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May 28, 2008

A Quarter Century of Computing

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Hey Gang! It's geezer time again! Yipee!!

Yes folks, here's another past-blast from a graying Blowhard. You have my permission to skip to the next post, of course, but first consider this: For the history-minded, accounts by people who were there can have value. One more warning: there's lots of geeky stuff below.

Today's post owes itself to the fact that this week marks 25 years that I've owned a personal computer. Not the very same one, thank heaven. Mine was a pretty early IBM PC, perhaps one of the first half million or so built following its 11 August 1981 debut.

When I bought my machine, IBM had just introduced the XT version which had an internal hard-drive with a whopping 10 megabytes of storage capacity. I didn't buy one of those because it was out of my price range. I was a poor consultant at the time, and in desperate need of some computing capability. I had just landed a project with a major insurance company to develop a demographic projection system and could justify purchasing an adequate, but not top-of-the line model. In theory, I might have bought something like an Apple II a few years earlier, but it and other machines using 8-bit CPUs could not address enough on-board memory to suit my needs, whereas the 16-bit Intel 8088/8086 CPU family with 4.77 MHz speed used on the IBM PC and similar machines did.

As best I recall, I spent somewhere between $3,000 and $3,500 for the computer and a dot-matrix printer. A box of ten 360Kb floppy disks cost just under $50 at that time. And these are 1983 dollars. I splurged for dual 360 floppy disk drives rather than getting one-sided drives with half that capacity; that proved to be a wise decision. I forget how much RAM memory I had at first, but it likely was 256 Kb. Over the next two or three years I upgraded a few times until it was "stuffed" to its 640Kb maximum. The monitor was monochrome -- a black screen with green characters. I later bought a Hercules graphics board that let the computer draw monochrome graphs on the screen. For mass-storage I eventually got a Bernoulli Box -- a very high density floppy disk system that was popular in the late 1980s.

For financial reasons I kept that computer for about seven years, upgrading this part or that. CPU chip development was slow in those days so, aside from speed considerations, I had no strong reason to buy another computer. IBM came out with the XT 286 model in 1986, but this Intel 80286-based machine was still limited to 640 Kb addressable memory, no better than what my computer could do. I didn't buy a new computer until after 80386 CPU machine had been on the market for a year or two; this chip had drastically improved speed and addressing capability. My 386 computer was an Everex, a machine that got good ratings in the PC buff press but proved troublesome for me.

As for software, I bought the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet program that retailed for just under $500. I can't remember what word processing program I used. In any case, the main uses of the computer were software system development and data generation. Unlike some folks, I wasn't a program-collecting geek.

I never programmed a computer before, so I had to teach myself. (On projects requiring computation during grad school days or when I worked in government, programming staff was available.) Because the insurance company used the APL programming language and because I already knew that APL programs were much faster to develop than those in most other languages, for about $600 I bought the new PC version from a firm called STSC which previously developed an APL for time-share computing services.

Before the APL arrived, I experimented with the Microsoft Basic language that was included with the computer. But, as expected, the APL was an order of magnitude more suitable for my needs.



posted by Donald at May 28, 2008


I was working at a Computerland in the mid 80's. We sold a lot of IBM PC's, AT's and XT's with Lotus 1-2-3. Schools liked to buy the Apple 2e (the one with the handle). We also sold and serviced Osbornes(allegedly portable because it had a handle despite weighing 38 pounds)Epson computers, and a variety of others including one that had the hard drive in a separate unit, each unit requiring 2 people to handle without damage.

Posted by: mikesdak on May 29, 2008 2:07 PM

Your post brings it all back. Bernoulli boxes ... Floppy discs ... Those flickering black-and-green screens ... The computer-buff press, always recommending this or that. They gave me some bad tips too.

What I recall is that it wasn't just PC or Mac in those days. There were other options, including one that was my first computer purchase, an Atari ST. A terrific little computer, actually -- very Mac-like and well-designed. If I remember right, musicians especially liked 'em. There were Atari ST buffs and programmers and magazines. I was very sorry when they went extinct. That whole little universe went up in a puff of smoke. I then moved over to a 386 PC, the worst computer I've ever owned. It ran what I remember as the first generation of Windows -- feh, what a nightmare that was. Macintosh ever since, baby.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 29, 2008 3:12 PM

My first and still, considering everything, favorite laptop (I've only owned laptops).

Computers were a fun hobby back then. Lots of machines, competing operating systems, a great learning experience. Learning RS 232 pin configurations, making your own cables, plugging in hexadecimal codes into a BASIC printer patch, the Eureka! moment when you got it right.

Today it's all homogenized, as exciting as a bowl of melted vanilla ice cream.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on May 29, 2008 6:31 PM

Anyone remember the Texas Instruments 99/4A (TI99/4A)? That was my first computer, circa 1983. Games on cartridges and cassettes. Games that were poor knock-offs of Atari games; and educational games... And a set of joysticks that were way too stiff to be able to move properly. I'd always wanted a Commodore 64, or at least an Atari game system. Even the Commodore VIC-20 would have been welcome! But no, we had the wretched TI99/4A. And where the VIC-20 had Bill Shatner shilling for it, and the TRS-80 had Isaac Asimov, we had to make do with Bill Cosby - a great celebrity, sure (who also shilled for Coke and Jello Pudding Pops and much more, back in the '80s), but somehow not cool enough for sci-fi geeks, as Shatner and Asimov. ;)

Posted by: Will S. on May 29, 2008 11:59 PM

Donald - You were an APL hacker, Donald? I've never used APL, but from what I understand there are very few languages even today that can match its expressive power.

Posted by: Ethan Herdrick on May 30, 2008 11:00 PM

I stopped by my mother's house two days ago and she said, "Hey, do you want that computer that's been up in the attic since you moved out?"

I went up to take a look, and there it was: the original IBM PC (with the 10 meg internal hard drive) you just described.

I was gifted that computer, quite used, in 1993 and used it through 1995 to type up notes and do word-processing. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, huh?

Posted by: Nate on June 2, 2008 9:44 AM

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