My First Computer

Adam Kalsey kindly invited me to participate in a distributed writing project called Newly Digital: A distributed anthology of early computing experience. Adam has coordinated a group of writers who are posting about an early computing experience.

Christmas morning, 1993 – the Garrity family tears through a pile of gifts and revels in a sea of wrapping paper (I have a large family). After we were through exchanging our gifts, my parents lead us into the dining room. Right there on the dining room table, all setup, sat a fantastic new Packard Bell 20Mhz 486sx, with 2MB of RAM and a 100MB hard drive. It had a 3.5” disk drive and a 5-1/4” floppy (actually floppy) drive. It was pre-CD-ROM.

Windows 3.1 logoThe bright colors of Windows 3.1 amazed us. We played solitaire all morning. The animation that played when you won Solitaire delighted us. My father still gauges the power of a new computer by how fast it renders the solitaire victory animation.

It had a Turbo button (after a few months, I figured out that green meant slow and yellow meant fast).

A couple of years later, we upgraded from 2MB to 6MB of RAM. Four megabytes of RAM cost $400. $100 per megabyte. It now costs about $0.20/megabyte. The PS/2 keyboard from that old Packard Bell was still used every day at my parents’ house until I bought them a new keyboard this past Christmas. That keyboard lived through 9 years, three computers, and three operating systems.

On that old 486 I discovered the web and designed my first website for-pay.

I paid $45.95 US for an early beta version of Windows 95 (then codenamed “Chicago” or “Windows 4.0”). It came on 37 floppy disks (honestly).

When did you get your first computer? I’m not looking to see who had the oldest computer – I’m more interested in what made your first computer memorable.

Other participants in the Newly Digital project:


38 thoughts on “My First Computer

  1. You know my answer, Steve. I still use it.

    Born 19 May 1996 according to the sticker on the back. 1.2 GB hard drive with 16 MB RAM. 4x CD drive. 28.8 modem. It came with Windows 95, Corel Draw 4 and a bunch of other crap like a CD encyclopedia that was full of expectation that you’d never find its contents on the internet. A 3.5 inch disk drive but no floppy. DataTrain 15 inch monitor and mitsumi keyboard. It came with a Espons Color IIs bubble jet printer and cost me over $3,000.00 bucks with tax.

    I am not really in love with it or a relative luddite. Plays crap video patchy audio and takes 20 seconds to update a page on my blog’s editor. Now I suppose I really am interested in seeing how long it’ll go with daily use. The back says it came with a 4 year Parts and 5 years Service warranty. Never needed to use it. Would anything today be covered that long even if paying extra for coverage?

  2. Your montion of the monitor reminds me, Alan, that the monitor with that first Packard Bell was a 14″ (maybe 13″?) VGA that boasted (right on the case) a “VLMF: Very Low Magnetic Field”. As far as magnetic fields go, I hear that’s the best kind.

  3. I just measured mine and I’d say it would be lucky to be 14 inches from corner to corner. I just did a major app delete to keep the hard drive trim and fit and found about 4 Netscape exe’s lurking in there. Have you seen A way back machine for apps.

  4. I bought my first computer in 1980 for $550 from Radio Shack. It was a TRS-80 Model One, with 4K of memory. Programs had to be loaded from cassette tape. Soon thereafter I bought a printer. It only printed in upper case.

    After that came a Commodore 64 (rein ne peut battre mon soixante quatre), a Sanyo MBC-550 “partially IBM compatible” machine, and finally, around 1988, a genuine IBM compatible clone.

    I went through a series of PC clones of gradually increasing memory, speed, and hard disk space, until an [almost] complete switch to Macs about 6 months ago.

    Right now we’ve got two iMacs, a iBook and two PC-based servers in the World HQ. That’s a computer-to-person rather of almost 2:1.

  5. Sadly, I just got my first computer (my family never had one and in university I just used lab machines) a year ago.

    However, I remember some of my first computer experiences including hours of playing what at the time seemed like the best game ever- Scorched Earth, and cruising message boards looking for posts by Ed Rock and references to Mike Knott, all over at my friend’s place. Mike says “hi” by the way Steven- I saw him tonight in Ottawa. What a performer.

  6. While not technically mine, the first system I worked with was an IBM System 360 – Mod 20. It filled a room larger than my current family room and came complete with punch card collator and punch card validator (the validator was a long piece of rigid wire that was poked through the holes to make sure they lined up. We also had a large board that looked very much like what you might think of an old telephone switchboard looked like – this, along with a tangle of wires was used to program the beast.

