May 2020


A Window on my Computing

The current hoopla about Microsoft Windows 7 has sent me spinning into my computing history—remembering days of yore.

I realize the history of computers and me is probably boring—and I will probably refer to some computers that some of you (the younger ones) have never heard of.


Elementary School

In elementary school there was a computer lab behind the library—it had Commodore 64s. And in sixth grade there was a Commodore computer that could do things in color—I think it was a Commodore 128.

Middle School

Smiley Middle School had a computer lab—I believe it was on the top floor, and it was filled with Apple II or Apple IIe—I don’t know what the difference between the two was. There were some computers that were not made by Apple, but were Apple compatible. That’s something you don’t see any more.

High School

My high school had a special computer program, but I wasn’t in it—that said I knew people who were, and they could check out, from the high school, laptop computers—however these were massive bricks with tiny monochrome green screens. One guy I knew would turn it on while on the school bus and there was this bizarre computer game that involved condoms and trying to stop sperm—or something like that.

It was in high school that my family got its first computer, from DAK Industries. It was, I think, a 286, and it came bundled with WordStar. Maybe it was a 386. WordStar was, and still is, the gold standard for word processors. I still have, in my fingertips, memory of commands to achieve wants. I can’t tell you what they are, but I miss the days of never having to use the mouse or search menus to look for what I want to do. We also had a huge 40 megabyte hard drive—so large it had to be partitioned.

Some of this is blurry, but I remember some kind of graphical user interface that we put on top of DOS. I think it was called GEM, but I have no idea. We probably bought a new computer at some point that was more capable.

I also remember that at some point MS DOS was upgraded—I think from 3.3 to 4.0. Actually 4.0 didn’t work on our computer so we went with DR DOS—imagine that, days when there were alternative operating systems that could still operate the same programs as Microsoft’s operating system.

The new computer must have come at this point because I remember installing Microsoft Windows 3.1 (or maybe it was 3.11). This was stunning software for its day, after reaching the C-prompt, you’d type WIN and presto—it was an amazing GUI—yeah, DOS was still under it, but it was better than GEM. As I look at its history, this was, apparently, during my senior year in high school.

I was, by the way, still using WordStar.

University of Wyoming

At the university of Wyoming I used the computer labs and it was there that I was introduced to the devil itself: WordPerfect 5.1.

I didn’t know it, but WordStar was already an old and dying horse, despite its obvious superiority, and at UW they were with the then most popular word processor—I still remember that there were these little plastic things around the function keys in order to help you remember little things like the fact that “F7” was exit (I think) and that if you hit shift-control-F4 you could activate something that would do something that may be what you actually wanted it to do.

Those plastic guides were annoying—but I couldn’t imagine somebody using WordPerfect without it—and then the reveal codes command that would let you discover that you’d turned bold off and on ten times in a row without actually making anything bold—and what about printing something? I don’t recall the command, but it was not obvious!

We accessed email by logging on to the mainframe. My first couple of years there were two of them, nicknamed “Outlaw” and “Posse”. If you got to know the computer support staff, you could get lucky and get an account on “Rodeo”. The first two servers were eventually replaced by “Plains,” which was, in turn, replaced by “ASUWLink.” If you think the last one is oddly named, you’re right: it was named after UW’s student government.

The first surfing that I ever did was using Gopher.

Does anybody else remember Gopher?

I also remember the first time somebody talked to me about checking email without logging into the server directly—a friend had started doing it using Netscape’s mail program—checking every minute, which made it look like he was always logged in—since you could ping other users. Of course he wasn’t logged in.

All this time I was an IBM compatible user—using MS DOS software, avoiding Apples. Most of my Apple experiences were bad—computers that were slow or, in one case, needed physical abuse to turn on.  (And for awhile I used OS/2 on my own personal computer!)

Indiana University

When I moved to Bloomington, I first checked to make sure it was a Microsoft campus—it was and I was—I bought a new computer and got to work. By now it was a Windows machine and I was using Microsoft Word. I’ve never been a huge fan of Microsoft Word—especially since I love WordStar—but it was (and is still) immeasurably better than WordPerfect and its Function Key nightmare.

While at IU I had some encounters with Apples—they were not impressive. There were email stations that were iMacs—which were crap. Slow, hard to use, and not worth the effort.

Musical Devices

I bought one of the early tiny musical devices—an Mpio DMK device that could hold about two hours of music—I loved it. It was barely bigger than the AAA battery it needed to operate. When I moved to Germany, I misplaced it and when I found it, it no longer worked.

