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You know, I was just thinking about computers. I know, probably not the earth-shaking revelation you were expecting when you stopped by today, but hey, I’m only about as deep as a kiddie pool.

Anyhow, I wasn’t thinking about just any old computers. OK, actually I was daydreaming about old computers – I was thinking about my first two, and how far we’ve come since then.

Let’s take a little stroll down the information superhighway when it was just a back alley, shall we?

My very first computer was a Timex Sinclair ZX-81. I was ten or eleven years old at the time (circa 1981 / 1982) and I begged borrowed and, well, I didn’t steal, but there was a sketchy plan for a bank robbery jotted down on a napkin someplace to get one.

Turned out that with enough whining, birthday money, and grass cutting I was able to scrape together the $100 or so it took to buy that little computer. Mine looked like this, less the memory expansion kit that took the 1K of built in memory and cranked it up by a whoppin’ 16K, totaling 17K (BTW – 17K is about 1/60th of a Meg, but back then it was a seemingly infinite amount of memory to work with):

Although even the lowliest of calculators of today would consider it quite a pathetic little device, it was a dream come true for me. I remember taking it home, hooking it up to an old B&W TV (we didn’t use no stinkin’ monitors back then) and turning it on – and being greeting by a little cursor blinking up in the corner of a black screen.

Yup, no Windows, no fancy splash screen, no software – just a black screen with a blinking cursor. We’re talking the Model-T of computers here folks. If you wanted to make it actually DO something, you had to program it. It’s “operating system” was a primitive form of the BASIC programming language, and one that I became as fluent with as I could.

Before long, I was writing my own programs. Sure, nothing very fancy at first, just running infinite loops and giggling as it repeated “My sister is a dork” hundreds of times down the screen. Later, I started making a few primitive games, but as my programs became more complex, I wanted to save them. Just grab a disk, right? Uumm, no.

Grab a cassette recorder and a blank tape.

Seriously.

In order to save anything on this computer, you had to record it to a standard cassette tape deck! Yeah, not a computer tape backup device, just an average, everyday cassette deck. You’d pop out your WhiteSnake cassette, tape over the little holes cuz they sucked, then record over it.

Sounds strange, but it was actually pretty ingenious. The computer used a type of modem (or what sounded like one) to record to the tape. If you played the tape back and listened, it sounded the way a dial-up modem does today – squealing like a digital pig.

To load your program, yup, you guessed it – you simply rewind and play back. The unfortunate truth is this wasn’t an exact science (surprise), and it normally took 3 or 4 tries before it actually worked, and sometimes hours and hours of my little 10 year-old efforts were lost in an analog to digital conversion abyss.

After a time, I outgrew that computer and moved up to a RadioShack TRS 80 – that bad boy had 4K built in! – And 8 colors too! That old TRS 80 now only survives as a fond memory, but these two computers probably did more to contribute to my future than anyone could have realized back then.

The sad thing is, the little Timex / Sinclair ZX81 and its kin are only good for one thing now – doorstops (and it turns out they’re really not very good at that either)

The most amazing thing? When you think about just how far we’ve come in less than 30 years.

I know, you’re probably thinking that’s nearly 3 decades to come up with new technology, and what the heck did I think was going to happen, and haven’t you ever heard of Moor’s law, yada, yada, right?

Well, I’m comparing it to all the time we’ve been on the planet up till the birth of the ZX81.

From that point of view, it’s really pretty amazing how quickly things have progressed, ya know? No doubt 30 years from now we’ll look back on today’s powerhouse machines and be grateful we don’t have to deal with those old battle wagons…

~Steve

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48 Responses to “Ahh, My First Computer…”

  1. Adrienne says:

    Our first computer was on a breadboard with a led printout. Needed to program it in machine language but we could hook up a tape recorder and save the program. My son took it to college with him and it eventually got lost. He became a software engineer and I became a programmer.

  2. Chuck says:

    You should have taken those Machines to Antiques Roadshow. They might have been worth something and you could have retired.