    Language of choice at that time was COBOL, BAL and RPG.

    My (now) 32 year old daughter was nearly born in that room and my kindly wife wanted me to finish the program I was running before telling me she was in labour – my daughter was born an hour later.

    The first computer that I had that was truly mine was an IBM PC Jr – can’t recall the date – Early 80’s guessing. No hard drive, 256 K ram and a floppy.

    I learned a lot on that little system.

  7. [Grampy Craig, Unca Pete…tell us more about the old days of computin’…]

    Anyway, I think I have an earlier story but not one with any real active substance. Before Dad went to divinity school around 1968, he worked with Pitney Bowes selling business machines around Toronto. Went to the New Yorks World Fair on an junket – 1964? Our Mississauga basement was always the site over weekends of some metal boxy monstrosity with knobs and buttons we were told not to touch. We scribbled on punch cards as scrap paper – does that count as my first use of computing equipment? Dad’s career change was due to the fact that despite having better features, better service and lower prices, the client would often pick the IBM. Not to mention the bitchin’ wages and benefits of the life of a minister.

  8. My dad started his computer business in ’76, when I was 3, but he had computers even before that. I used to play Adventure on one of his SWTPC 6800s. The first computer that we kids had for our very own though was an Atari 400, around ’79. We had a few games cartridges, a BASIC cartridge, and we mail-ordered games on cassettes (later 8″ floppies). We hated the flat keyboard, so dad put in a normal one at the same time he did a memory upgrade. From time to time, one of us kids would knock over a glass of Kool-Aid into the computer…we would hit the power switch, and run like Hell! We’d give it a day or two to dry out, cross our fingers, and flip the switch. It always booted right up as if nothing had ever happened. (I have no idea why mom and dad never noticed that we would spend every spare moment on the computer, and then avoid it like the plague for several days…)

  9. Commodore 64, with a dongle of some sort for my dad’s accounting package. I can remember spending an entire day entering a BASIC program in from a book only to get numerous errors when trying to run it.

    Now I use Linux CLI’s most of my day. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  10. In 1994 my parents bought a used Coleco ADAM at a flea market for 5 bucks. The thing I remember most was the smell of the electronics. It had 80k of ram, a daisy wheel printer that sounded like a machine gun, dual cassette drives and a cartridge slot for playing ColecoVISION games. One of the cassete drives was broken. The ADAM didn’t come with a monitor, instead it pluged into a black and white television. It ran three things: a word processor/typewriter program in ROM, SmartBASIC on a cassette, and a cartridge game called Ladybug. There was no operating system and loading different programs required rebooting the computer. Also, the cassette storage system never worked right, so nothing could be saved for future use.

    I was hooked from day one and spent many a bright sunny day in the basement playing with SmartBASIC. I must have read the manual from cover to cover at least twice. Looking back, the manual was kind of funny — it related human depression to infinite loops and stated that computers were just like dogs. Similar to Dave (but much less practical) I spent hours typing a 10 page program that served one purpose, to emit a beep. I finally got the program to run and it made a high pitched beep and held it there till I reset the computer.

  11. My first computer, probably around 82, was, like Peter’s, a Radio Shack TRS model. I too, spent many hours entering code to get the computer to do simple things.

    However, unlike many of you (I’m guessing), I had no proclivity for entering code (the payoff was not worth the effort) and it was from this little TRS that I realised that I’d be no geek. I remember wishing there was a way that I could reap the benefits of the program without having to know the program and/or how/why it worked.

    Now I am so far behind the computer-knowledge curve that, even though I’d like to know more about how computer-thingys work, it’s far too daunting to know where to start even. I’d still like to reap the benefits of other’s diligence, but I’d also like to know what most of you are talking about most of the time.

    Can any of you write some code that would allow me to have it both ways?

  12. I am in the same boat as you, Rob. My little dip of the toe into HTML recently has taught me both how particular the knowledge is and how I could not immerse myself in it as a career. I am a hobbiest at best.

  13. Interesting discussion, I just finished a little catalog of my own computers over the years. My first machine was a pretty sweet little TRS-80 back in 1978-1979, with a cassette tape deck from which my friends and I would laboriously load Star Trek after school. Along with the book 101 Basic Computer games, we learned a lot, and I guess, set our future careers in motion…

  14. Both Mike above and Will mention the machine gun printer. This reminded me of my favorite obsolete piece of office furniture, the printer hood. Working for the Federal Department of Supply and Service, Atlantic Directorate in Halifax in 1990, my desk sat next to this mammoth fake wood foamy insulated box over the printer which had a hinged plexiglass window through which you could peer at the page being created as the next few minutes passed.

