Take a Stroll Down Computing Memory Lane

It's hard to believe that there was a time before high-speed Internet access, wi-fi, or even USB. Back then, the word "computer" meant a big beige desktop box with a bulky CRT monitor - not a sleek notebook - and being online means you're tying up the phone line to the consternation of your mom.

Here's what I remember from the good ol' days of computing:

IBM PC Compatible


The original IBM PC (Model 5150)

My first computer was an IBM PC, except it wasn't made by IBM - it was a Taiwanese clone, euphimistically called "IBM PC compatible" or an "IBM clone". In the 1980s, IBM marketed the PC (or personal computer) as a response to Apple's products - to grab market share, IBM decided on the open architecture and many manufacturers rushed their own computer brands to the market.

My old PC compatible computer looked similar to the original IBM PC (Model 5150) shown above. It had a green CRT monitor and ran MS-DOS the operating system. Sometimes when I turned the computer on by flipping the switch at the back, I'd get a mild electric shock.

The two black squares in the front are floppy disk drives (A: and B:, respectively) - if you ever wonder why your hard disk is called C:, that's because it comes after the two floppy drives. Even after the floppies became obsolete, the hard disk is still called C: out of convention.

By the way, IBM PC was developed in a very short time by a "skunkworks" project, called Project Chess, at IBM's Boca Raton Florida facility, led by Don Estridge and Larry Potter. The team of 12 engineers was authorized by the company to bypass the usual (and lengthy) IBM design process and get something to the market quickly. Within one year, the team managed to use off-the-shelf components to build the first IBM PC.

Sadly, once the IBM PC became a commercial success, the company put it under the usual IBM management, which decided to restrict the performance of the computer as not to "cannibalize" profits from higher-priced models. As a result, competitors selling PC clones quickly took over the market.

Mystery House

Mystery House is the first computer game I ever played - in fact, it's the only thing I remember about our Apple II computer.

In the game, you are an uninvited guest locked inside a Victorian mansion with no way out. Inside, there are seven guests and a note about a hidden treasure. While exploring the house, you start finding dead bodies ... and you have to discover the murderer before becoming the next victim.

Mystery House was created by Ken Williams and his wife Roberta. It was the first computer game ever to contain graphics. Before it, computer games depended entirely on text to tell their stories. Ken coded the game in a few nights and Roberta drew the graphics. The game caught on quickly and became the most popular game for the Apple II computer, selling over 10,000 copies. Shortly afterwards, the Williams founded a gaming company called On-Line Systems which would later become Sierra On-Line and then Sierra Entertainment.

Links: Play along at SydLexia

Macintosh Classic

I didn't own a Mac until grad school, when I was forced to buy one to write a thesis (blue iMac, btw) - but I did play mahjongg on my uncle's old Macintosh Classic (128K? I don't remember...) when I was growing up.

It was so different than my PC at the time: the Macintosh had a graphical interface and a mouse! I remember fondly the little mac icon that smiled when you boot up the computer.

Floppy Disk

Before hard disks became affordable, we had floppy disks. They were called floppy disks because, well, they were floppy... The 5.25 inch diskette could hold - get this - 360 KB. Twice that if you punched a hole on the left side of the disk and put it the drive in upside down. To protect the disk from being re-written, all you have to do was put a sticker over the notch and the disk drive wouldn't write on it.

When the 3.5 inch disk came out, we all thought that it was so cool that you could store 1.44 MB worth of files on the things. So much space, what would we do with it all?

LOGO

Ah, Logo - now that was a fun computer programming language!

Logo was the first programming language I've ever learned, and to this day, the only one I like and probably the only one I was ever proficient at. Well, at least in making simple shapes :)

The language is all about the turtle, an on-screen cursor that you use to draw simple line graphics. You can tell the turtle to go forward 100 units, then turn left or right, and so forth.

Dot Matrix Printer

Ah, the screeching sound of a dot matrix printer! There's nothing like it ... One minute you're printing (noisily), and the next minute the darned paper got off the reel and suddenly you're printing at an angle ... before the stupid printer jammed. But if everything worked out, then there's nothing as satisfying as ripping the little strips of "holey" paper on the sides.

Never heard a dot matrix print before? Count your blessings, but if you're curious, here's a YouTube clip:

If you remember dot matrix printer, you probably remember creating "Happy Birthday" or some other silly banners with this iconic software that had since gone the way of dinosaurs: Broderbund's Print Shop.

Dot matrix printers are actually still around - they're now called "impact" printers, and, surprisingly, are more expensive than ever!

Modem

Ever heard a modem "handshake"? No? It's just like a fax machine. My first modem was a 2400 baud (240 characters per second!), and over the years I upgraded to 9600-baud, then to 14.4K, then 28.8K and so on. With every upgrade, I felt that the speed improvement was incredible!

How fast is a 9600 baud modem? Consider this: after 1 minute of downloading at 9600 baud, you'll get 72 KB. A cable modem can download that in less than a second.

