Ancient Computers

01/20/2012

In conversation yesterday, the topic of growing up around computers came about. I have always had what seems to be a knack for technology, to such a degree that, out of high school, I would occasionally make house calls to set up printers, home entertainment systems, and computers. But I think rather than simply attributing it to a “knack,” part of it certainly stems from getting a head start on technology.

Before everyone had computers at home, my dad was in a computer club, and we were, no doubt, among the first people in our city to have a P.C. Our first family computer was a Commodore 64 that was purchased in the mid-80s. When friends would come over, in addition to Nintendo, we also had a slew of computer games that we could play, which were all stored on 5″ floppy disks. Upon typing a long character string on the computer and executing the “run” code, the floppy drive would whirr for what seemed to be five minutes. If the game was big enough, you would have to flip the disk over so the computer could continue loading it. “California Games,” “Test Drive,” “Skate or Die” – we had everything we needed to keep us entertained stored away in a couple huge, plastic floppy disk organizers.

The next step up from there felt like a giant one, getting a hand-me-down 486 computer…with a space-saving 3″ floppy disk drive! The computer was DOS based, so I had to learn a new set of codes to browse through the directory. Most people don’t realize it, but that same fundamental architecture is still there on computers today – on a Windows system it’s the “Command Prompt” in the Start Menu that most users might occasionally skim past and have no idea what it is. Opening that bad boy up is like climbing down into the sewer and seeing all these crazy systems you never think about that keep life moving smoothly up on the surface.

That Command Prompt, with the blinking cursor, on the 486 and prior machines WAS the only Graphical User Interface. There was no double-clicking because there was no mouse, and those machines could barely display a picture…. of anything! In fact, seeing an actual digitized image was rare at that time and, it seems like those rare pictures you would see, were always of women in bikinis…or less. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Ha!

For us, there was no “world wide web.” All we had was this intranet underworld called the BBS, or Bulletin Board System. It was like a localized internet. Sitting at your computer, you would dial up, via modem, the BBS’s phone number and connect to the SysOp’s (System Operator) computer. I never met a SysOp in person, but these guys (and gals) had to have been huge nerds. Almost all BBSs were free, so they were paying for host computers, phone line(s), and electric bills out of pocket. That’s dedication! “The Hole” was the most popular BBS around, as it had three phone lines, so you could chat(!) with other users who were concurrently logged in to either of The Hole’s two other phone lines. A BBS would also allow users to write messages – today’s equivalent of an email – play games, participate in message boards and polls, and download free software and other files.

At this point, the tech revolution was starting to pick up, and my friends were climbing out of “The Hole” in droves, with AOL being the good shepherd. Good ol’ AOL. The interface was brilliant, and their chat rooms were legendary. Remember when proponents of the Internet would tout all the good this interconnectedness would bring – “meet people from different cultures….from all across the globe”? Well that’s how it used to be, before social networking came along. We eventually stopped sending messages to Melisizwe in Uganda and started sending messages to Bob from the office party.

Another technological high point was getting my first laptop. It was a Compaq something-or-other that was a Sears clearance item. The clearance case in the store was pretty low-key… probably too low-key. That all makes sense now because I distinctly remember having a conversation in 2003 or so about how how it seemed like Alan Lacy was trying to destroy Sears… seems like he is finally getting his way. Anyhow, back to the story: so I kept watch as the price of the clearance laptop slowly got marked down from $900 to $600 to $300. Although I was stoked when I finally bought it, the damn thing must’ve been built from spare parts from the Apollo program. Once the computer was on for a while, something would kick in and start to peg the CPU. The fan would slowly whir louder and louder, the computer would slowly get warmer, and finally the whole system would just shut off.

Finally fed up enough with the whole Windows shebang, and getting more and more into audio production, a Powerbook came next. A used, dented up Powerbook at that. The first owner (I was the third) turned out to be a very minor celebrity who didn’t clean out the contents of the hard drive so well before getting rid of the computer. It was funny seeing her self portraits, including a jaw-dropping one that could have put any “before and after” speculation to rest. Making that kind of discovery can feel like holding a grenade… and sometimes you just have to takes steps to protect people who aren’t smart enough to protect themselves.

And now here we are. My Macbook Pro is the coolest, fastest computing device I have ever owned. And just as it’s been writing about the evolution of my own personal techno-world, I will one day look back and think about my fond memories for my latest, greatest computer and just laugh.

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