My First Computer

A friend (Jeremy Deram) of mine recently shared with me some of the best documentaries I’ve watched in a long time that brought out my inner nerd.  First, he sent me BBS The Documentary by Jason Scott.  This 8-part series took 4 years to complete and is a shining example of what a committed man can do when he puts his mind to it.  Scott’s work took me right back to 1985 when I first went online.

Next, he sent me Get Lamp, also by Scott.  Get Lamp is a 2 how HD movie about text adventure games, and I loved it.  Once again, Scott took me right back to the first time I played Adventure.

Most recently, today, in fact, Jeremy sent me a link to a blog post (which you can see by clicking on his name above) that describes his first computer.  I immediately set to writing the story of my first computer and I hope that others will follow.

1983

My father was a Naval Aviator and an avid amateur radio operator.  He had been wanting a computer for several years prior to our first purchase.  I finally convinced my parents that I needed a computer and down to Radio Shack we went to buy the TRS-80 Color Computer 2.  I searched around a bit and as best I can tell they spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $599 for the computer and another $100 for accessories like a tape recorder (to record programs) and a couple joysticks, etc.  I had no printer at the time but if you add up all the money they spent, including the use of a color TV (a 12” color TV sold for about $120 in those days) you get a total of $719 in 1983 or ~$1,800 adjusted for inflation.

This was a great machine and I spent hours reading Rainbow magazine, hand keying in computer games, debugging them and then painstakingly saving my work onto cassette tapes.  The CoCo, as it was affectionately called, came with a Motorola 6809 processor that operated at less than 1Mhz.

1985

After a couple of years, my father was tired of the “toy computer” so one day he went down and purchased a “real computer”.  By “went down” I mean we hopped in his Jeep and drove 1.5 hours to the closest computer store and purchase a monster of a machine – the Kaypro 10.  The Kaypro 10 came with a Z80 processor running at 2.5Mhz, a single 5.25” DSDD floppy disk drive and a 10MB hard drive – yes, you heard it right, a 10MB hard drive.  It also ran CP/M which didn’t have the concept of subdirectories so the hard drive was partitioned into two, 5MB drives and each of those had 15 hard-coded “User” directories labeled User 0 through User 14.  After all, who would EVER need to use more than 5MB at once?

In addition to the computer we also got a crate of software, and I mean a literal crate.  We had programs that came with it and some we purchased.  Classics like the Perfect series – Perfect Write, Perfect Calc, etc along with S-BASIC, Dbase and more.  The stack of computer manuals was nearly 4 feet tall.  Not wanting to miss out, we also picked up a 9-pin dot matrix printer from C.Itoh and a 300 baud acoustic coupler modem.  All told we spent ~$2,900 that night, which adjusted for inflation was ~$6,800!  My Mom absolutely lost it.  I was sure that this would be the time that my Dad would be killed, divorced or both…but that came later.

So, to put this into context, our first “real” computer had a processor with a transistor count of 8,500.  The space shuttle was launched originally based on the 8086 processor (along with some other things) which had a transistor count of 29,000 and my new iPhone X with its A11 Bionic hexa-core monstrosity has a transistor count of 4.3 billion.  It’s truly amazing to look back and see how far we’ve come in a such a short time.

We played with our Kaypro 10 non-stop.  It was then that I first learned about bulletin boards, robo-dialers, the movie War Games and a host of mind altering things.  I even added a SWP 8088 coprocessor board to allow it to run MS-DOS (or at least something that resembled DOS) so I could do even more.

Over the years I’ve had more computers than I can count.  I built most of them, and as a result, I have had an intimate experience with the entire evolution of the personal computer and their operating systems; from DOS 1.0 all the way through Windows XP.  I had walls of floppy disks (never 8”) that turned into boxes of 3.5” disks that turned into even more boxes of Iomega disks (100MB were my favorite) and then to CDs, DVDs and eventually thumb drives.  I only recently destroyed all my physical media that I’ve carried with me from Washington state to Maryland to Florida to Arizona.

About four years ago I made the switch to the Mac and shortly after that to the Cloud and in 2017 I migrated to Google’s G-Suite for all my personal and professional needs.  I am now fully assimilated – in the cloud with nothing but local bits on my laptop to facilitate faster execution.  Everything is in the cloud and yet…I long for a simpler time.

After watching BBS The Documentary, I started looking around for an old rig that I could stand up and configure with DOS so I could dial up one of the few remaining BBSs.  I even considered rebuilding my first BBS.  It ran on a Leading Edge 80386 with a 3.5MB expanded memory card, DesqView, and Wildcat! BBS software with four lines.  It rocked!

I’m a long way from that goal today but someday you’ll hear that familiar screeching of a modem handshake once again as I reconnect to the past.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts and comments.