Ruminations of J.net idle rants and ramblings of a code monkey

A little trip down Memory Lane

Idle Babbling

Every once in a while, something comes up that gets me reflecting on where I've seen computing come from ... and my experiences with it. Certainly, I often talk to some of the "newer" folks in the IT community and feel like a grizzled old fart (think "I remember when ..."). I can just imagine what these stories will be like with my (hopeful) grandchildren hear them. 

So ... I started programming, believe it or not, on a Casio fx 7000-G (I'm amazed that it has a Wikipedia entry). I got it back in my freshman year of high school (it was new then) at a place across from my freshman high school, Calvert Hall, called "Best" (not Best Buy ... just "Best"). Best no longer exists; Calvert Hall still does. By sophomore year (no longer at Calvert Hall, but at Towson High), I was programming this little calculator to do my math problems for me. I don't think my teachers quite got what it was or what it did; it's not like there were many programmable calculators at the time. It wasn't until senior year (by now at Dulaney High) that I actually had a teacher that truly understood what this thing did. He was my physics teacher (I'll not mention his name, but he did talk a lot about his heifers) and he had no problem with it. His attitude was this: if I knew the equations well enough to program the calculator, then I knew them pretty well, which was the point. And this calculator was the reason that I had a 110 average one semester ... not only did I ace all the tests (duh!) but I also wrote a bunch of programs for him to use in his Casio fx 7000 that he gave me extra credit for. He had no idea how to do it and, by this time, I could make that little thing with all its 422 bytes really hum.

But, of course, let's not forget the consoles.  I first saw one when I was  somewhere around 8 or 9 (it was before my adopted sister, Nickkie, came along) at my Aunt Toni's place. It had Pong. That was all. I played it all night. I can't remember when we got an Atari 2600 console, but I do remember spending hours on it. But the cool one that I really wanted was the Intellivision with Intellivoice ... a friend Kevin and I would play B-17 Bomber at the Hecht's demo station for hours after walking the 20 minutes to get there. But neither his parents or mine actually got us the unit, much to our dismay.

As for "real" computers (as in PC's), my first exposure was at a friend's house in the neighborhood, Karl. His dad was a principal, so they got an Apple ][ and then an Apple IIC either cheap or free (I'm not sure which). He was, at the time, much harder-core than I was and had actually had written some (simple) code on it. He even had 2 floppy drives!! This was before high school, if I remember correctly. My exposure was limited to playing the original Castle Wolfenstein (complete with yells of "Schweinhunt!") and Crusade In Europe. I thought it was cool and we'd spend hours on end playing it (it replaced AD&D as a favorite way to spend the summer -- between the 2 of us, we had all of the books for AD&D). Another friend (JP and Chris) had the Atari system (I forget ... and can't find ... which ... it wasn't the Atari 800) that had a keyboard and dot matrix printer (wow!) with word processing software. We did a neighborhood newsletter on it ... I was the editor. I think there were 2 editions before we got bored with it. For high school. Calvert Hall was actually very progressive ... they had a computer lab with Apple ]['s.  I played Oregon Trail when I wasn't getting into trouble. Then, at Dulaney, I took drafting in junior year and we got the very first Apple Mac's in the county to do some simple CAD. Well, we got the first one. We had one for the whole class and we had turns to do some simple CAD assignments in between doing drafting the hard way (with pencils, that is). I think I still remember how to use a T-square and triangles ... and how to align the drafting paper to the desk and tape it down. That wasn't even analog, folks. I didn't have a computer myself, though. Parents never saw fit to get one and, by the time I was half-way through my senior year of high school I was "emancipated" and struggling just to eat something besides chicken hot dogs and Ramen noodles. It was, to be sure, interesting to explain to the school administration why I was under 18 and writing my own absence notes but, I have to say, there were some great teachers and counselors (Mrs. Kirchner and Mr. Fanto jump to mind) there that believed in me and really helped. That said, I wrote my senior paper at my girlfriend's (Laura) house on WordPerfect v.(I have no clue) since I didn't have a typewriter.  In my first 2 years of college (at Essex Community College, now a part of the Community College of Baltimore County), I took an "Introduction to Computers" course where I learned all about DOS, WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3 and dBase. Somewhere in that time, I bought myself a "Personal Word Processor" on my Circuit City credit card ... I guess you can call it a computer of sorts ... to write my papers (very important for a lit major/philosophy minor). It was fun to change the disks for regular and italic. But bold didn't exist. I had a lot of my poetry and short stories on those disks, which are now lost forever. But, by my second year at ECC, I was doing most of my papers at my girlfriend's (Michelle) house ... her parents had a PC with WordPerfect.