With modem comes connectivity, which brings us to to our next item:

Bulletin Board System (BBS)

Remember the Buggles' song "Video Killed the Radio Star"? Well, Bulletin Board System was the Radio Star, and Internet was the Video. For all of you who are too young to remember BBSes, they are computer systems that you dial in (with a phone line, and yes, you get the phone bill at the end of the month if it's not a local call) to connect. Once you've connected to a BBS, you can do things like post messages, upload and download software.

BBSes often have highly detailed ASCII art - some are black and white, but others are in full color, like this one below:


Image: Carsten Cumbrowski aka Roy/SAC

This one is for an elite board (which traded in warez or pirated softwares) with two nodes (2 phone lines) run on two Intel 80486 or simply "486" computers with 8 MB of RAM and a (then unbelievably huge) storage of 1 GB. And no, I wasn't cool enough to be invited into an elite board ...

See Carsten's website roysac.com for an amazing collection of ASCII art.

Oh, and this invariably happened at least once to those who have dialed into a BBS: your mom picked up the phone while you're online and thus disconnected you just seconds away from when the file was supposed to finish downloading!

Prodigy

Before the web, there were Prodigy and CompuServe. They were premium online services, much like a proto-Internet, except they provide proprietary content (and were both heavily censored - more on that later). Of the two, I subscribed to Prodigy, which was more kid-friendly (and cheaper - CompuServe charged by the minute!).

I remember fondly perusing their message boards, which were very popular at the time (what was I doing? Looking up NES cheat codes, actually!). I cancelled the service because of heavy-handed censors who admonished me for having the word "damn" in one of my posts. That was enough to put me on their watch list and I got harrassed for innocent words like "cockroach." When Prodigy went out of business because of the Internet, I wasn't sad.

Doom

Doom took the computer gaming world by a storm in 1993: It wasn't the first game in the FPS (or first person shooter) genre, but it was unique that id Software, the creator of the game, marketed it by ... giving it away! Doom was distributed as a shareware that you could download and play for free (once you're hooked, you have to pay for subsequent versions).

Doom was so popular that during lunch times, computer networks in university campuses sometime grind to a halt as people log on to play the game!

CompUSA


CompUSA store in Santa Clara, California. Photo: Coolcaesar [wikipedia]

You guys probably remember it as the retail chain that went out of business a year ago, but I first remember them first as Soft Warehouse. I even bought a 486 "Compudyne" computer (their house-brand) for college!

In an effort to restructure or rebrand or whatever, the company changed its name to CompUSA but forgot to change their horrible customer service ... Their service was so bad that ultimately the once largest chain of computer superstores in the world went out of business.

NCSA Mosaic

Before the Internet Explorer, and Firefox browsers, there was the NCSA Mosaic. It was the first graphical web browser (which was an improvement over the text-only Gopher and telnet protocols).

Mosaic was designed by Marc Andreessen (then an undergraduate) and Eric Bina. Even though you may not be familiar with this browser, you're viewing this webpage on a browser that is its legacy.


We haven't talked about many things - Amiga, MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons), IRC (Internet Relay Chat), and countless other topics. And obviously, your trip down computing memory lane may be different than mine (and if you're young enough, none of these things above - perhaps with the exception of CompUSA - are familiar). So, tell us what you remember - share your computing memory lane!


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Newest 5 Comments

What a great story! So many memories came up for me reading this article. I learned to use computers in the mid-1980s, on an IBM similar to the one pictured at the top. The first thing I had to learn was to type! I played a sort of video/typing tutor program that was similar to an old Atari game. I would sit at the computer for hours playing that so I would learn how to type properly.

It was many years later when I finally enrolled in college, and majored in Automated Office Management. The primary operating system then was DOS 6, and all of the software was made for DOS. Back then, you could only run one application at a time - running multiple applications was unheard of, and when Windows 95 came out, I couldn't believe someone could run more than one app at a time.

Needless to say, as far as Windows was concerned, I felt it was making computers way too easy for the common person to use. I believed the mystery should be preserved, and keep computers complicated using command line only. I would exit Windows and use DOS anytime I could.

I also had a Commodore 64 as a kid, and had one of the first Pong games. What fun!

I remember seeing the first 66MHz computers, thinking they were blazing fast with 14.4 modems and 32MB of RAM.

Life was grand when technology was brand new...
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I was scouring the net to find infomation about my compudyne 486. Your site answered an important question about this computer as I didn't know that it was a 'house brand' for Compustore. You bring back memories of my first computers, and learning to use them. Thanks for making the effort to put down your thoughts
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Nice post and thanks for the mention of my "nostalgic" aerhm... historic & extinct art preserving website :).

Hey, you picked my (personal) favorite ANSI from all the hundreds that are available on my site.. sweet!

I extended the content of my website a lot and its worth paying another visit. Some of the new highlights..

http://www.roysac.com/bbs.asp
http://www.roysac.com/learn
http://www.roysac.com/asciinudes

Cheers!
Carsten aka Roy/SAC
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