Nostalgia++

By Shamus
on Mar 23, 2006
Filed under:
Personal

The Rampant Coyote has this bit on his first computer, the Sinclair ZX80.

I was 8 years old when this machine hit the market. At the time I knew – on some primal level – that I needed to get my hands on a programmable personal computer. However, I had trouble explaining to the adults around me why I wanted it. I already had an Atari 2600, after all. Doesn’t that play the games you want? What I wanted was a computer that I could program. I wanted a machine that I could understand and eventually bend to my will, but I couldn’t get anyone to buy me such a thing.

I know it sounds insane; what sort of parent wouldn’t buy a computer for their kid? But you have to remember, this is 1979 we’re talking about here, and the utility of home computers wasn’t a universally recognized truth. For a kid living in a home with a blue-collar father and a mother who worked in an environment where “computer” meant big-iron mainframes operated by gnomes, a computer was a strange thing for me to ask for. It was like a kid asking for his own cement mixer or printing press. What on earth would I use that for? Computers were expensive, and a sensible adult would fear that it would just be treated like a puppy: obsessed over for a week and ignored thereafter.

I remember one Christmas my best friend got a TI-99/4A. I was sick with jealousy. From that point I couldn’t even remember what presents I’d gotten. He couldn’t possibly want such as thing as badly as I did. I felt the way Homer Hickum might have if he’d gotten a BB gun and his friend had gotten a home rocket-building kit. It seemed like a grave injustice. For him it was just an interesting toy, and for me this was a gift of infinite possibilities.

When I found my friend with his new computer, he was doing the unthinkable: He was typing in a program from a magazine. Someone else’s program?!? Why aren’t you learning how to write your own? This was like finding Merlin’s Spellbook and using it to prop up a crooked table leg. The secrets of the universe are in there, man! How can you be content typing in all these words and symbols without knowing what they mean? They demand understanding! Does their mystery not taunt you? At the time, I thought I was the only person who thought of computers this way. It would be many years before I met anyone else like myself.

(I had an uncle that was wired this way as well, but he was born about 30 years too soon. He spent his teens and twenties messing around with model trains and ham radio, which is what computer geeks did before computers were available. He went on to work on the Apollo program, which is nice enough, but doesn’t seem to make up for not having computers available for half his life.)

Eventually I stopped being such a crybaby and got a paper route. I saved my money for a few months until I had enough scratch to buy a Tandy MC-10:

Most people have a fondness for their first computer. You can still find fans of the TI-99/4A, the Commodore 64, the Amiga, and the Atari 800. It was not so for the MC10 and I. While I did grow attached to a few of the above systems, I never really liked the Tandy computers. This dislike grew into a resentment that I extend onto all of Radio Shack today.

As long as they were in the computer business (which lasted until sometime in the early 90’s) Tandy computers were dull and akward. As a programming platform they were difficult. Their hardware was bulky, ugly, and gave off the stench of obsolescence right out of the box. Imagine the proprietary nature of Apple combined with the asthetics-assulting early IBM clone hardware, and imbued with the clumsyness of Windows 3.1. Now regress that unholy union back to the days of sub-megahert CPU speeds and computers with 4k of memory. It wasn’t pretty. I wish there was a familiar object in the above photo to provide a sense of scale. The chiclet keyboard was horrible. Even for my 13-year-old hands, it felt a little crowded. I can’t imagine a grown man making use of it.

In the late 80’s / early 90’s, Tandy had their own line of quasi-IBM clones. They seemed to use similar architecture, but the machines were just a little different. Aside from costing more, they also required certain Tandy-specific parts. At the time I told people they had “compatiblity problems”, as if the Tandy engineers had trouble duplicating the mysterious IBM clone architecture. Looking back I can see the system for what it was: A very cynical attempt to take the large IBM clone market and make their own proprietary offshoot. Again, it was Apple-esque proprietary hardware and IBM / Microsoft uglyness, all for a higher price! Being known as “the computer guy” among my friends meant that I was the one people called when their computer went sideways. I always dreaded when a Tandy user called for help, because there wasn’t much I could do but shrug and blame Tandy. This was akward because it was also indirectly pointing the finger of blame back at the person asking for help, for buying such a machine in the first place.

