My First 50 Years With Computers
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
Page 1 of 2
On the brink of a new year my hard drive died. Ten times I rebooted the beast and all I got was the dreaded blue screen that makes PC owners weep and beat their chests while Apple owners laugh. A kinder man might have said a thankful prayer for a loyal computer that has served me for years, executing my every command without a single day or night of rest. Instead I cursed the wretched beast like a doomed farmer whose exhausted mule falls to its knees at the height of planting season. (Continued below)
Flashback three decades
Three days unplugged and I was beginning to hallucinate back to an era BC (before computers). I was among the last generation to actually type college term papers on erasable bond stock with gallons of Wite-Out® correction liquid on hand. We never dreamed of a paperless office. Which is why I spent more than a third-of my annual income as a high school English teacher on a behemoth Olympia electronic typewriter. It had replaceable plastic font wheels ($150 each) and just enough of a reptilian brain to strike out mistakes automatically. Made a typo? No problem. Just hit the ERASE key and the typewriter of the future could automatically move backwards, miraculously retyping the erroneous characters and lifting the ink off the page with a special sticky tape. The typewriter could do this for an entire line before its memory tapped out. Or it could recall up to 1,000 characters and spaces (about the length of this long paragraph) and retype it again and again with a single keystroke. I was the George Jetson of Portsmouth and the envy of freelance writers everywhere.
I bought my first computer from a small, dark, little shop on Congress Street in 1983. It too cost one-third of my teaching salary. The store only sold one brand. The Epson QX-10 ran on CPM (before MS-DOS) on only 256K RAM and had virtually no storage capacity. When you shut it off, it knew nothing. So you had to keep sticking in floppy disk after floppy disk just to boot up the system and capture your data. I could hold about 15 newspaper articles on a single 5.25-inch paper floppy. I had boxes of disks, mostly unlabelled, spread across my desk.
I was living back then in a third floor garret apartment downtown. I printed my newspaper articles onto rolls of dot-matrix paper and delivered them to my editor on Dennett Street, usually around midnight, stuffing them into a mailbox slot on her porch. Somebody in the newspaper office had to retype them, since there was no such thing as file sharing, and I was the only guy around using Valdocs software (for Valuable Documents). By the time the upgraded QX-16 model came out a few years later, I had quit teaching to become a full time writer. That newer machine cost half a year’s writing salary. I was still George Jetson, but a very hungry one.
Flashback two more decades
That isn’t exactly true. Those were not my very first personal computers. My father and I built a sort-of computer in a cigar box back around 1963. I’m pretty sure it was the year of the Kennedy assassination and I was in sixth grade.
“We didn’t invent it, “my father says. He’s 89 now and worked on early computers when they filled an entire room. “We must have gotten the plans out of some magazine.”
What we built was more like a calculator. It consisted of two balsa wood dials each numbering zero to nine. Each number had a metal brad with expanding legs, the kind we once used to hold sheets of paper together. Inside was a nest of colorful wires that I soldered to the back of the metal brads. When you turned the dials to any number from 1 to 99, a row of lights at the top converted the number to binary code. Binary, as you may recall is a number system based on only ones and zeros. A light turned on equaled a “one.” A light turned off equaled a “zero.” Number 39, to pick a value at random, equals 100111 in binary. We knew it was the coming thing, but we never imagined an entirely digital world run by the binary system.
The upshot of this story is, I not only won the sixth grade science fair, but my hand-held cigar box computer was allowed to compete in the 7th and 8th grade science fair. I won the middle school prize as well, breaking all records. At least, that’s how my father and I remember it. There used to be a trophy on the TV set, but I haven’t seen that since the Nixon administration. It was my one shining moment as a scientist before I turned my back on facts and joined the liberal arts.
CONTINUE Computer Crash History
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