With that background, I'll move forward into the "J has a computer" era. On graduation with my Associate's Degree, I got my very first computer. It was an AMD-based 386sx25 with an 80MB hard drive, 3 1/2 and 5 1/4 floppy drives, a whole 2 MB of RAM and even Windows 3.1! Remember MemMaker? I was set, now, for my entrance into Goucher College. It was there that I took my first computer programming class ... on QuickBasic ... and got started down my current path. I was, however, still an English lit major. Through that time, I only had one professor that actually "got" computers ... he'd take papers by email (hi tech stuff at the time) and also introduced me to Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash. Of course, I was, I guess, the only student in his classes that got computers in a pretty hard-core way and we'd talk about the possibilities of HyperCard to create reader-driven literary experience that could only exist in the digital world. This was, ironically, the same prof that I had for my Chaucer class. I was, at the time, very interested and heavily influenced by the Reader-response critical theories (I wanted to study under Stanley Fish for my post-grad) and this was a natural extension of it. I also finally had Internet connectivity from my home. With a 1200 baud (that's bits per second for you young 'uns out there) connecting to a Unix host server running all text-based applications. Like Pine, Lynx, some Gopher client (Gopher was cool back then). The UseNet was actually usable.

I built my first computer shortly afterwards. It was a 486DX2/50 with 8 MB RAM. It had VL-BUS for the graphics card, which were just beginning to be something more than a stupid thing to push graphics to the screen. I had a Hercules VL-Bus card, though I can't remember the name of it. Oh, yeah, and sometime around then, hard drive storage got down to $1/MB. I bought a 350 MB HDD for $345 and thought I had a vast expanse of hard drive space that I'd have a hard time filling. There was also the EISA architecture out there for add-on cards, but it was too expensive. PCI finally killed it off completely. Now, to get all the parts, I didn't go online. Ecommerce didn't exist then. I don't think that Mosaic had been released yet. I used a magazine call Computer Shopper and browsed through all the ads, calling my orders over the phone (how quaint!) Wolfenstein 3D was out too, and much better than the original Wolfenstein. And let's not forget Doom. Even better, though, I absolutely loved Descent and would actually play a friend over the modem. I'd also upgraded my modem to 2400 baud, then 9600. Eventually, internet connectivity was via a dial-up interface more similar to what we have today (for modems, that is), but configuring it was something of a nightmare. WinSock was a pain to do and get SLIP configured correctly was also a lot of fun. And then standing in line for Windows 95, buying it at midnight ... wow. 

It's amazing to look back where all this technology started. In just a few short years, we now have multi-core processors easily available. For the longest time I wanted a dual-CPU system, but it was just too expensive. Now you can get 4 cores on 1 chip (I don't have one of them ... yet). Gaming has gone to new levels on both the console side (XBox 360) and the PC side. Memory? I've got 4 GB. That's bigger than a lot of the hard drives that I've owned. As for hard drive space, my data drive is 1TB. My OS drive is 750GB (for multi-boot). That's almost 2TB on one desktop. High speed internet connections are pretty standard fare ... and you can even get cellular high-speed internet adapters for your PC, so you can have broadband just about anywhere you go. My phone is probably more powerful than my first computer. It's certainly got more memory. And graphics cards? Well, the GPU's are faster than many, if not most, of the computers I've owned and they have more memory than you could even put on a motherboard until recently. These are dumb cards anymore, not by any stretch of the imagination.

What will things be like 15 years from now? My mind spins just thinking about it. But ... I have no doubt that we'll look back on today's computing platforms and laugh at how powerful we thought they were.

Comments (3) -

Chris Hart 2/22/2008 5:12:33 PM #
Chris Hart

A lot of this sounds familiar - and strangely enough, I was clearing out some old drawers the other day and found my old Casio 7700 from my engineering days. I learned to program on an Atari 65XE, which started off with a tape drive, then I later bought a floppy drive (5.25"!), 7 pin dot matrix printer and a 4 pen plotter, and they're all still in a box in the attic. And, after yet more tidying, I recently discovered an old ISA sound card. Took me a moment to figure out what looked so wrong with it. But anyway, while we're reminiscing, here's a fun little link, inspired by Robert Scoble: http://obsoleteskills.com. I particularly love the reference to "Editing AUTOEXEC-BAT and CONFIG-SYS to get as close as possible to 640K of free memory". I still have a collection of boot disks with a range of different configurations for my old 486 so I could play particular games.

J Sawyer 2/22/2008 5:23:30 PM #
J Sawyer

Hey Chris,
Thanks for the comment! Ever get the feeling that we sound like some old folks reminiscing about the "good old days"? Wink Yeah, I have old "junk" around as well. Including (somewhere ... I saw it recently), ISA ISDN modem (and that was killer fast) and a bunch of processors (486, Pentium, PII, K2, Athlon, AthlonXP) that I keep intending to put together in a frame thingy and hang as a decoration in my office.
Autoexec.bat and config.sys?  I occasionally have nightmares. Nothing pleased me more than renaming them "autoexec.bye" and "confused.sys".  Ummm ... well, I had another rename for autoexec too, but that's not something that I can put here!

zain 2/23/2008 1:50:30 AM #

Commodore 64 Rulez!!!!!

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