Monday, August 27, 2007

A History of Computers

Kevin at Anglican TV has posted a "flashback" to 1991 and his first computer (a Radio Shack Tandy - the less said about that the better, in our family we referred to the first Radio Shack commputer as the the Trash80 and never went back). He asks us to tell us about our first computer.

So we got to thinking over here at our table as we are sitting drinking our chai and looking out a remarkably beautiful day in DC that the first computer we worked on at home was this one. Here's the story:

The screen was black with green letters (no graphics!) as I recall (or something like that) - when the amber version came out it was considered cool, well at least to the geeks.

My brother (Capt. Methodist) took the Apple II with him to Oregon State (heard stories that when he'd take it to a repair shop the techies would take the Apple II in the backroom and everyone would gather around as they opened it up to look at the now-historic board - maybe Steve Jobs or the Great Woz had done this one himself!) and so the Apple IIe was introduced into our household.

I typed my senior thesis in college on the Apple IIe using BankStreetWriter, but only after my father had to practically hide the electric typewriter from me. I was a virtual Luddite in those days, having watched one-too-many episodes of Star Trek and sure that the computers were going to take over the planet and dehumanize humankind (I was studying for my BFA in Creative Writing). I am forever grateful to my father for not giving up on me (in so many ways), but especially at this moment when I found out that I too - the artist one of the family - had been born with a Geek gene (though memorizing Star Trek episodes might have been a clue).

Since I was now on the AppleIIe 24/7, Dad went out and got himself a Kaypro, using WordStar as the word processor. It was the first "portable" computer I'd ever seen, real nifty. But I was still in my "BankStreetWriter" days and the thought of figuring out the massive codes of WordStar seemed daunting. I kept my distance.

From the Apple IIe I entered the world and remember having to learn the early version of the U.S. Senate computers, which were box-like terminals where the user had to type in mounds of code just to get one sentence out. By that time we were working on the 1986 Tax Reform Bill and some new international trade agreement legislation (it's all a blur now), and I was about ready to throw that terminal out the window, only I would have had to barge into Josh's office to get to the window since my desk at that time was outside his door. I can still remember fighting with that Senate terminal and typing up a memo for Josh which would be eventually a speech the Finance chairman would give on the floor. At one point, I had mistakenly typed two "oo"'s instead of two "ee"'s and when I handed the draft speech to Josh and went back to my desk I heard howls of laughter pouring out of his office as he read something like "the 1986 International Trade Agreement bill was doomed ..." not "deemed." That may have been a good moment to haul the terminal out the window, but I'm afraid Josh may have thrown me out with it - if he didn't have such a good sense of humor.

By the time I returned to the U.S. Senate in the 1990s, Windows 3.1 had been introduced. I had spent the intervening years on IBM clones using WordStar (yes, finally learned it) and then the beloved WordPerfect. But now the Windows Revolution was underway and Apple had gone loopy and fired Steve Jobs. It was at this point that I heard about the Internet.

Return to Apple at home with the PowerMac in the later-90's, which was often rather frustrating and at the office we were knee deep in Dell, first Windows 95, then 98, now 2000 (so far Vista has been kept at bay). Yahoo.

But the early Apple doctrination would finally prove successful when Apple came back to its senses and Steve Jobs returned to his post. We have now returned full circle as well (though continue to be bilingual as the office continues madly content with the World of Gates & Company). We continue to beam happily at the MacMini and the PowerBook G4 (as well as our iPod)- and wonder what will happen next? And yes, perhaps computers have taken over the world, just as Star Trek said it would. But our Luddite days are over and all is well.

8 comments:

Br_er Rabbit said...

I had several "first" computers, including an Amiga (don't ask) and a Texas Instruments TI99/4, on which my son leared to program interactive computer graphics games at the age of 9.

My favorite was the Timex home computer about the size of a portable calculator and a full qwerty keyboard which also had the BASIC language programing instructions coded on each key for one-stroke entry.

Of course that was when home computers didn't do ANYTHING that you didn't write a program for yourself, except, of course the plethora of games written by somebody else. I had a friend that spent oodles of time writing a major database on a TI99: its purpose was to keep track of and cross-reference the hundreds of computer games he had collected.

BabyBlue said...

Yes, I can remember my brother and my dad spending hours writing the programs!! In fact, BabyBlue's Dad wrote today this about BabyBlue's amazing Brother the Methodist:

I think you missed what your brother did with his Apple II. Actually it was our original one. I still have it here waiting for him.

He did a number of amazing things with his Apple II (not a plus or a IIe). One was to write an emulator program on it so it could pretend it was a Hewlett Packard computer. I don't remember the name of the HP but it was considered to be a very good one. I think the work that he did on this over a Christmas holiday in Newport gave him credit for a course and made it possible for him to graduate 6 months earlier.

