Memory Lane

Can you remember the first computer you ever used?

I remember playing with WordStar and SuperCalc on my Dad’s Osborne 1 when I was about 7 years old, and printing out stories I’d written on his Epson dot-matrix printer.

SuperCalc on the Osborne 1 in 1982 could resolve circular references, a feature Excel didn’t get until about 1995.

My first very own computer was a Dragon-32. The 32 was for how many kilobytes it had. Which was a bit of a con actually, only 16 of them were RAM, the other 16 were ROM.

I remember my Dad’s first ‘PC-Compatible’ computer. It was (I think) an Olivetti M24 with a green screen, and an ultra high-tech 20 megabyte Seagate hard disk. This was the cutting edge. It could store over 55 floppy disks of data! When the operating system and applications each came on a single 360 Kb 5.25 inch floppy, that seemed like more storage than anyone would ever need.

5.25 inch floppy disks really were floppy. You could fold them in half, or cut them up with scissors, although they didn’t tend to work too well afterwards. They came in paper sleeves with lots of warnings about things like not writing on the disks with pencils (always use a soft pen). Pencils are hard and could damage or penetrate the floppy plastic casing. Write protection was achieved by folding a small silver or gold sticker over a tab cut in the side of the disk.

I remember when my dad bought a daisywheel printer (actually an electronic typewriter with a printer port). Changing fonts meant putting in a different daisywheel. Bold text meant ‘hit each character twice’, giving them a slightly thicker appearance. That thing made some serious noise. It sounded like machine gun fire. I remember falling asleep listening to it hammering away at the other side of the house, and thinking ‘cool!’. The fact that you could enter stuff into the computer and have it typed out by this typewriter all by itself seemed amazing to me. Daisywheel printers were the de facto letter quality (LQ) printers, that near letter quality (NLQ) modes on dot matrixes tried to emulate. The daisywheel printer was the mainstay until HP brought out the LaserJet II. Another step change in printing technology. But less fun to watch.

The first family PC was an Amstrad 1512, which came with Digital Research’s GEM windowing environment. MS Windows was at version 1 and hardly anybody was using it. GEM was a victim of Apple’s vigorous legal campaign against encroachers on Mac territory (a fact I didn’t really appreciate at the time, being 11).

WordStar fell into difficulties, and was replaced by Microsoft Word for DOS, the first WYSIWYG word processor (as far as is possible on a DOS screen). Following Word was WordPerfect. Still the best word processor I’ve ever used, now owned by Corel. The latest version has a classic mode that recreates the original blue background and grey text of the DOS version. Superb.

Computers have always been tools of the trade for my dad, a chemical engineer. He buys them for their utility. Thing was, back in the 80’s, every new advancement had a direct and very real effect on productivity. He didn’t buy cutting edge stuff because it was cool, he bought it because it helped him do his work faster and better, thus enabling him to win more work. I of course just thought it was all really cool.

I am in many ways a child of the home computer revolution, having grown up at the same time as the industry, surrounded by its (now) historical artifacts. Sometimes I miss our mutual childhood, when everything was new and exciting.