In the late 1970s, my brother-in-law happened to bring a Heathkit catalog with him on one of his visits, and I saw something that astounded me to the core: they had computers. I mean, real computers, honest-to-God computers, you could build yourself and then use.
That just blew me away. This was while Carter was in the White House; computers were massive machines in air-conditioned rooms that only certain people even got to see, much less work on. The idea of a person owning his own computer seemed miraculous to me. (I was 10 or 11. Give me a break.)
I couldn't think of what I could possibly do with a computer but I still ogled the catalog and fantasized about owning one. It was just so cool! But a complete system ran well over $3,000 in 1979 dollars, which was far beyond my means. At age 10 in the 1970s, $10 was a lot of money.
My first real hands-on experience with a computer was at a Radio Shack store in 1981. They had a TRS-80 Model III sitting out where people could get their grimy mitts on it, and I spent several hours fiddling with the thing over the course of several visits to the mall. I expect that I annoyed the hell out of the store personnel but I was usually pretty quiet and didn't bother other people. I was 14 at the time. But the computer was easily $1,500.
My brother-in-law had had a subscription to Creative Electronics, and after that magazine morphed into Creative Computing I started getting them--he wasn't interested in computers, and I was.
Then in the spring of 1982 I was given the opportunity to spend a coule weeks learning BASIC. For one hour each day I had unlimited access to an Apple ][+, with the proviso that I had to work though the computer-based training program on BASIC before I could just screw around with it--but they needn't have bothered telling me that, because I devoured the BASIC coursework in a few days' time and was soon working on my own programs.
In 1982, a single floppy disk cost $5. A 5 MB hard drive was $5,000. The Apple ][+ cost $1,500, more or less, with a single floppy drive. Computers were expensive. Still, a friend's Dad (who was a doctor) bought an Apple ][+, and every time I went to his house I spent too much time fiddling with the computer.
Commodore Business Machines had been making home computers for years by then. Their PET (Personal Electronic Transactor) computers had been known only among enthusiasts, but when they introduced the VIC-20, that was when they began with the full-color ads in Creative Computing and I broke out into a sweat: here was a full-featured computer that I, theoretically, could own if I only could scrape together the money. And since I was going to turn 16 in 1983, I could get a job, which would let me save for a computer.
In the fall of 1982, Commodore introduced the Commodore 64. It debuted at $595. It offered many features of costlier computers, including high resolution graphics (320x200 pixels!), a full keyboard with function keys, and all sorts of expansion ports. It had 64k of RAM, 24k of ROM, and the memory was configurable so you could switch banks of memory in and out of the processor's memory space. It used the same case as the VIC-20, but a different color.
In early 1983, a friend of mine bought a Commodore 64 and a cassette drive. It was a lot of fun to fiddle with even though the one game program he'd bought with it--a version of Monopoly--took 9 minutes to load. I wanted one, but $600 was still too much--well, I'd turn 16 that year, and once I had my driver's license I could get a job, and that would let me get a computer!
As it turned out, though, in June of 1983--a few weeks before I got my license--my Dad surprised the hell out of me by walking in, one fine summer afternoon, with a Commodore 64 under one arm.
When I later asked him if he could somehow see his way clear to getting me a cassette drive, so that I could save programs, he showed me the receipt--and as it turned out, he had ponied up the cash for a C-1541 floppy drive, too, although that particular item had not come in because they were backordered. Commodore had not foreseen what demand would result from a floppy drive costing only $200. Well, since CBM used the same ports on all its computers, any CBM computer could use that floppy drive, and $200 was a steal for a floppy drive in 1983. And most of the C-64s which sold also sold a C-1541, because floppy drives were infinitely better than cassette drives were.
In fact I think it was either late July or early August when I finally got my floppy drive. I don't really remember. (All I do remember is coming back from a trip to see my sister in Belleville, with my computer and floppy drive, to find that Dad had--just that day--bought a Betamax VCR. Awesome.)
I'll never know what prompted him to buy that computer for me, out of the blue--not until it's my turn to go, anyway. It wasn't my birthday, Christmas was months away--I just don't get it.
Using a small black-and-white TV as a monitor, I spent hours on the thing, writing, playing games, banging out programs. I remember sitting in my room, in the summertime, at two AM, wearing only gym shorts because it was so hot in there--the house's central AC never did keep my room very cool in summer--doing computer stuff (in winter I'd be wearing sweats.)
I had been able to print things due to the largess of friends--one of my friends had gotten a printer and never actually took it home, but left it here--and for Christmas of 1984 I got a real printer--an Epson RX-80 F/T. In 1985 I used birthday money to buy a Commodore four-color mini-plotter, which used roll paper and special pens. I wrote programs to do all kinds of neat things, like plotting trajectories and such; but for the second semester's final exam, our physics teacher let us have one 3x5 card with formulas on it--so I used the plotter, printing in its tiniest font, to get an entire semester's worth of physics onto one little piece of paper. (Yes, it was readable. The text wasn't that small.)