  3. Chuck says:

    You should have taken those Machines to Antiques Roadshow. They might have been worth something and you could have retired.

  4. Ed says:

    I also started with a Sinclair. My first exposure to computing. however, was time-share on a mainframe with a dumb terminal. No screen. I followed the Sinclair with a Sanyo which had great graphics, but it wasn’t compatible with anything.

  5. Jerry says:

    My first computer was a tommy tutor. I programmed it and played 3 different games on it. The three games were cartridges and the rest of the games I programed myself. Then I upgraded to color computer 1, then 3.

  6. Gerry L says:

    My first computer was a commandor 64 which was upgraded to 128 with floppy dics and printer with a so called “color” monitor ( basically a yellow print screen?) most of the time just printer signs to hang on walls ? I still have the system in plastic bags someplace???

  7. Gary R. P. says:

    My first computer was a Radio Shack TRS 80 model 1. It was a great computer in its day. It loaded games by cassette. I still have it and It still works great. And Its In a excellent condition. Of course Its nothing like the machines of today. But It still works.

  8. Ann says:

    My brother was in the Navy during the Korean war. He learned on those first computers (a card thing), went on to major in computers in college and his career was as a programmer. He went very far with it all. One thing he hated, tho – WINDOWS. He dreaded its development, stuck with the old computer until he couldn’t anymore because no programs were availble soon after Windows was introduced. Until his passing he still wished they’d bring back the oldies. Not me. It’s all so easy now. During my lifetime, we have seen so many thousands of inventions, but I believe that computers turned out to be the very best one. Just think of all we can do with one. Well, until it crashes!

  9. Ann says:

    I meant to add my brother learned his first computing on those cards while in the Navy.

  10. Paul says:

    I bought my first computer at radio shack it was top of the line it had windows 3.1 and dos 6.0 I think been so long hard to rember I know it was a 486 processor paid over $3000.00 for it I could imagine what kind of machine I couild have now for that kind of money

  11. Paul says:

    I bought my first computer at radio shack it was top of the line it had windows 3.1 and dos 6.0 I think been so long hard to rember I know it was a 486 processor paid over $3000.00 for it I could imagine what kind of machine I couild have now for that kind of money I still have the floppy disk with windows and dos

  12. Collene says:

    Ah yes, the good old tapes. Having been on this old planet for over 70 years, the last 50 have been the most productive and I am glad I lived to see them. My first was an Adam.

  13. Evelyn says:

    I was in my mid-40s, in the 1980s, and my first one was a Radio Shack Tandy 1000SX with 640k of RAM and 2 5-1/4″ floppy drives and a “hard card” for storage. It was in the DOS days and I quickly learned to write Batch files and “pull directories” from command line input and a billion other fun things. I played with people on BBS’s, learned what a SYSOP was, and became a software junkie. To support my software needs, I quickly started doing software reviews for a Tandy-based PC magazine. I still go into DOS now and then to do something that Windows makes complicated and DOS makes simple – I’m 70 now – wow, those were the days.

  14. Thomas H says:

    My first was a Commodore VIC 20. A retirement present from the office gang (happy to see you go). Over time I added 2 – 64s, a 128 & a 128D. Also acquired several external items, like Hard drives, ram, printers, tape machine, etc. Had a lot of fun, were great machines. One thing, which was very important to me was that I could actually repair them and did. Modern machines do not lend themselves to home repair. Also, since most program were written in basic and simple machine language I could make some changes, like inserting my name in the author list, flashing my name on a welcome screen w/odd comments. This, at least for me, is quite difficult or impossible on today’s equipment. When commercial support went south, etc, I donated all my equipment to the local highschool I attended. Understand that most of the equip is still working and is used for instruction. I miss my 128 & 128D, wish I had kept them.

