Tales from the crypt: Our first computers

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

Quick -- what was the first personal computer you ever owned? You don't have to think about it for even a second, do you? No matter how many machines you've had over the years, you always remember your first -- usually with great fondness.

In that spirit, we asked several Computerworld editors to share stories of their first PCs. While most of us joined the ranks of PC owners during the '80s, one editor didn't buy his first computer until 1995, and one "personal" computing tale dates back to 1970. Some of us were lucky enough to own some of history's great PCs, while others got stuck with turkeys.

We got a kick out of remembering the days of CP/M and DOS -- when programs ran off a cartridge or floppy disk, when a 6-MHz CPU was plenty fast, and when just owning a computer was the mark of a technology geek.

We invite you to reminisce along with us, then share your own tales in this article's comments area. We know you've got great stories to tell!

1982: Programming in BASIC, playing TI Invaders

My first home computer was a Texas Instruments 99/4A. We didn't have a monitor (we hooked it up to our television set) and there was no disk drive. Applications came on cartridges, and when I wrote my own programs in BASIC, I stored them on, yes, an audio cassette tape.

But it was a 16-bit system, which was fairly impressive for the time (I believe it was the first 16-bit home computer). One of the applications was rudimentary speech synthesis, which seemed exceedingly cool 25-plus years ago.

The TI 99/4A.

Having unlimited access to my very own machine was quite a treat. Back in high school, we used terminals connected to a time-shared mainframe, and the school had to pay for computer time used. My computer classes were cautioned not to waste that expensive time playing games (a warning that let's just say wasn't entirely effective).

I could play chess against my very own computer as often as I wanted, as well as games like Munchman and TI Invaders (quite a step up from Pong).

We eventually bought an acoustic coupler for it so we could dial into local text-based bulletin boards run by hobbyists. I've been hooked on online information ever since.

-- Sharon Machlis    

1983: Mobile computing, '80s style

In early 1983, I found myself with two choices if I wanted a DOS-compatible system: IBM or Compaq. I was attracted to the idea of buying a non-IBM machine (sort of the psychological equivalent of getting a Linux system today), and got myself a Compaq Portable.

It was popularly known as the Compaq Luggable, because you could actually close it up and carry it around -- the keyboard attached to the front of the machine and folded up. It weighed 28 lb. and included:

  • Two 5.25-in. floppy drives (you got your application on one floppy and kept your data on the other).
  • No hard drive.
  • 256KB of RAM (I added another 128K to the 128K it came with).
  • A 4.77-MHz Intel 8088 CPU.
  • A 9-in. green screen.

At a little over $3,000, it was a real deal -- especially because it came with its own display.


The Compaq Portable. Courtesy of Oldcomputers.net.

When I got it home, the first thing I wanted to do was open it up and take a look at the insides. I couldn't figure out how to get in, but a helpful phone support tech steered me to a hidden pressure point that released the cover.

While the computer worked fine with just floppies, I soon realized that having a hard drive would be a lot more convenient. I loaded the machine with a 20MB "hardcard" -- a cool expansion card that you could slip into your system rather than having to actually install a separate hard drive.

I got myself an external modem to access e-mail and various BBSes. The phone company (I believe there was still only one at the time) charged extra for touch-tone service, so I set the computer to dial the numbers of the BBS or service I wanted using pulse dialing and then sent through any other codes I needed via tone dialing.

When I replaced my beloved Portable (with a Dell, I believe) after a few years, I gave it to my parents. Some time later, they got a new computer and my father tossed out the Portable before I could tell him not to. I always wanted to keep it because it was, for its time, very cool-looking.

-- Barbara Krasnoff    

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