A personal computer genealogy

Peter Liu got me thinking about one of my favorite subjects, one’s personal history with computers.  So I decided to take my comment on his blog post site and elaborate some.

My very first computer was a Sinclair ZX80.  I’ve long thought it was a Timex Sinclair 1000, but based on my mother’s memory and the timing I’m pretty sure it was a ZX80.  Back then there wasn’t really much commercial software to speak of so to play with a computer you had to program it yourself.  It was also before hard drives which meant storing your work on an external casette tape recorder for storage, the same cassette player I used to listen to my very first audio cassette tape (The Best of the Beach Boy’s if I recall correctly).   The first real program I ever wrote, at 8 or 9 years old, was on the ZX in BASIC with the help of my mom.  The program took took a list of spelling words and scrambled all the letters and then printed them out to create word scrambles for her students.   Later I made it into a game so that one typed in what they thought was the right word, unscrambled, and it’d tell you if you were right or wrong to try again.  Later I wrote a program to make crossword puzzles but I kept running out of memory and crashing the little computer if I gave it more than than a dozen words.

About a year or two later we got a TI-99/4A which was far more a “real” personal computer than the ZX.  In addition to taking cartridges like the old Atari’s it also used an audio tape recorder for storage, but later we got a 5.25″ external floppy disk for it.  The change from audio casette storage to floppy disk was as dramatic then as the change happening today from Hard Drives to Solid State Drives.  I do remember commercial software for the TI-99/4A actually coming on audio tapes, as well as on cartridges and later on floppy disks.  Unlike the ZX which I honestly barely remember, I do vividly recall playing text based adventure games like Zork & Oregon Trail on the TI which were then followed by games with actual graphics like Tombstone and Hunt the Wumpas… mind you not video, just static graphics that changed one frame at a time when you moved or did something.

In 1984, at 12 years old, my parents bought me my first computer (as opposed to the other’s being “family” computers), an Apple //c.  I spent uncountable number of hours playing games like Ultima on that computer.  In fact all I really remember about being 12 and 13 was playing on that computer and skate boarding anywhere and everywhere I could.  The really significant event for me surrounding that computer however was when I first went online thanks to a Hayes SmartModem.

As a fun point of reference, 300 Baud modems back then transmitted 1 bit per baud, meaning 300 baud = 300 bits per second and hence todays 20Mbps broadband is roughly 100,000 times faster.  I don’t remember if my first modem was actually the 300 baud model or a later 1200 baud model, but It was enough though to connect  to Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) all over the country and rack up excessive phone bills.  BBSs back then operated mostly like forums do today, except that generally only one person could call in and connect to each site at any given time, meaning for popular BBSs a lot of time was spent redialing and listening to busy signals.  Later multi-node BBSs came about which allowed a few people to connect at the same time but it was still nothing like the instant on and thousands of simultaneous connection world we have today.

I wish I could remember the names of all the BBSs I used to dial into back then but a few names stick: The Lexicon of the Cabal, Cult of the Dead Cow, PeaceFrog, The WELL, The Crow’s Nest, TheFallOut Shelter, The Nucleus, The Asylum…. there were so many others though.  As a 14 year old kid it was an amazing connecting with people all over the world via BBSs back then.  There was plenty of hacking, phreaking and file sharing going on, but mostly it was just community.  I imagine it was a a lot like the birth of amateur radio although at that age I didn’t really know what Ham Radio was to draw that comparison.  One could also argue that that it was at that time I did my frist User Interface Design work creating new menu pages and primitive ASCII art for a couple BBSs I frequented.  I really enjoyed figuring out what was the most important navigation elements and what would make the most sense to use as a menu… no not graphic menus, text menus where B meant go to Bulltien Board and F meant go to File Sharing Area etc.

The Apple //c was followed a couple years later by an Apple IIgs which I eventually took to college.  Near the end of college however I switched to a windows laptop knowing that the engineering industry I was headed into was not Apple friendly.  Since that first laptop I’ve never again owned a desktop computer.  At school and work I still used plenty of desktops and servers, but as a personal computer it’s been laptops ever since.

In 2008 I switched back to Apple and am now onto my second MacBook Pro.  A few years ago I added a Mac Mini Server at home  which works mostly as a media and file server.   I also have a couple remotely hosted virtual servers running Linux for various  personal purposes (remote storage, GIT/SVN, etc) in addition to those I manage for web hosting clients.

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