Model D worked just fine. At some point I upgraded the memory to a whopping 640KB and added a 10MB hard drive.

Eventually the machine passed out of my hands and went to live with my mother-in-law. To this day, it remains at her house, unused and forgotten, the ghosts of a thousand text screens burned faintly into the green glass of the monitor. It sits idly on a small desk in a dark corner of a utility room, long since abandoned and frozen in time alongside its now outdated successor: an Apple IIe.

-- Robert L. Mitchell

1982: IBM PC vs. Olivetti typewriter

In the summer of 1982, my wife began working as a computer operator for Computerland, one of the first US retail chains for PCs and such. She was able to get us an original IBM PC at a discount. I believe we paid about US$1,500 for it.

It had two floppy disks, ran DOS and was, to me, not particularly useful. I continued to depend on my Olivetti electronic typewriter, which had, as I recall, a small screen that remembered your last 200 characters or so, allowing you to "easily" change text.

Ah, the bad ol' days.

-- Mark Hall

1985: Who needs Word when you have XyWrite?

Freelancing for the first time in 1985, I needed a shiny new computer, so I went off and bought a Compaq Deskpro Model 2 with a 7.14-MHz 8086 processor, two 5.25-inch floppy drives, 256KB of RAM and a 12-inch monochrome monitor.

It cost US$3,000 -- more than I had paid for anything (including a car) at that point -- so I had to have it financed through Citibank. I took out a loan and paid it off over three years.

The thing was a tank -- meaning it worked and worked, through coffee spills, massive amounts of cigarette smoke and no air conditioning. It was indestructible, and I used it for at least a decade, until my Geek Husband shamed me into an "upgrade" that lasted only half as long.

The major program I used was XyWrite, a.k.a. Son of Atex. Atex was a centralized, dedicated word processor that we used in the first computerized newsroom I ever worked in. XyWrite, a local, DOS-based word processor, had been written by Atex developers to look and feel exactly like Atex, so it was a natural for me when I got my own computer. You typed in commands at the C:\ prompt to make XyWrite create a new story, save your work and so on. Very simple, clean, direct.

About a year after I bought the Deskpro, I decided it was time to begin e-mailing my stories to various editors. To do that, I needed to install a modem -- but I couldn't pry the PC's case off. That sucker just didn't move. So I implored the construction worker living in the apartment across the hall to come over and help me out. He was around 6' 5" and a pretty strong guy. He couldn't get the case off either.

Finally, my dad came over and, after a couple of Scotches and a lot of cursing in Italian, he was successful. I popped the modem into the chassis and put the cover back on but didn't snug it down too tightly ... just in case I ever wanted to open it again.

-- Johanna Ambrosio

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1983: Growing up Apple

I don't remember ever not having the Apple IIe that I grew up with; it must've been delivered about the same time I was.

My family upgraded to an Apple IIgs in 1988. We still have that machine, as well as another IIgs that ran a dial-up BBS for four years.

Over the years, we tricked it out with the usual upgrades: SCSI card, sound card, handheld scanner, modem, joystick, 4MB of RAM. An accelerator boosted the CPU to 10 MHz, which may not sound like much, but it was quadruple the stock speed -- making Lode Runner quite a challenge to play. (The enemies moved four times faster; my brain and reactions didn't.)

The original IIgs machine is still at my father's house, where he occasionally depends on it for the family business accounting. Though my current computer is a MacBook Pro, it has all the Apple II programs and files I accumulated over the years. I access them with the Sweet16 emulator, which turns my Macintosh into an Apple II laptop.

Emulating has allowed me to have used the same word-processing software, AppleWorks Classic, for the past 20 years, for everything from a 4th grade science paper on the whooping crane to my 100-page college thesis to all my Computerworld articles. All this history fills up only 3MB of my hard drive. Most recently, I created a quick-and-dirty Apple II program to convert 700 blog posts for importing into WordPress -- a huge timesaver over doing it manually.

I just wrote a story about Dan Budiac, a guy who paid US$2,600 on eBay to get back an old Apple IIc. Why not do what I did and just never stop using it in the first place?

-- Ken Gagne

1984: Bubble magic

The first computer I ever used was a luggable word-processing machine, called a PortaBubble because it used magnetic bubble memory. When I started my new job at Computerworld's Washington bureau in June 1984, this was the company's standard equipment for the bureaus and traveling reporters.

I say luggable because it was quite heavy, the size of a microwave oven and took up about half of an airline's overhead bin. Dragging it through the airport would definitely make one arm longer than the other.

The PortaBubble, made by Teleram Communications, had a hard, gray plastic case and opened up to reveal a small monochrome screen and a chunky keyboard (just right for producing carpal tunnel syndrome). On the top was an acoustic coupler that allowed you to put a phone handset into the rubber cups and send stories to headquarters over the telephone. The machine did word processing, nothing else, and frequently "ate" reporters' stories.

Bubble memory didn't catch on, because semiconductor memory got bigger, better and cheaper. Teleram went bankrupt in 1985 as journalists switched in droves to RadioShack's much lighter TRS-80 portable.

-- Mitch Betts

1970: Personal computing with a mainframe?

My first "personal" computer was an IBM 1401. Wait, I'm serious!

In 1970, I used a 1401 Data Processing System at a US Navy supply depot in Vietnam during the war. The 1401 and its associated card reader, card punch, chain printer and tape drives filled a small room.

Although the system was obviously not intended to be used by just one person, we in effect treated it that way much of the time. It was like a time-share condo -- you had it for maybe just 30 minutes, but when you had it, it was yours.

Here's how it worked: The computer had just 12,000 characters (bytes) of magnetic core memory. Instructions and data were stored in memory in variable-length words separated by special characters called wordmarks and, unless you changed your program, each word went into the same, known memory location every time the program ran.

When your program was running, nothing else was running, not even an operating system, because there was none.

These characteristics, plus some handy-dandy user-controllable hardware features, provided the ultimate in debugging capability. You could stand at the console and, by manipulating a series of toggle "sense switches," step through your program a few instructions at a time.

At each key point as you stepped through your code, you could check the contents of registers via little lights to see if something got clobbered, and you could check the address of the next instruction to make sure that an unanticipated branch had not occurred. If you saw that a certain instruction wasn't working the way you wanted, you could just override it by inserting a "no-op" (a placeholder instruction that does nothing) and keep on running.

This could be a slow and tedious process, to be sure, but the cool thing was that you had complete knowledge and control over the execution of your program. Try that the next time you get a blue screen of death.

-- Gary Anthes