  15. Ken says:

    Well Folks when I was a young man they had a new computor that fit in a 7 story building and they called it a super computor( hah) SO i GUESS WHEN I RETIRED AT 65 I naturly TURN TO INVESTIGATE THESE NEW FANGLED THINGS , the store I went to was no help , that young pup spoke a forgian language ie ram Dos etc. so I talked to an old friend and together we convinced the clerk we knew enough to run this machine,first thing out of the box was a manual 8 inches thick it was a course in a new language called dos ,we never did learn how to make any sense out of it all and sold the machine to another inocent . then came windows now I am using windows 7 and enjoying life again

    • Wesley says:

      Now they were Computers – underfloor air-con, operators in white coats, rows and rows of mag. tapes all programmed by 80 column punched paper cards. After ” Basic ” came ” Easy 11″ I always thought that ” dos ” stood for “dud operating system ” By this time I’d had enough of the buzz words and the mystic and waited for a user friendly system. My desktop does more and does it more quickly than that great big beast ( IBM) so what does the next 40 years hold ???. Great to know that there are some oldie’s left out there.

  16. juanita says:

    My first computer was a Kay-Pro with a CPM operating system. Big, heavy metal case which folded up, called “portable”. Still have it….well, my son has it actually in his antiques collection.

  17. juanita says:

    My first computer was a Kay-Pro with a CPM operating system. Big, heavy metal case which folded up, called portable. Still have it….well, my son has it actually in his antiques collection.

  18. denise says:

    i got the newsletter. unless i am living in a parellel universe….hmmmmm.

  19. Marie says:

    I was a TRS-80 junkie and could not pull my self away from that computer, then I went to the COCO 2, then the COCO 3 and then I discovered the big one WINDOWS talked to my brother about it cause he writes programs and he sent me my first real computer with windows. Then he tried to teach me how to program!!!!!!!!!! To him that was a last ditch effort. I am not a programmer I am a user. I LOVE GRAPHICS, course I can’t make graphics only copy them and I do an excellent job at that, I can’t even begin to tell you how many graphics I have and when the USB drives became avaliable, what a joy!!!
    I think I have graphics from all over the world. Thank you Bill Gates for inventing WINDOWS.
    Sincerly Marie
    P.S I still have all the disks for each program that came out for Windows

  20. Steve says:

    LOL – I have to admit I’m jealous of all the folks out there that still have these old computers! I wish I still had mine, but you know how it is – didn’t seem to be good for anything at the time, so I tossed it out. Live and learn, eh?

    ~Steve

  21. Roy Leggett says:

    My first studies were on the old system 34( big as a car)We studied basic, RPG and cobalt. The nice thing about cobalt is it will not take a virus. Then we had a monstrosity called a card reader. All prorrams were done on a tape recorder. Another thing that was nice(HA HA) you had a choice of colors on your screen, green, green or green. The only way to save a program you were writting was save it on a tape recorder.

    One yhing I remember, I was writting a program that had about 10’000 entries. I had about 8000 loaded and the system crashed. Needless to say, I lost everything but learned an emportant lesson. From then on I saved every 100 entries on the tape recorder until I finished.My first job as a programer paid $10.00 an hour. Big money then. Oh how things have changed

  22. Carol Patten says:

    As old lady I’m partial failure in the computer world; know just enough to enjoy getting around but resent when things are changed without warning. Memory curve is steeper every day. I used to remeber things – have a mind like a steel trap. ALAS! Old age set in and mind is now a tin sieve – everything runs straight through. Thanks to the patience younger folks display when I ask for help.
    Carol

  23. Marqueda Allred says:

    Wow! I am impressed with your knowledge of PC at 10/11 years. At 79yrs I find my “usual” home PC activities a major challange after 7/8 years. I love all the helpful, bright, young minds and they are ever so courteous! Thanks You.

  24. Deveron Sheffield says:

    Yah Carol, getting old ain’t for wimps. My first computer was a Gateway, can’t remember, running Windows ME, so you can see, I may be old, but I am just a baby in the computing world. They all complain about ME, but that little machine taught me everything I know about computers. When my kids and grandkids run into trouble, they call me to help them out. Probably because everything that can go wrong will with ME and even a few things that can’t. I am grateful for Windows, because before that I couldn’t figure out anything computer.

