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My First 50 Years With Computers


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


Flash forward half a century

When I complain that my computer crashing took me off the grid for three days this week, that isn’t exactly true either. For the holidays I bought myself the new Kindle Fire HD. It’s a wireless tablet that weighs only a few ounces. I got the one with the bigger, color touch-screen and the smaller memory. By my rough calculation, I would have to buy my first computer 64,000 times over to get the same data capacity. In today’s economy, at my current earning rate, the Kindle cost roughly two-day’s pay.

Perhaps my old plow horse computer died when it saw the shiny new tablet. The little youngster came out of the box already charged and already talking.

“Hello, J Dennis,” it said. “Would you like to hear some of the music already on your digital playlist? Or perhaps I can access any of the 107 books you have stored in the Amazon Cloud? I could read one to you.”

The tablet is not for serious writing. It’s more like a toy pony than a mule. It’s too small and frisky to work with all day. But the little guy has gusto and it likes to travel. It now reads my email aloud every morning. It scans my Facebook friends at a glance. In seconds it can access hundreds of notes I stored in the Cloud for my next history book (that I hope to begin writing next week). It plays movies in high definition and stereo sound. It takes pictures and surfs the Web and it especially likes to play games. I’m teaching it to make breakfast and fetch my slippers.

I am impressed. I am amazed -- exactly as I was with my first computers in 1963 and in 1983. We live in miraculous times. And perhaps, given those few days to think about computers past, I should be thankful too. I work alone and these clever machines connect me to the planet. They deserve more than a kick and a curse.

Oh, by the way, my old computer is back. It wasn’t really dead, just a slight loss of memory. It happens to the best of us. My tech replaced a few parts and zapped it to life. The two of us are together again, like the farmer and his mule, plowing words and planting thoughts as another New Year dawns.


Copyright © 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS and AMERICA’S PRIVATEER, available on and in local stores


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