I used the C-64 routinely until 1987, when I got an Atari 520ST. And I used the same black-and-white TV as a monitor for the Atari, but I didn't really move away from the C-64 because I had so much stuff for the C-64. The Atari's keyboard wasn't very good, and I just never had the software for the Atari that I had for the C-64. Although the Atari came with a word processor that was sleek and modern, it just didn't work as well as good old Paperclip 64 did. The Atari was fun but I was still doing most of my work on the C-64 up until the day I got my first IBM-compatible computer.
In 1990, when I started going to college, I was working at a Sears Business Center. One day during inventory prep the manager of the store came to me. "You want to buy this?" He asked me, holding out an NEC MultiSpeed laptop. "I don't want it in inventory."
He looked at it, shrugged, and said, "Five bucks."
It came to $5.33 with tax. I took it home and started trying to get it working. And, as it turned out, I hooked it to a borrowed power supply and presto! it fired up and started its power-on self test. I was very happy with this.
It was an XT compatible, running on an 8086 processor; it was obsolete. It had 640k of memory. It ran CGA graphics. The display wasn't backlit. It needed a new battery pack, one of its two 720k floppy drives was bad, it was missing some covers, and it didn't have a power supply. It would have inventoried as a $1,500 computer had it remained in the store, but in the shape it was in, it could not be sold.
I paid NEC for the missing covers, and ended up keeping the borrowed power supply--I had an IBM-compatible computer! And a few months later I found the machine's proper power supply in a filing cabinet.
By November of that year I had bought a parallel-port hard drive for the thing. It was only 20 MB, and the computer had to boot from floppy, but it was better than having to swap floppies all the time. (It turned out that I could actually run Windows 3.0 on it. It would not run fast, but it would run.) I also bought a CGA monitor, which made it much easier to work on. And one morning, while my girlfriend drove us to school, I sat in the back seat and wrote the rough draft of a research paper that was due that day, and then printed it out at school.
In early 1992, my new employer had a bunch of PC parts he wanted to get rid of. He let me have them; and I was then able to assemble myself a PC-AT with an internal hard drive and everything.
In July of 1992 I bought a used 386 motherboard with 2 MB of RAM on-board for $100. It should, the clerk said ruefully, have been priced higher than that, "...but it's too late now," he observed. I had to run CGA until I could get a VGA card that would fit, but then I was able to play Ultima XI.
The rest of my computer history is a long series of Intel/Windows upgrades. From the first 386 to another one, with a Cyrix chip that ran like a 486SX but fit a 386DX socket; to an actual 486; to a Pentium, then Celeron, and the Gateway P3 I bought in 2001.
So what now?
These days, computers are everywhere. Instead of being the realm of electronics geeks, now everyone uses one for something; it's unusual for someone not to have a computer. They're really cheap; the $400 that bought one a C-64 and floppy drive in 1983 is $800 in today's dollars, if not more, and you can get a really nice computer for $800.
In 1983, most computers connected with 300 baud modems, though if one had the money he could buy a 1200 baud modem. CompuServe charged $10 per hour for net access, e-mail, and such, at 300 baud, and even more for 1200 baud access. Computer time was still expensive even as people were moving away from "mainframe-terminal" to "distributed computing". But it was only expensive if mainframes were involved.
At 300 baud, only text interfaces were possible. There could be no "world wide web" without fast modems; the "56k" in "56k modem" refers to 56,000 baud, which is a mere 18,667 times faster than 300 baud. And broadband connections were simply unheard of.
CD-ROM seemed miraculous when it came out--an entire encylopedia on one disk!--and now they're barely big enough for most things. Windows Vista came on DVD. So did my copy of Neverwinter Nights.
The more powerful our computers get, the more powerful they can get, as you use the current generation to design the next generation. In 1991, the semiconductor industry was fretting about what it would do when it hit the 70 micrometer "barrier"--were we at the limit of Moore's law?--and 16 years later they're at 70 nanometers and are racing towards the 35 nanometer feature size.
I can make my own CDs and DVDs; I can store movies in full motion and sound on my computer, and play them back through my TV. And what next?
Microsoft Surface may be the future of computing. It requires standards of interoperability which don't quite exist yet, and it requires LCD displays which would cost a small fortune right now--but I'm convinced it's the wave of the future. As cell phones morph into wireless computer and communications terminals and the price of big LCDs drop, expect Surface computers to proliferate.
Surface won't make the keyboard obsolete, though. I expect we'll still be banging away on the good old QWERTY interface for years to come. Old habits are hard to change.