I was one of the first kids to have a computer among my friends. It was an old Apple ][ and it was, at the time, the coolest thing to have. I was doubly cool because I had a computer and an Atari. When the Nintendo came out, I was left forever in the dust, but for six months I was on top of the world. However, just as my shoe selection kept going down the bigger my feet got, the game selection kept going down as time passed and more and more games were becoming available on the PC but not the Apple. Worse yet, even the games I could get were not as good as they were on the box. Not because of some creative photography like the burger and fries on the display of a fast food restaurant, but because the graphics they showed on the box were invariably the graphics for the PC, which were cooler.

So was I extremely excited when my father started making noise about getting a PC. The problem was that he wanted another Apple. Something called a “Macintosh”. He was outvoted three to one as my brothers and I expressed a rare solidarity. The computer we got was an Acer 386 with a 50Mhz processor, a 250MB HD, and a spectacular 4MB of RAM. The best part, though, was that it had Windows (3.0), which is what a lot of the games my brothers and I wanted to play required.

Besides the repercussions for games, I didn’t know a whole lot about computers at the time. Or, I should say, everything I knew was built around what I knew about the Apple that we’d had. I thought that a hard drive was a 3.5″ floppy cause they were less floppy than the 5.25″ floppies that we’d used up until that point.

Once everything got set up, I naturally invited my friend Clint over because he’d already had a PC computer and he was able to set me up. Since I didn’t have such a firm idea of what hard drives were, but it seemed like something important that I would not want to mess with, I tried to tell Clint that I wanted to run all of my games off floppies just as I had with the Apple. He either didn’t understand me or pretended not to, because within no time we were installing applications on the hard drive. The thing that I remember most was that PKUNZIP, used to install the files, utilized unfortunate terminology. Rather than saying it was “unpacking” or “unzipping” files, it said that it was “exploding” them. I was totally freaking out despite his attempts to assure me that nothing explosive was actually occurring.

Once the computer was hooked up, I excitedly began to devour the new techology. One of the first things that I did was to retype the novel that I was writing on the Apple to Microsoft Works, which was the coolest application that I’d ever seen. I also played a lot of Wolfenstein, which was the coolest action game I’d ever seen. The computer was the coolest thing on the face of the earth… for about ten weeks.

After that, I started noticing limitations. The monitor only had 256 colors, so there was a problem with light colors becoming white on images that I’d had my father scan from work. Then I found a picture viewer that used something called a JPG that managed to get the images to look right. I started wondering what else other applications could do and started downloading them. Eventually I replaced the entire shell with something put out by NeXT that wasn’t as cumbersome as the Program Manager, which Windows 3 used and which had the philosophy “Why let them do it in one click when you can require three?”

At some point, there was a problem with the computer. Dad told me that when there was, I should use a program called Dr Watson’s something-or-other to figure it out. I don’t know how I did it, but that was when I inadvertently learned how to format a hard drive. Oops. Windows 3 had 29 floppies for installation and Dad made me man the station, inserting one disk after another to get Windows reinstalled. I didn’t mind cause there as a TV and the TV had Matlock (or something similar) on it pretty much at all times. Even when it was installed, though, things didn’t look right on it. The pictures I had were distorted. My friend Excalibur’s picture had him sporting a silver face. the odd thing was that these pictures actually looked pretty cool and when I figured out the problem (the system was set to 4 colors instead of 256), one of the first things I did was learn how to bust an image down to 4 colors to recreate that cool effect.

I became a master of MS Paint, learning how to distort pictures in all manner of ways. I spent an inordinate amount of time on the picture of Excalibur because it was the only really good portrait I had. Exca had a thinning hairline, so I modified the picture to make it look like his forehead wasn’t so big. I mirrored both half of his faces in two seperate images. He must have been tilting his head to one side or the other because one made him look like a broad-chinned jock and the other almost alienesque. I also put Exca in a crude Batman and Captain America mask. My crowning achievement was when I actually added to his forehead. A cut’n’paste job that took hours and hours. Years later, when Photoshop came along, I was actually disappointed at how easily it made some of the things that I had tirelessly worked on before.

I’ve purposefully left out everything related to BBSes because that’s a post unto itself, but my family first logged on to the Internet with that computer. Back then AOL was a much bigger deal than the Internet and a lot of companies (including DC Comics) had an AOL site but no WWW site. Partially because of the BBS, I didn’t take to the Internet as quickly as my parents did. Dad had the Internet at work, so he came into it knowing everything that you could do on it. He was, however, extremely frustrated with the speed we were getting at home. He assumed that something must be wrong, but with my experiences with the BBS, I told him that it was about right. He asked around at work and discovered the difference in speed between high-speed connections at government installations and dial-up. By that point we had a reasonably fast modem at the time because of my extensive modem use. My mother quickly joined a bunch of travel newsgroups and played crosswords on it and that more-or-less made her day.