  15. My first computer was the Commodore VIC 20 complete with the optional (audio cassette) tape storage drive. I was pretty young at the time, but I started playing with BASIC programming with the assistance of a book called “Start Programming Gortek and the Microchips.” I did not know it at the time, but fooling around on that giant calculator plugged into my television set gave me a decent foundation for some of the work I would do in the future.

  16. David, I have an “I program with Gortek” (pictured as a trashcan man) sticker sitting, unused, on my dresser right this very moment!! I’ve been waiting for the perfect surface for adhesion, and have yet to find it.

  17. Back ‘in 82 or ’83, when I was 4 years old, I received a BBC Micro A as either a birthday or Christmas present. Over time I also got a tape deck and a 5 1/4 ” disc drive, which I would use to store the programs I wrote in BASIC.

    After owning an Amiga 500 for a few years (and going through a RAM upgrade from 1/2 Mb to 1Mb that cost me £25 (approx $40) ) I once said that the IBM-compatible PC would never displace the higher-end Amigas. (“Monkey Island” was an example of a state of the art game available for the IBM-PC).

    One day my parents brought me home a 486-SX, and it wasn’t long before we’d upgraded to a DX2-66 and I installed my first CD-ROM drive. Since then, I’ve worked my way up the food chain of beige boxes, and look forward to the (not too distant) day when we can all have a teraflop computer on our desktop (or in our pocket!).

  18. I got my first computer in 1994. It was a split Christmas gift for my brother and I. It was a 386 and had 8megs of ram, 3.5 drive and a 120MB hard-drive. I used that sucker till 1996 when I bought a 266MHZ with 32 megs of ram and a 3 gig hard-drive. My mother still has the old 266Mhz and the 386 was donated to a family down the road from us. I hear it’s still kicking.

  19. My first comp. was a 386 running at 100mhz (i think) with 2mb ram back in 92-93 when i was a 8 yr old.

    used to work on Dos / lotus 123 and play chess and bricks.

    also a game DOG. it was a game in which you try to save your pet dog (if someone has this, please mail it to me. thanks).

    it was fun. i think there also was prince.

  20. I first used a computer in 1962. It was a Royal McBee LPG40 with 4k of memeory. No room for an assmebler or interpreter. You programmed it in Binary and read the output on paper tape (it was paper tape I/O)

    The first computer assigned as mine was an IBM 1130 with a big case that housed a disk (not so floppy, but a disk) that stored the programs and data. It used Fortran IV as the primary language.

    I first owned one in 1979 ( an apple which was traded for an apple II). It had a whole 16K (yes that is a K) of memory. We did not know what we would do with ALL of that memory. The programs were saved on a cassette recorder. You learned to save things 3 times in a row in order to get one good save.

    Since then, a TAVA ( IBM XT clone) that was a “turbo” model and could run at the unheard of speed of 12.5 mhz. (Who ever would need a faster computer???)

    That was followed by VIC 20’s, Commodore 64’s, Timex/Sinclair, Atari, Franklin (Apple clone). a plethora of XT, AT, and other IBM clones.

    I have used all kinds of storage media including the big 8 inch floppies which few ever needed.

  21. My first computer, bought in 1990 was a Sinclair ZX Spectrum +2 with a whopping 128k of memory and a 3.5Mhz processor.It had an integrated cassete recorder. Yes, the kind of cassetes we play in our cars.

    As we bought games from several establishments (everyone was copying games on their stereos – any local shop could copy them and sell them with their brand – shockingly we in Portugal didn’t have a law at that time that copyrighted software, so it was a free for all orgy by then), and if you know how recordings on those tapes went, the recording point on the tape varies from recorder to recorder. So we had a tiny screw driver to catch that different point from earing in every tape! Talk about fun!

    Then we had to type ‘Load “”‘+Enter for the game to load. It took from 10 to 20 minutes. And sometimes it didn’t worked and you had to do it all over again.

    I remember playing “Samantha Fox’s Strip Poker” and marveling with delight at those fantastic bitmap pictures.

    In those days a bunch of friends gathered in each one’s houses and played. And until the games loaded, we had a fantastic time.

    I remember learning basic at that time and doing a kind of e-newspapers on it that I distributed to some friends. Maybe that’s because I’m a Web Designer today.

  22. “What did those Turbo button do? Why? And where has it gone today?”