  25. Iris says:

    My ex husband had a little computer that was hooked up to a seperate phone line (IBM) is what I remember. I have a picture of him at the little computer. I’ve always wondered what kind of PC that was. It had a tiny screen and the year was 1982. Enjoyed reading this blog and comments. Thanks.

  26. Chuck says:

    Okay lets talk age? I am 79 and my name brand computer(d) went out in 2 years 2 months. I then decided to build my own and did and it runs better than my last one. My first puter was a Radio Shack with Windows 3.1 than I went to a Gateway all in one with Windows 98. Then I went to a Dell with windows XP which was grreat and then one with Vista which was a mistake.Should have waited for W7 which I have now. Wish I had all those old one’s I think I could have retired as none are around anymore.

  27. Dave says:

    i remember in school we used Apple computers back in late 1980′s . U had to make programs & copy them on floppy disc. my brother was great at it. when Windows 1st came out, my brother built a computer for the family. my mother still misses the 1st Windows. over the years when it came to Windows 98, my brother would go no feather. he gave me the old family PC that had the Windows 98 on it.. i had so much trouble w/it getting programs & what not, i ended up buying a Dell w/XP.. well to make long story short, i would still have the XP if i didn’t try to switch anti-virus protection. it screwed up everything. so now i have Vista & it kinda has a mind of its own, but i haven’t had any problems w/it & i been very pleased w/it compare what i been through sense Windows 98…

    • Wesley says:

      Here in OZ all the schools still use Apple computers up to High school – user friendly, don’t crash and you don’t have to load “patches” every couple of weeks and the Operating system is so reliable that it remains constant for years. It seems that XP is the best of a bad lot and everyone is going back to [t.

  28. Slim says:

    I started out with the 80 column punch card, progressed to the 96 column, when we got to the 8″ floppy we thought we were in hog heaven.

    The first computer I worked on comercially was an IBM System 3 model 8 with 8k of memory. Can you beleive writing programs that would run a large poultry company in 8k. This took up a 30 by 20 room with enough room for 4 key punch operators.

    My first personal computer was a Heath Kit, with CPM operating system. When I got the Radio Shack System 3 I was up town. I also had a TI 99 4A with the best packman game I ever played.

    Do I wanna go back……..No!!!! The thought of what the future holds is almost frightening.

    • David Gibbs says:

      My first was the TI 99 4A. I still have it plus another one I picked up at a lawn sale I bought a ton of games for it. Bought a speach modual for it so it could talk. ( it did not speak very well…lol) I have a TRS-80 Color with 5-1/4″ floppy drive. It still works. (don’t use it though) I also have one of the first portable computers. I think it’s a Compac. It must weigh 50lbs, has 2 5-1/4″ floppy Drives, a little 6″ screen and the keyboard all in a neat case about the size of a portable sewing machine, so you can take it with you. (Very laughable.)
      I wish I could find someone who would like to have them.

  29. Shirley says:

    Talking about how far we have advanced, when I was in high school my folks didn’t even have a telephone. That was a luxury! This was in the late 1940′s. I am now 77 and tagging along on the young folks coattails. I do enjoy my computer.

  30. Doniphan says:

    I bought my first PC back in the mid 80′s. The OS was DOS. Had a 20MB HD, 250KB RAM, a 6MHZ clock/processor, a 5 1/4″ Floppy drive and an amber CRT monitor. I thought I would never need a larger HD! Today I have 500GBs of HD and feel the same way! Imagine, my 8GB USB memory stick has 400 times more memory than my first HD and my new HD has 25,000 times more capacity! That’s an increase of 1000 times per year!
    I think I’ll stick around to see where we are 25 years from now, I’ll only be 100 by then. What comes after terabytes? (I know! We are already into Terabytes. Guess we’ll be looking at Petabytes, Exabytes and so on).
    Steve’s right. This last 30 years is only a blink of an eye considerering our time on the planet.