During my high school years it became clear to the adults around me that this computer thing wasn’t just a phase I was going through, and that it was just the sort of thing that might make me useful in my adult life. I enjoyed quite a bit of support from parents and a couple of teachers during my high school years. For graduation, the uncle I mentioned earlier sold me his old machine, which was my first IBM clone. It was a 4mhz machine, but with the math co-processor he’d added it ran at at a supersonic 7mhz! It had 256k of memory, or 1/4000th of the memory of the machine I’m using now. However, it had a C compiler, which is what allowed me to escape COBOL and BASIC and learn a real programming language. From there, I was off and running.

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From the Archives:

  1. I still have fond memories of my Radio Shack Color Computer, but that one was very atypical of Tandy.

    By the time I got done with it and moved on, mine little resembled the original. For instance, it had twice the RAM it had shipped with, and it had an external hard disk (using a custom interface I wired myself, because RS didn’t sell one for the CoCo) and it was running OS-9, which looked like a cut down version of Unix.

  2. Shamus says:

    You… had… a hard drive?! After the MC-10, I got a CoCo, (64k of memory, IIRC) and my external storage device was (wince) a tape recorder.

    A hard drive. Wow.

    • Sean Coner says:

      My first computer was a CoCo, and for about a year, I only had 16K RAM and the tape recorder. I then was able to upgrade to 64K (did it myself) and a floppy drive. While it wasn’t an Atari, Commodore of Apple, it did have a very nice CPU for learning assembly langauge (the 6809—my second language by the way).

      The MC-10 though … ugh. A neighbor had one of those, and man … I do feel sorry for you.

  3. It was only usable in OS9; there wasn’t any driver for it in BASIC.

    8 whole megabytes of hard disk! Space beyond my wildest dreams!

  4. Dan says:

    I suppose I’m the odd man out in this catogory. You guys sound all smart computer savy.
    Anyway did you get more than one computer from our uncle. because i remember you having lots of different computers over the course of my early years. but i can’t remember you buying that many computers. I have vague memories of Bruce bringing many computer related items to the cold stale basment.

  5. Shamus says:

    You asked for it:

    The 7mhz XT lasted until 93, when I went to a computer show and bought a motherboard, CPU, etc and built a 386. Then I got a real job and got myself a 486 in ’94-ish. I lost that job and got my current one, and they bought me whatever was awesome in ’96.

    Then they got me another when I moved to Boston in ’99. Then they gave me Roland’s old machine when I moved back in 2000.

    That machine was the Dell. You know, the one you just took to Philly and gave to Ruth? So Ruth is now using a computer used by one of the guys who worked on Sim City 4. I could tell her that, but I can’t imagine her caring.

  6. Chris Arndt says:

    My first computer was a Tandy 1000

    It never gave me any trouble whatsoever.

    I’ll send you my own little PC ownership genealogy after December 10th when I am finally free from academic encumbrances.

  7. Cam says:

    Ah, you see. I’ve grown up on great gaming consoles ( Which drove my parents insane ) Like the Nintendo 64/Xbox/GameCube and such. But my point is…. i’ve forgotten. bloody things have turned my brain to a mush.

    I’m glad guys like you knuckled it though with the old typewriters with a few cables attached, to go on and make electronics what it is today. Thanks :)

    My first computer was a beast of a thing, even by back in 2002 standards. it locked up when you typed more then 2 words at a time into Microsoft word – but it played UT99 like a gun. Maybe it’s imprinted this logic onto myself?

    Sincere wishes to the future, Cam :)

  8. Smithy says:

    lol This all amazes me i’m 15 now and my first pc was a 400mhz penitum 2 :D witch when i got bored i used to overclock like hell

    And the only reason i got that was beacuse my dad got a AMD thunderbird witch in its day was awsome!

    i still have that old beastie as my basic ham radio computer in my garage :D

  9. Fuloydo says:

    Posted this in the comments of the “guess the game” post by mistake. My bad. At least I noticed and moved it here.