    Oh it came in handy if you were launching apps designed for a slower processor. That affected the graphics mostly. I remember swithching the turbo button off for playing some spectrum games on an emulator. With it on it was impossible to play that fast…

  23. Thats it no HBO for at least half an hour you two! You guys are so gonna get……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………$2.57! I hope your mother doesnt see this. you got the dope from that guy right? good. ill give you the fifty bucks for cover up. i hope your mother doesnt read this….oh well i always wanted a divorce…

  24. i remember my first compuer in 1997 it was a apple 2e i got it for free. With tons of stuff. No one in my familey could get a program running on it. Then i fooled around in the command prompt and got it running good. It wouldnt print to well. I started to mod it making custom cards. I kept trying to get that bastard on the net one error after another. I wrote a total of 27 programs on it and saved it on tape. Witch i hooked to my curent server and got the programs on my file server. I added a custom keyboard to it. Tryed getting a segate 1gig on it. Didnt turn out to well. The i removed all the cards and trashed the rest.

  25. I got my first computer in 1995 (or about that time) and it was a Compaq DeskPro 386SX 25MHz with 4MB RAM and a 40MB hard disk. I got it for my birthday: £110 including mouse, keyboard, monitor and mousemat! I had DOS 5.0 and Windows 3.11 running on it and I used it mainly for QBASIC and C++ programming. I then got an upgrade about a year or two later, which included a 4x CD-ROM drive, a sound card and some really crappy speakers. I’m 14 now and I have gone through approximately eight PCs and I currently have the following:

    AMD Athlon XP 2500+ (o/c 3200+)
    256MB PC2700 DDR RAM
    80GB SATA hard disk drive
    Windows XP Pro SP1A

    And so on… lol

    In fact, my first ever monitor is still downstairs and it still works very well indeed.

  26. I used many computers, but the first computer that was actually mine was a Dell Optiplex GXPro6100, Which I had recieved in 1999, when I was about 11 years old. It was previously a School computer which my friends mother had gotten for free, since she already had a computer which was way better, she gave it to me. It was a great computer, It had a 2GB hard drive, and a 16mb Ram, a Pentium Pro Proccesor, a CD-rom and a 3.5″ floppy drive, I still have the computer till this day real slow starting up but when its warmed up it runs great, its a trusty computer, but i rarely use it.

  27. My first computers was an IBM PS/2 486SX running at 25Mhz. It came with 2MB RAM and an 80MB hard drive with DOS 5.0/Windows 3.1 preloaded. My dad had a few laptops with monochrome graphic display but I never used it except to type my school papers.

    I didn’t do much with it the first year except play solitare (I couldn’t figure out how to play minesweeper). Anyway, some kids at school were excited about playing Prince of Persia which came on 4 floppies. I didn’t know what cd/mkdir/copy meant, but I carefully followed the other kids instructions (They had no clue what that meant either). Somehow I got the game to run, which was pretty exciting and fun.

    I then picked up the Windows 3.1/DOS Manual and read it front to back. All of it didn’t make any sense until I hit the appendix which was on DOS commands and the filesystem. This opened up a whole new level in my interest in computing. I can still remember getting excited about learning what a directory structure meant and what dir/cd/move/mkdir/copy meant. The fruit tree analogy really helped. Soon after I started reading up on HELP (kinda like man *nix) which lists every DOS command.

    This whole learning experience got me interested in programming and interested in computing in general. It was at that point I knew I wanted to do something with computers for the rest of my life. I guess it occurred to me that I was enjoying the experience and I was capable of making the computer do things.

    Anyways, that was 10 years ago and now I’m fully immersed in computer science and making a living from it. Thanks to that 486SX~ ;^)

  28. stumbled across this, found it interesting, i’m 16 and i got my first computer at a yard sale when i was 11, it was a Compaq 66mhz Presario with a 500mb hd and 8mb of ram, CD and 3 1/2, with windows 95, i upgraded it to 98 and added some ram i found at another yard sale….I live in the middle of nowhere, so not only can i not get DSL, i can’t get 56k service, so i’ve discovered that the fastest internet access i get is if i use my 33.6 modem from my first computer, still running strong (right now)…now I’ve got a 700mhz, 90gb (10+80) 256…my first crappy Dell Monitor (from a different yard sale) windows 98se (i tried XP, but it crashed every other month)…by now I’ve pretty much given up on PC’s anyway…i have a 12″ iBook and it never turns off, which is amazing after dealing with windows forever.

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