  31. Gay says:

    I have to say, I did get your email Steve. I didn’t know they had personal computers for i grew up in the years where there was only one way to communicate and that was by mail or over the fence.
    We got a phone when I was a teen. We also got our first tv then. We thought we were going somewhere then.
    I got a webtv in my early to mid 50′s. My daughter bought it and hooked it up for me.
    She went off to war and didn’t get to communicate for the first time for 6 weeks. She was one of the first over in the Iraq war.

    So when she came home she bought me a webtv. I learned to use it and loved that thing.
    I called a local store(won’t mention any names) talked to a geek about my webtv. He made fun of me having a webtv.
    But I have to tell you I enjoyed it. I learned how to do art work on it. I got to be a whiz. My daughter was surprised that i learned it so well. Well, then she got me a small Dell pc. I learned to use it. Totally different than a webtv. But it has been a good one. I have now got a Toshiba. I still have to say I liked the Dell. I still have my webtv but not hooked up. If I had one of the older ones you all mentioned, I would still have it. I believe it would have been worth something on Antiques Roadshow. Oh by the way, I never shopped at that store and don’t care to.

  32. Deb jones says:

    the 286 was such a fast little thing. I had started with radio shack trs-80, then using the giant 8″ floppy disc. My next was the 286, and that was when I found out about “software”! I had to go to college to learn ms/dos speak, and when the first software came out I was in heaven. I hated ms/dos. I like the computer to do it for me. 386/then 486(this one had been modified to hook up to the “internet! Had 4 gig memory too! was lightening fast (Yeah…right) only took about 15 minutes to get online with AOL on a dial up. then only took about 15 minutes to download my start page..how easy it was to please me then. my cell phone has more memory than my early computers. When I first got to go into a chat room, I was astounded. I was talking to people all over the world. I don’t go to chat rooms anymore, but I am still impressed with the fact that I can communicate with other people in all parts of the world. Heck my first TV that I remember only had a 3″ screen! Our telephone was a dialer and a party line to boot. We had 3 channels and they were all black and white, and the only remotes in the house were whatever child was standing closest to the television. How things have changed.

  33. Roy says:

    Love reading these stories and experiences.
    My history, Timex Sinclair Zx-81 – Timex Color Computer – TI 99-4A – Tandy 2000 – and after that several ACERs.
    Yes I can safely say:”I am a computer addict”.

  34. Bob says:

    My first computer was a huge Univac 1107A in 1956 at Boeing. It had a memory of 8K (words) and came without a boot key nor a card reader. So we had to load a paper tape with a small program to allow it to boot. I got to check the holes in the paper tape to verify that it was correct. More fun was to wire the boards for the IBM 650. Much less fun was checking binary code for a program to run on an IBM 701. My first small computer was a Commodore which I still have in it’s original box. I am now on my fourth real Home computer since 1998. I am 83.

  35. B. K. says:

    Mine was an IBM 1401 mainframe back in ’62. 8^)

  36. E L Allen says:

    My first puter was a Healthkit H-89, which I assembled myself in 1980 or 81, ‘n was very surprised when it actually worked when I first turned it on. Then I added extra drives 5.25″, ‘n a printer, H-25, ‘n some other peripherals, all of which I still have, but no longer use. The printer is still in new condition, ‘n I would really like to find a driver for it so that I could use it with my current puter, my fourth or fifth, w/Windows XP. If anyone out there knows where I can get a driver, I would like them to contact me. I used the H-89 to prepare Income Taxes, but soon upgraded so that I could print them out on the required Federal ‘n State Tax Forms.

