My Personal Personal Computer History

Geek!This is Mike Wilson’s submission for the HP Magic Giveaway. Feel free to leave comments for this article as you see fit – your feedback is certainly welcomed! If you’d like to submit your own how-to, what-is, or top-five list, you can send it to me. Views and opinions of this writer are not necessarily my own:

1975: First time I see an IBM 129 Keypunch in operation. The geometric, modern design, the small LED readout of the card columns, the automatic dup functions… amazing. The card reader with its high rate of speed. Sleek, modern form of the 370/138, I’ll call it “HAL 9000’s grandpa.” So, I do.

1977: New job, first time I see the console of a IBM 370/168. All badass black, sparse buttonry, just what is needed, a meter to display system utilization, a few tiny lamps. All the magic happens in the attached screen, around 21″, green cursive characters. To type on it is magical, satisfying clicks, an enter button next to the keyboard to slap at the end of your commands. This is real hardware, to grab a hold of and wrestle like some gigantic daemon. Channel and communications boxes sprawl everywhere behind it. Underfloor cables spider to printers, tape drives, disk banks. A high-speed card reader zips through decks fast, card punch goes slower. System internals all based on that venerable (Hollerith) 80-column card image. In the corner, the ka-chunk ka-chunk of the old 557 Interpreter, reading cards and printing a single line atop each card. You can yank open the front and replace a control panel when you need to – but we rarely did, they were all prewired, thank god. Printers and tape drives all had that 1960s modern look, square lit buttons, white rectangular shapes, blue boxes and black boxes around.

Wondrously it had 16 megabytes of main storage, and ample disk (3330 removable and 3350 fixed-head), around a couple of gigabytes worth!

1982: Wow, I can go get my own computer at Radio Shack! It has a tiny memory, and a cassette recorder for storage, but it is all mine! No boss to look over my shoulder, I can “run the console” from the comfort of my own home. An entire system, all mine. Games, word processing, and possibly even remote communications someday. I have to learn BASIC, but what the hell. It’s simple, right? And my model is a color computer, wowser. 16k RAM, upgradeable to 32k with a ROM pack. I am 25 and impressed by it all.

1988: I open up the boxes of my new Laser XT computer I just got at Sears. Two front-loading 5 1/4 inch floppy drives. No hard disk, they are too expensive. But, wow, 512K RAM! An awesome amount, as much as those 360 model 40s at that place where I used to run the check sorter, back in 1976. Awesome again, how the improvements are marching forth through the years. I begin to learn the rudiments of DOS 3.3 , find out that these things still don’t read my mind: I have to tell it everything, and then run it. But a pal lends me MS flight simulator 1.0, and on my color (yes, color) VGA monitor, it looks awesome. We joke about “whatever happened to punchcards.”

1994: This Ambra PC I just got almost makes me wet my pants. 8 Megs RAM, a 14.4 modem, SVGA monitor, and Windows 3.1 this thing is loaded. I refamiliarize myself with basic computing – the early 1990s have not been an easy time economically. Soon, I get onto AOL. Remote computing, talking to thousands of people from all around the country. Amazing. Downloading files, pictures. Have been reading this magazine called Boardwatch, so I am thirsty for online experiences. I get on some BBSes with the help of Procomm Plus. I chat with people in New Jersey and San Francisco. This is so cool, I miss family gatherings and sit in the basement of my rented house, typing away on the Ambra, or on a second, older PC with a 2,400 bps modem. Eventually, I get on INS through an 800 number. And then, it is on to the world of the Internet.

More long nights, learning VMS and UNIX commands, gopher and lynx commands. How to send an email. How to decode an attachment on an email. I am drunk on it. Can attach to universities around the world, walk the globe on a wire. I brag to family about it. They wonder about me. I don’t care, I am intoxicated with it all. Heck, I even read a book on assembly language programming.

1997: The Ambra got sold, have bought and sold a couple since then. A timely inheritance gets spent on a new Apex/ITT system, with a 166 MHz processor (forget the other vitals on it). This baby is really loaded. It can do the Web, Internet. No problem, and comes with Win95 pre-loaded. This is the first system I learn HTML on, learning one or two markup tags a day. Now I control the volume, I control the horizontal and vertical… Oh the feeling of power and control. To control a piece of the Web itself. The hit counter tells the story, even if most of the hits are me, refreshing the page to check my code.

1999: I’ve got three boxes in a spare room in my house, and they are all networked together. One is the Server, the other two are clients. They each have a role to play in my little godlike Network. One is connected to 56K dialup Internet, and a multitude of media files are passed to the other two over UTP Ethernet cables via a small hub. I am feeling powerful and satiated. Punchcards are not even a memory anymore.

2001: Personal bankruptcy. Most of the cause is spending too much money I do not have on computer hardware. I vow to learn from my mistakes, and only have one computer at a time from now on. All my machines get sold, and I am left with a Yahoo email to use at the library, and nothing else. It will be a whole six months before I can get another. Suffering. I learn to write a budget.

2008: I have a supercomputer in my place now. 3 gigahertz processor, 250 gig HDD. More disk storage than was had at those early operator jobs, by far. DSL data communications zaps pictures and videos back and forth. 20-inch flat-panel screen. DVD and CD drives. 7-in-one media reader station. Vast amount of programs satisfies most every computing desire I have. 80-column punchcard? Those are museum pieces. Now I think in megabytes and gigabytes, not in 80-byte unit records. Even filenames need a lot more than 80 bytes these days.

But I just had to get a laptop, for mobile adventures. The Acer Netbook was purchased from Wal-Mart, but it was only 340.oo so that is not bad. I can do wireless internet, and even webcamming with it. It runs Linux, but the GUI works well enough that I don’t need to use the command line – whew. Cool. Problem is, It sits on the desk gathering dust most of the week. I can still only run one computer at a time. That did not stop me from buying a Kingston 16 GB memory stick for it. In 1975 this would have been science fiction, of course. Jeez – I love this hardware – so much, I must be a real GEEK or something.

Hey, there’s Chris Pirillo’s new site. Think I’ll join up. This is me, for real.

2 thoughts on “My Personal Personal Computer History”

  1. Started with an Epson Apex Plus 8088 in 1994. Now run a P4-3000HT with 3GB of RAM, 220GB HD, CD -and- DVDrws, 8500GT-512 with dual monitors (19 and 17 inch LCDs). Of all my computers, it ranks as one of my favorites. Hopefully, it’ll last me a few years.

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