My mother and I both are naturally inclined to have hot tempers, but despite that there was only one time when we stopped talking to one another altogether. Despite assurances that no more would ever be necessary, somehow the 250MB HD started filling up. So I went through and started deleting things that I didn’t think that we used. Unfortunately, one of them was one of the three applications you needed to access the Internet. I had it up and working within an hour of discovering the problem, but Mom was so upset with me that I had messed with one of the only two parts of the computer that she used that she stopped talking to me until she could calm down. I became upset that she was so upset at what was obviously a mistake and one that I had rectified in pretty short order. It took two days for us to be on speaking terms again.

The hard drive wasn’t the only hardware limitation that I was running into. The CD ROM that we had was only 2x and some of the newer games were requiring 4x. Worse yet, a lot of the games coming out required 8MB of RAM, which not only could I not afford but the motherboard couldn’t handle. Then of course there was Windows 95, which didn’t require more than 4MB of RAM, but required more at least 8 to work. I didn’t understand the vendor’s logic then. By chance, I’ve come to understand it over the past 5 months or so.

I got a job in high school solely for the purpose of buying a better computer so that I could have one when I went to college. Having a computer was something of a luxury, according to Dad, because they had computer labs there after all. Still, he matched me dollar-for-dollar and I remain appreciative. I bought my next computer from a fly-by-night operation in western Colosse that (I later deduced) used pirated software. It was 166MHz with 16MB of RAM, a 1GB HD, a 4x CD ROM, and Windows 95.

Who could possibly ask for more than that?!


Category: Server Room

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9 Responses to A Computer For The Ages

  1. Kirk says:

    I’ve been meaning to ask: what is a BBS? I’m guessing it’s a bulletin-board of some type. Are you talking about what are currently called “newsgroups”?

  2. Peter says:

    I remember those 5.25 floppies. When the 3.5’s came out it seemed like a huge technological leap.

  3. Brandon Berg says:

    Will:
    What games required Windows 3.0? To the best of my recollection, most games didn’t start requiring Windows until Windows 95 came out.

  4. trumwill says:

    Kirk,

    Wikipedia explains it better than I could, probably. In short, it’s a place that you dialed into that usually had some combination of: chatrooms, instant messages, electronic mail (that does not go through the internet), message boards, online games, and download centers. Basically, instead of dialing into the internet, you would dial into someone’s home computer where (if it was a big BBS) a lot of other people would dial into as well. You got to meet a lot of people.

  5. trumwill says:

    Peter,

    1.44MB per disk, baby! Who could ask for more?

    Brandon,

    My wording was clumsy. Most probably would have run on DOS. In fact, I think more than a couple needed us to get out of Windows because it was taking up too much resource. They just wouldn’t have worked with a Mac, I don’t think. That was why it was so important.

  6. David Alexander says:

    My first real computer in Spring ’97 was a 120 MHz Pentium with 16 MB of RAM, 1.2 GB hard drive, and 28.8K connection to AOL. It may have been slower than the newest models, but it served my needs until it failed three months later and was replaced by a giant tower that came with a SCUSI drive. Eventually, I added a HP Printer that served for nearly seven years, and a scanner that once served as the main tool in a PlayStation website.

  7. Barry says:

    My first computer was the wonderful (to me) Commodore 128. Nothing was released specifically for it, to any extent – all it used was C64 apps. All it really featured was the extra internal memory, but I spent hours and hours playing Ultima Games on it. Then when I went to college it provided me with my first online experience, using its ultra powerful 300 baud and then later 1200 baud modem. I actually was able to connect to our college computer system and do my CS work at home and later my apartment.

    I was a big BBS user in the early 90’s as well.

  8. Brandon Berg says:

    Barry:
    My first modem was 2400-baud. How anyone ever managed to get anything done at 37.5 bytes per second is beyond me. I can read faster than that!

  9. trumwill says:

    I’m a big fan of Commodore/Amiga, though I must confess I was late to that party. Prior to all of the screenshots on the back of boxes being IBMs, they used to be Commodore 64s. The 128 was unfortunately outgunned pretty quickly and never enjoyed the good positioning of the C64.

    One of the funnier things said in the BBS Documentary was what a big deal it was when the modems could produce text faster than the user could read it. I remember when I used to download pictures off BBSes, the software I used had a special feature that let you watch the picture download, line by line. This only worked for GIFs, but that wasn’t a problem because those JPGs things took up too much processing power to unpack on a lot of computers and BMPs, which were usually a whopping 640×480 in size, took up way too much HD space. I remember having to bust down background images on the desktop because a 256 color BMP would take up all the RAM.

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