Tales from the crypt: Our first computers

Computerworld editors share stories of their first PCs, from classics to clunkers.

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1985: Who needs Word when you have XyWrite?

Freelancing for the first time in 1985, I needed a shiny new computer, so I went off and bought a Compaq Deskpro Model 2 with a 7.14-MHz 8086 processor, two 5.25-in. floppy drives, 256KB of RAM and a 12-in. monochrome monitor.

It cost $3,000 -- more than I had paid for anything (including a car) at that point -- so I had to have it financed through Citibank. I took out a loan and paid it off over three years.

The thing was a tank -- meaning it worked and worked, through coffee spills, massive amounts of cigarette smoke and no air conditioning. It was indestructible, and I used it for at least a decade, until my Geek Husband shamed me into an "upgrade" that lasted only half as long.

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The Compaq Deskpro. Photo © Compaq.

The major program I used was XyWrite, a.k.a. Son of Atex. Atex was a centralized, dedicated word processor that we used in the first computerized newsroom I ever worked in. XyWrite, a local, DOS-based word processor, had been written by Atex developers to look and feel exactly like Atex, so it was a natural for me when I got my own computer. You typed in commands at the C:\ prompt to make XyWrite create a new story, save your work and so on. Very simple, clean, direct.

About a year after I bought the Deskpro, I decided it was time to begin e-mailing my stories to various editors. To do that, I needed to install a modem -- but I couldn't pry the PC's case off. That sucker just didn't move. So I implored the construction worker living in the apartment across the hall to come over and help me out. He was around 6' 5" and a pretty strong guy. He couldn't get the case off either.

Finally, my dad came over and, after a couple of Scotches and a lot of cursing in Italian, he was successful. I popped the modem into the chassis and put the cover back on but didn't snug it down too tightly ... just in case I ever wanted to open it again.

-- Johanna Ambrosio    

1983: Growing up Apple

I don't remember ever not having the Apple IIe that I grew up with; it must've been delivered about the same time I was.

My family upgraded to an Apple IIgs in 1988. We still have that machine, as well as another IIgs that ran a dial-up BBS for four years.

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The Apple IIgs. Courtesy of Tony Diaz of Apple2.info.

Over the years, we tricked it out with the usual upgrades: SCSI card, sound card, handheld scanner, modem, joystick, 4MB of RAM. An accelerator boosted the CPU to 10 MHz, which may not sound like much, but it was quadruple the stock speed -- making Lode Runner quite a challenge to play. (The enemies moved four times faster; my brain and reactions didn't.)

The original IIgs machine is still at my father's house, where he occasionally depends on it for the family business accounting. Though my current computer is a MacBook Pro, it has all the Apple II programs and files I accumulated over the years. I access them with the Sweet16 emulator, which turns my Macintosh into an Apple II laptop.

Emulating has allowed me to have used the same word-processing software, AppleWorks Classic, for the past 20 years, for everything from a 4th grade science paper on the whooping crane to my 100-page college thesis to all my Computerworld articles. All this history fills up only 3MB of my hard drive. Most recently, I created a quick-and-dirty Apple II program to convert 700 blog posts for importing into WordPress -- a huge timesaver over doing it manually.

I just wrote a story about Dan Budiac, a guy who paid $2,600 on eBay to get back an old Apple IIc. Why not do what I did and just never stop using it in the first place?

-- Ken Gagne    

1984: Bubble magic

The first computer I ever used was a luggable word-processing machine, called a PortaBubble because it used magnetic bubble memory. When I started my new job at Computerworld's Washington bureau in June 1984, this was the company's standard equipment for the bureaus and traveling reporters.

I say luggable because it was quite heavy, the size of a microwave oven and took up about half of an airline's overhead bin. Dragging it through the airport would definitely make one arm longer than the other.

The PortaBubble, made by Teleram Communications, had a hard, gray plastic case and opened up to reveal a small monochrome screen and a chunky keyboard (just right for producing carpal tunnel syndrome). On the top was an acoustic coupler that allowed you to put a phone handset into the rubber cups and send stories to headquarters over the telephone. The machine did word processing, nothing else, and frequently "ate" reporters' stories.

Bubble memory didn't catch on, because semiconductor memory got bigger, better and cheaper. Teleram went bankrupt in 1985 as journalists switched in droves to RadioShack's much lighter TRS-80 portable.

-- Mitch Betts    

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