    My first computer was from a clone from a company called Eagle Computers back in the early 80’s. Had to take out a bank loan, my very first experience with credit. All my friends thought I was buying a Jeep. Very nice computer for its time, though. Dual monitors, one color and one green screen. Dual 5 1/4″ floppies, 192K of RAM which I later upgraded to the max 512K. I can’t remember if it was the 8086 or the 8088 processor. Good times. Too bad the company went out of business about six months after I bought the thing.

  10. Carra says:

    10 PRINT BASIC is a real programming language!
    20 GOTO 10

    Although it doesn’t quite hold up to C…

  11. Somebody Else says:

    “Non System Disk Or Disk Error”

    The first computer I could actually, honestly say was “mine” is the one I’m on now – 2GhZ dual-core, 2 gigs of RAM, 320 gigs harddrive.

  12. noahpocalypse says:

    *sigh*

    I feel like a young’un right now.
    My first experience was with Linux, believe it or not. The computer also had XP, which seemed much more user-friendly to my 10-year-old brain. It had a 9ghz processor, 512 MBs of RAM, and an astonishing 18 gigabytes of hard drive space!
    It had a nice graphics card, though. At least, it was Nvidia. I was supposed to get an 05-07 (not sure which year) monster card (or so it seemed at the time), but we never got around to putting it in. :( At least I had a DVD drive.
    Ah well. I managed to play Morrowind, Starcraft, Unreal, Diablo, Guild Wars, a little WoW, Warcraft, and Baldur’s Gate. Good times, those. In a certain sense, also educational. A geeky sense, that is.
    I was always jealous of my brother’s Crysis-era machine, though. And his freakin’ terabyte-size external drive. I’d settle for just a tenth of that.

    Anyway, sorry for the necroposting. I just felt like slapping something down here.

  13. Sven says:

    Ah… first computer stories. My first was an Atari 800XL with an external 64k RAM module about the size of a VHS tape plugged into the back. It had a 5.25″ drive with no case so I could see all of the exposed workings. I can still hear the sound of that drive churning on my desk…

  14. Halceon says:

    OOOH! Story time. When I was 5-ish, my dad went from working in a electronics factory to teaching computers at the local school. As such, I occasionally got to visit and play around with them. I have no idea what they were called or what was in them, but semi-reliable sources claim it was the russian БЭК. Big black boxes with monochrome screens. I used to play around in a line drawing program and later in an early precursor to Paint. Sometime later the school upgraded to 386s and a single 486. Over the summer my dad used to bring one of them home and occasionally print something for entire days. In fact, there were a lot of things going on with the machines that were way beyond me. Me and my sister were just content to play Bubble Bobble and Civilization on it.

  15. Adamantyr says:

    The TI-99/4a was our first home computer too. I still have it; the old iron still fires up and runs like a beauty. :)

    I think if you had owned a TI, though, you’d have quickly found some things to hate. TI-BASIC was notoriously slow, and worse yet, completely blockaded away from the OS and lower-level machine language. No POKE or PEEK to use, TI engineers decided you didn’t need THAT…

    Extended BASIC is a huge improvement, but the cartridge cost $100 back in the early 80’s… nearly as much as the computer itself. Also, without the memory expansion the disk system provides, you’re still pretty limited.

    And as for assembly language… well, the big opulent version was the Editor/Assembler, which required a disk system and memory expansion. But for the financially-challenged, you could get the Mini-Memory cartridge, which gave you (wait for it…) a line-by-line assembler that allowed up to two characters per label, and about 700 bytes of programming space on the main console.

  16. susie day says:

    My parents bought their first computer the week before I was born, back in 1984. It was a TRS-80 … I miss that thing. I learned some BASIC as a kid, and I had a lot of dreams, but not a lot of ambition. I would rather read or play outside than try and figure out how to program on my own. When my brother and I got older, we were given a Performa with Mac OS 7 .. it was in color! it played games! it had a hard drive! We never owned a console system, so this is where I started turning into a game geek with RPGs and arcade clones. When I was 11, we were given a windows 95 computer … and when we broke it, we were expected to fix it. I found out that I could beat my older brother at strategy games and the joys of Mac / IBM non-compatibility :D

    The first computer I bought for myself was in 2002 … now I run my own computer repair business and try to convert people to linux.

