Those Were The Days

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Some time back in the mid-to-late 1970s, I remember seeing Apple (I) kits for sale in the back of (I think) Popular Science magazine. Each kit came with the computer’s guts, a keyboard, and the plans for how to build a wooden case to hold them.

I started using personal computers in 1979, in the pre-DOS days of the Apple II with the CP/M operating system, and the Atari 400 and 800 (with 8 KB of RAM), because, at the time, I felt like “The whole world knows about computers and I’m going to be left behind!” Little did I realize that I was riding the cutting edge of personal computing. I graduated to a Texas Instruments TI 99/4a with its massive 16 KB of RAM (cassette tape storage, anyone?), which I bought for $400 at K-Mart and connected to my TV set. I returned it a month later for a full refund, when I had outgrown its nearly non-existent graphics capabilities. (Tip: Always return stuff to KMart at night, when the teenagers are in charge.)

In 1982, I started college as a returning adult student. Since I had already been using personal computers, and the University required me to take a “foreign language,” and I didn’t have much interest or capacity for learning Spanish, French or German, I convinced the powers-that-be to let me take a couple of programming languages instead (BASIC and Fortran). In BASIC, I sat next to a young woman who just couldn’t “get” the idea of structured computer programming, so she was completely confused by the course. But, to me, it all made perfect sense. So, after each lecture (and sometimes, even during it), I would explain things to her in language that she could understand. I really loved it when “the light bulb would go on over her head” as she “got” each concept that I explained to her. After a few weeks, she didn’t need my help any more, and we both earned an “A” in that course. That was the start of what would become this Web site’s ComputerBob – Making Geek-Speak Chic™ slogan 15 years later.

In the mid-1980s, I started using the original IBM PC (#5150) with its two floppy disk drives and DOS 1.0. A couple years later, as a consultant to a university, I replaced the second floppy disk in the Educational Psychology department’s PCs with 5MB (yes, that’s 5MB!) hard drives, which required me to first replace each PC’s original power supply with a beefier one that could provide enough power to run a hard drive.

Then, in 1985, as soon as it was released — I had read about it months before in a magazine (probably Popular Science) — I bought the original Amiga (1000) with its 512 KB of RAM, a color monitor, and a single floppy disk drive (no hard drive) for about $3000. Two of my friends also bought Amigas, after they were dazzled by mine. A few months later, I took it to a stranger’s home in a nearby town and paid them $200 to solder chips into it to double its RAM to 1MB.

While working on my undergraduate, graduate and doctoral coursework, I was the only one in any of my classes to take my class notes on a computer — a little Radio Shack Model 100 (with its 40-character LCD screen and with orthodontic rubber bands under its keys, to reduce the clattering sound) — and I word processed all of my course papers and my Masters thesis on my Amiga, back when all of my classmates were writing everything out by hand and paying typists $1/page to type it all up for them.

During the years that I created and taught college Computer Science and Computer Applications courses, every semester, at least one of my students would say, “You must have taken a ton of computer courses!”

I always told them the same thing: The BASIC course and Fortran course that I took in 1982 were the only computer courses I’ve ever taken. Most of what I know about computers, I learned through trial-and-error — and most of that was error.

Those were the days, my friends.

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