The Past of Computing: Yours, Mine…Ours

As with anything, there is a past. So it is with the business of home computers, whose history is full of accidental discoveries and the personalities of those that made them.

The link below does NOT lead to a dry accounting of that history. Rather, it is a personal story of a man that lived through it, his past and how, through a series of close friendships (there is one in particular), he became involved in the periphery of that business, was drawn into it.

As such, it is a human interest story. A man who longs for that past, and the friendship he lost.

I must caution you: there are some technical details in his account. Some of you might feel as if you are going to get lost. My advice: stay above the surface of the water–don’t get pulled down by those details, the understanding of which is not necessary to appreciate the story. Skim over those, if you don’t comprehend, and focus instead on the personal tale.

I found myself at the end sympathizing with him, understanding his longing for the past. To understand that, you have to understand a bit of my past: as recently as 1998 I was a kind of newbie to “modern” computers.

In 1981 I started my slow journey into what is now probably one of my biggest fields of interest (the other being music). I began with a Timex-Sinclair 1000, a $199 computer that was about the size of a DVD case and had a membrane keyboard (think of the ones probably found on the gas pumps near where you live). It was a start…soon I had progressed into the line of Atari computers: 800, 600XL, 800XL, etc. I stayed with that until 1987, when I moved to Arizona and its 300+ days of pure sunshine. While in Pennsylvania I had spent many cloudy/rainy/snowy days indoors working on stuff on the computer, in Tucson there were few such days, and much more time spent outdoors. The computers were packed up and mostly forgotten.

Skip ahead to mid August 1998. A brother of a close friend contacted me, told me he would be in the Phoenix area (where I now lived) for his work, he would like to catch up on our 15 year-old friendship. In the mid 80s he and I spent many hours exploring the software and capabilities of those old Atari computers. He asked me if I had a computer, and I said I had an old Data General One DOS laptop that I had purchased in May, but that was it. He had become a sort of computer whiz, and he offered to build a more modern PC (that could actually run Windows!) for me during the week he was visiting.

Thusly did my journey begin again. He taught me how to build those wonderful machines, how to find the right parts cheaply, how to configure the resulting constructions and get them up and running. One of the places I haunted was Arizona State University Surplus Warehouse, a large building that was full of long conference-room tables that, back then, were covered with mostly desktop PCs now abandoned, as a professor and/or instructor’s office was remodeled and his/her old machine was replaced with a newer one. Some of those machines were barely husks, metal cases with little hardware inside. The Number One rule of the place was: there was no opening of the metal cases to see what was inside. If you were caught doing that, you were banished from the premises. So, you had to evaluate what was there as best you could. For $20, sometimes you got a machine with a 500MB (huge!) hard drive, a Pentium processor and a modem. Most times, you got little more than the case. I bought many of those machines, and in my own Dr. Frankenstein way, built quite a few resuscitated PC “monsters”.

A few years later in 2002 I started again, this time with Apple Macintosh machines. Same basic concept–but there was renewed excitement, as Macs are much different than PCs. Many of my fondest memories from those several years are about all those activities.

Then, someone from ASU got smart. They took the machines away, built the computers themselves, and sold the results as ready-to-go PCs and Macs for hundreds of dollars. While I could certainly understand their motives, it put an end to one of my favorite activities, almost a decade of great experiences and memories.

So the author’s longings at the end of his story rang true for me. But, I can’t go back and revisit my past like he can. Sure, the building is still there and it’s the same as before, and I still visit. But now, it’s with a sad longing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s