It was around then that Apple came out with the iPod. I bought one—and then I bought another. I always had the small one – I like listening to music, but I don’t buy too many CDs or have too much still in stock. Where the Mpio DMK was tiny and held two hours of songs—and I had no idea what came next—the iPod was a tiny bit bigger and it used iTunes, software that rocked my world. It managed my music and was easy to use and could tell me what song I was listening to. The iPod was also easy to use with intuitive design features.

And then came the iPhone

Seriously the iPhone was the first electronic device I specifically craved in years. I could live without the iPod, but the iPhone drew me like a magnet. A colleague tried to talk me out of it, but I wanted it, despite the high price that T-Mobile demands. It had the blessing of combining both the iPod and the mobile phone into one thus reducing what I carried around daily from 3 devices to two devices—the camera in the iPhone is handy, but it doesn’t really replace my normal pocket camera.

I love the iPhone: it’s intuitive; it’s easy; it’s software is fantastic.

An the iPhone became the MacBook

In February I decided that I needed my own computer. The work computers run Windows, which should have encouraged me to buy a Windows machine, but at the time I knew that new Windows machines ran Vista, which, as I understood, was a disaster. On the other hand, I knew that I liked the iPod and the iPhone—plus that the iTunes software is great.

So I decided to investigate Apple computers, and I liked what I saw. They seem to be functional and easy to use with the added advantage that I wouldn’t have to upgrade to the next version of Windows.

I’ve been thrilled with the decision: the MacBook is easy to use, it’s WiFi connections are easy to use, and the software is intuitive.

I’m not looking back.

3 comments to A Window on my Computing

  • I remember Gopher, and I believe I used it at the University of Wyoming.

    My elementary school had Commodore PET computers. It was a huge deal when they got their first Commodore VIC20, as it could do things in color and had a whopping 64Kb of RAM, I think. A vast improvement over the 4Kb and 16Kb we had on the PETs.

    I’ve owned:
    TRS-80 Color Computer with 16Kb upgrade (1981-84)
    Apple IIc portable computer (1984-1986)
    Apple IIgs with 20Mb hard drive replacement for the power supply (1986-1991)
    IBM clone PC based on the 286 architecture with 80MB hard disk (1991-1996) This machine received an upgrade twice – once to 386 and then to 486 with a new mother board. I also replaced the desktop case with a tower case (removed the guts from one and put into the other), etc. This is the computer I had in Wyoming.
    Packard Bell Pentium computer with a small case. Not very friendly (1997-2000)
    Another PC based computer, I can’t remember what was in it. (2000-2001)
    A Toshiba Intel Celeron laptop with 256Mb of memory (2001-2007)
    An HP Pavilion Entertainment Laptop PC that I am using right now. 2007-?

    I’ll never know what happened to all those other electronics. At the moment they’re probably polluting China.

  • jen

    My step-dad is a comp scientist who worked at Wordstar.
    My first job ever was copying floppy Wordstar discs and then shrink wrapping the packages for shipment. My mother met my step-dad working at Wordstar.

    We had one of those laptops, the 50 lbs of computer and 2 inches of green and black screen. I brought it to my 5th grade class for show and tell.

  • G

    It’s actually hard to remember these things now. In the beginning, there was an Atari, but I’ve forgotten which. Then the TI-99, the Vic 20, the Commodore 64 followed by the Commodore 128. I ran that (for games) at the same time as my Mac (original). I went with Mac because the day I walked into the lab at Cornell, they pointed at the PC things, running Wordstar, and said it would take me time to learn to use the word processing program. Then the tech staff pointed at the Macs and said it was WYSIWYG and I was off. I had a DEC Rainbow for a while, but it was running a Cobol overlay, I think.

    Then a MacPlus, a Compaq SLT286, a MacPerforma, a Gateway 386, a Mac laptop (can’t remember which, stolen from the trunk of my car in SF, but I remember it had a Mercury 1400 baud modem, as opposed to the 300 baud that went with my 286 and was it a 30 with the VIC?).

    Then an E-Machines 486 (hated that thing), a Dell Latitude Inspiron 9400) currently used as my Slingbox server, the MacLaptop I am typing on (2.4 Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo with the small screen) and the Eee Netbook I share with the hubby when I want a PC compat when we travel (can’t access some banking stuff properly with the Mac).

    This doesn’t count his stuff or the HP we got for the kids over the holidays, nor all the permutations of PDAs from Palm to Sony and back to Palm (and now back to paper Filofax).

    For a while I had a computer graveyard in my basement, but we donated/recycled most of them before we left the States. I still have my original Mac in storage though: every now and then I think I will turn it into an aquarium and then the amount of work it would take stops me:).

    Perhaps you should make this into a meme— this really brings back memories!