  37. Joe Williams says:

    After experimenting with a Sinclair I moved up to a TRS 80 that managed to wear out a coupld of dot matrix printers and then I won a Harvard Graphics software package as a door pize. The graphics were great but my case was too small for then ecessary graphics board.
    I wrote a grant proposal for a device that could record graphics onto 35mm slides. Alas my TRS 80 was no match for this new windfall so I convinced my dean of the value of beautiful graphs projected on the screen. He agreed and in no time I was producing over 3,000 beautiful graphs each year on agricultural production statistics in Kentucky. I used a lot of 35mm film and production time but it was great fun when I could produce multimedia programs using six Carosel projectors on three large screens. The addition of stereo sound was a crowd winner!
    You can talk all you want to about PowerPoint but these slide show graphics combined with “live” images had far better results. No wonder I enjoyed my university job for over 42 years!

  38. Susanne says:

    One of my girl friends down the street had one of these computers and we thought she was one of the luckiest people in the world. We were absolutely fascinated with her computer. Sometimes you think you actually just dreamed that the computer that hooked up to a TV of all things existed. My kids look at me like I sprouted antlers or something when I tell them these stories of how things were when I was a kid. Thanks for confirming that it really did exist and I have not completely lost my sanity.

    My first computer was purchased in the late 90′s a Gateway and this was after working on computers since 1989. Compared to how streamlined and advanced computers are now it seems like my Gateway was a big clunky dinosaur. I love how far technology has come and I love how much I can do on my computer on a daily basis.

  39. John Cooper says:

    My first computer was a Coleco Adam. It was based on the Coleco game system and came with a daisy wheel printer. But the text on the TV was a maximum of 40 characters wide. Bonus, I think it came with a Donkey Kong cartridge! It also used a digital tape drive system with no pinch roller. The cassette looked like a standard audio cassette, with an extra hole or two in it. The directory was in the middle of the tape. So when you wanted to save anything, it would start at the directory, then zip out to the place to store it, then back to the directory, then back to store it, then back to the directory… you get the picture. Had it for a little over a year, and got a suitcase style IBM XT.

  40. Sue Aimes says:

    My first computer was also a Commodore and I loved that little machine. I am now 80 yrs old and really didn’t come into being computer savvy until my grandson, Wes, grew up to be my techie. When I get into trouble, he shows up and solves all my problems. Thanks Wes for being my genie!!

  41. Pete Larkin says:

    My first was a timex Sinclair 1000…talk about primitive. Mine was loaded however, I have the optional 16K rampack. I still have it in its original box complete with its directions book. I learned a lot with it, a small screen B & W television, and a portable tape recorder for saving and loading programs via cassette tape. I learned both basic and machine language with it. Later I moved on to “more powerful?” Radio Shack trash 80s.

  42. Genie says:

    I started off with an Apple IIe, so not quite so old. But I’ll never forget my computer sci teacher in college going on about the fact that if you properly managed your hard drive space (deleting old versions of programs when you installed the new, etc.), you’d never need more than a 80 MB hard drive. LOL!

  43. Rose says:

    My first computer I bought out of Radio Shack. It was fine for writing a paper on it for school. But beyond that I couldn’t do anything with it. The only other person I knew that could make it do things other then print out my papers for school was Steve.

  44. Leo D. says:

    My first computer was a Commodore 64. I learned to program and understand operating systems on it. Eventually a program called GEOS was written for it which used a GUI and ran on a collection of floppy discs. GEOS was eventually ported over to pc’s. I would love to be able to run GEOS again on a modern pc. It would be amazingly fast. As computers get faster, Windows seems to get bigger and slower. My first pc was a 360sx running dos upgraded to DRDOS and GEOS. My favorite pc was the Commodore Amiga 500 that I upgraded to 8 Meg of memory. a friend with a pc asked what I would do with all that RAM!!! The driving force for buying a pc over a Commodore or Apple or Mac was that you knew that you would always be able to buy programs for your computer. Yeah – try buying anything for a four year old pc. Another note – my first hard drive was a 20 Megabite drive (0.2 GB) that sold for $200. At least hardware has gotten better and cheaper.

  45. MawWarropyWep says:

    i surely love all your writing kind, very charming,
    don’t give up and keep penning seeing that it simply just well worth to look through it.
    excited to see far more of your posts, thankx :)

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