  17. Anachronist says:

    Shamus and the young whippersnapper commenters sure make me feel like an old fart. The first computer I learned to program on (BASIC) was a clunky teletype in my middle school, connected via 300 baud acoustic modem to an HP mainframe somewhere miles away that I never saw but only imagined. We had accounts, but also used paper punch tape to store our work.

    In college, we still had mainframes. With card readers. A Xerox Sigma 9 was eventually replaced by a VAX 11-780 minicomputer. Around this time I built a Sinclair ZX81 from a kit for a friend. It wasn’t mine but it was the first personal computer I ever used. The I got into the Apple II in the Physics department, on which I wrote some games, scientific software, and learned all about graphics including 3D projections.

    The first computer I ever owned was after college: an Amiga 1000, which taught me real-time programming in C++ in a multitasking environment. I got odd jobs to write software for PCs; I would develop them on my Amiga and then port them over. My Amiga saw heavy use until about 2001 when I finally bought a PC. I still have the Amiga, though.

    All during college I would visit Radio Shack to get odd electronic parts. My impression of their computers pretty much matched Shamus’s although (thankfully) I wasn’t blessed with the experience of having to use and maintain them.

  18. cyber_andyy says:

    My first computer ran windows 95.

    I had a BIIIGGG ball thing that I used as a mouse and played a noddy game on it. I Aslo used it to play age of empires to death.

    FYI I’m about to turn 18 :P

  19. froogger says:

    Attention 2006-Shamus!
    This is the future visiting to help you out a little. You must organize your categories, and sort out the theme-issues before the blog becomes famous (this will cause performance isssues like you wouldn’t believe). And numbering the posts with geek-dice is cute now, but nearly impossible to read when you get hundreds, yes, hundreds of comments.

    Oh, while I’m here – expect a market crash in a couple years, so sell your stock now and invest heavy in gold, it’ll skyrocket.

  20. Curt Sampson says:

    I’m not a big fan of TRS-80s myself. (We used to call them “trash eighties” back in the, er, eighties.) But the CoCo (not the MC-10, but the big brother) was a pretty darn good computer for the time by virtue of its 6809 CPU (considerably nicer than the 6502 or 6800) and having a port of OS/9 available. OS/9 was a real multitasking OS with quite the flavour of Unix about it that ran pretty decently on a CoCo even if you had only a couple of floppy drives. And it came with an editor, assembler, and the usual development tools, if I recall correctly.

    The MC-10, well, at least it was nearly as cheap as a Timex Sinclair, and had both better graphics and a better keyboard. And personally I find the 6800 more elegant than the Z-80, even if it’s not really as powerful.

  21. KingJosh says:

    I can’t believe I didn’t recognize that picture when I first read this! That machine was the first computer my family had, too.

    Of course, my parents bought it when it was on closeout. And they never even knew the tape recorder was an option. And my dad hadn’t yet had any exposure to computers at work, so he didn’t know anything that the manual didn’t expressly tell him. And I was still in Kindergarten, so I didn’t even have a chance to try it.

    The thing wound up in the toy bin, without any cords. it was a good 8-10 years before there was another attempt to put a computer in our home!

  22. Aaron says:

    OK, annoying spelling police … I think you meant “Chiclet” (not “Chicklet”) … referring to the keyboard? Like the little square pieces of chewing gum, right? It’s “chiclet”. Comes from “chicle”, which is the name of a gum coming from a tree native to central america, from which much chewing gum used to be derived.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicle

    Sorry, we can’t help it but notice these things. : ) Love your writing.

    And hopefully it makes sense, when knowing the etymology of the word.

  23. Peter says:

    So my first computer was a TI99/4A too. I humbly disagree with your statement about typing over programs created by others… I learned it best by typing and then modifying the programs created by others.
    The TI99/4A s*cked IMO; the TI Basic was a strange variant and – as mentioned before – no Peek and Poke. I was very glad when my parents bought a Commodore 64 later. That was a real computer.

    People seem to look down on Basic, but as a language it’s not that bad.

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