Another amazing thing was how he used his 300 baud modem. The Apple II woke up at night and dialed the school computer and then sent in his computer science homework for compiling all while he slept. Meanwhile his classmates had to wait in line to get their compiling done. Another great time saver.


bb

Anam Cara said...

We started with a MacPlus. Then the OS changed and we couldn't run newer programs, so we got a Mac LC and the Plus became the "game" computer for the kids.
We went to Panama, (Where the Mac Plus espired in a puff of smoke one day) then back to the US where we got a Modem and AOL! WOW! If only we knew someone who had e-mail so we could write to them. My first e-mail buddy was another Army wife who lived across post. We'd e-mail each day.
Once again our OS was outdated, so we went to a Preforma 6500 (or was it 6400? - it had a 6 and a lot of 0's) Now the LC was the "game" computer.
We moved to Germany where we were assured that every outlet in our Army house was 110 volts, except in the kitchen. So we happily set up the LC with its modem in the dining room so it was close to the only phone jack in the house.....and blew it up. The Army Engineers came and told us we'd found the only outlet still wired for 220.
So we lived with one computer until my 50th birthday when I got both a blueberry iMac and a key lime iBook. (iMac still works, iBook is dead - needs repair that costs more than the value of the machine, Apple at Tysons told me - still, I can't part with it.)
When #3 child left for college we got her an iBook which runs Jaguar. I was green with envy.
A year later I got an eMac with Panther. Followed quickly by an iBook with Panther.
Now #4 has an iMac with Tiger.
Gave the Performa to the Apple Pi folks to refurbish for someone needy. LC bit the dust in Germany so we smashed the hard drive (it almost killed me) but we are computer illiterates (that's why we love Apple!) and needed to know that no one could get any info left on the hard drive.

Never had anything but a Mac, and as long as I have the choice, never will.

The Catbird said...

A pleasant walk down memory lane...
I cut my teeth on a Commodore 2001 with a whopping 64K of RAM. The storage was done on an audio cassette.
My first PC was a Packard Bell 386SX16 running 3.1 with Lotus Works. BTW this was the most expensive system I had ever owned. My latest system cost less than the VGA monitor attached to the packard.

Celebrate the Day :-)
Andy

BabyBlue said...

This is a fun thread!! ;-)

The American History Museum of the Smithsonian (which is closed right now for renovations) had a great exhibit on the Computer. It was a very odd moment as we went through the hallowed space of the Smithsonian only to see both a Apple II and a Trash80 on display. ;-)

bb

Dale Matson said...

We started in about 1983 with a Commodore 64. I wrote my college papers on it and the kids played games on it. Dot matrix printer.I can remember sometime about 1992 or 93 faculty being taken into the bowels of the University Computer Lab and introduced to EMAIL. Faculty initially shared computers at computer stations.
My latest PC is an HP built for me by HP. ALL the bells and whistles including Blue Ray write drive, TV etc. Click Boom Super-fast!

eric said...

Br_er Rabbit,
I, too, had a Timex 1000, but before that, I had a British made Sinclair, the prototype for the T 1000.
In 1980, Sinclair sold the first "real"* computer under $200 ($199), the ZX80.
I didn't have $200 so I had to wait a year for the much cooler looking ZX81, for under $100 ($99).
2K RAM, an ordinary TV set was the monitor, and an ordinary cassette tape recorder was the external storage device. Internally, the machine could save nothing - when you turned it off, the world ended.
I am still amazed at the ingenuity of amateur programmers who could write games to fit in 2K of RAM.
My favorite was - if you can believe it - a FLIGHT SIMULATOR!
Yes, a tiny stick figure airplane on a black background with a couple of white spots and lines to denote the horizon, runways, and cliffs you could crash into. It was like PONG for the jet set.
*I say "real" because there was the mechanical plastic "Digicomp" sold by RS for years before that. An unbearably complicated contraption that did almost nothing and took forever to do it.

eric said...

Br_er Rabbit,
I, too, had a Timex 1000, but before that, I had a British made Sinclair, the prototype for the T 1000.
In 1980, Sinclair sold the first "real"* computer under $200 ($199), the ZX80.
I didn't have $200 so I had to wait a year for the much cooler looking ZX81, for under $100 ($99).
2K RAM, an ordinary TV set was the monitor, and an ordinary cassette tape recorder was the external storage device. Internally, the machine could save nothing - when you turned it off, the world ended.
I am still amazed at the ingenuity of amateur programmers who could write games to fit in 2K of RAM.
My favorite was - if you can believe it - a FLIGHT SIMULATOR!
Yes, a tiny stick figure airplane on a black background with a couple of white spots and lines to denote the horizon, runways, and cliffs you could crash into. It was like PONG for the jet set.
*I say "real" because there was the mechanical plastic "Digicomp" sold by RS for years before that. An unbearably complicated contraption that did almost nothing and took forever to do it.

10:18 AM