Remberance of things past - computer division

It has been fun reading in other threads about the early days of computers. The Commodore VIC-20, 64 and then the 28, the Sinclair-Timex et al.

Now I would like to muse about some other things down memory lane. The first real PC I built was a 286, and it seemed miraculous at first, until I realized how slow it was.

I resisted Windows 1.0 for a while, as I hated GUIs, but finally succumbed. It was interesting that we counted in 8s and I still rattle off the 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, and 512. I stopped there because Bill Gates assured us that 512K of memory was all anybody would need. How miraculous it was when a 1 MB chip came out. Wow.

Remember extended and expanded memory, and trying to figure out the difference?

And that that naming files had to be restricted to eight characters and three for the extension? How much fun it was trying to name scores of files something that you could figure out later what it was?

I fondly remember Visicalc and how miraculous a computer spreadsheet was. Then when I got Lotus 1-2-3, how much better that was (I still use it).
It was also amazing to find dBase and what it could so to make life easier.

And one of the first real word processors, WordStar. It was said that it was like Darth Vadar: very powerful but everybody hated it. Then, thankfully, WordPerfect came out which was a joy to use. It also had about the best customer support ever.

I remember after reading the book “Contact” I tried to write a program that would give the value of PI but gave up. I searched some BBSs and finally found a little program ( that would let you put in the number of of decimal points you wanted,and it would calculate it. On a 286 PC, for 500 decimal places it would take a few hours. I keep the program on each new computer I get, and now it will calculate even 2000 decimal points in a fraction of a second. Nice speed test.

The first modem was external and ran at 300 baud. Slight improvement today.

I got on the Internet (way before the WWW) when you just went through a succession of text menus to find something. Pretty slow with dial-up, but still awesome.

What other things do you old-timers remember?

I remember everything you mentioned. I still remember many of the Wordstar key combinations (CTRL D, CTRL S, etc). And Lotus’ “/FS” still works, even in Excel 2010!

My contribution: Novell Netware. Even into the “modern” era, late 1980s, it was a royal PITA: you had to make custom boot disks for each combination of processor/OS/network card, and generating those disks (which included the Netware utility’s compiling/linking the .COM files on-demand) would take forever - and all 5.25 inch disk-based.

And different drivers for each combination of program + device, so Wordstar had its own printer driver for your Okidata ML-whatever, and Lotus had it’s own, etc. Every program capable of any graphics had to have its own graphics driver installed and configured. Kids today don’t appreciate how big of a deal it is that Windows has centralized all that (and 98% of the time, successfully).

I worked on computers about 25 years before buying my first Mac. It had a 2-gigabyte hard drive. People were saying “2 gigabytes? You’ll never fill that drive up.”

This week I’m getting my new Mac. It’ll have 4 drives, each of which is 2 terabytes. And yeah, I’ll fill that up too…

Yeah, the growing size of HDDs is amusing. What comes after a terabyte?

BTW, the VIC-20 I bought in 1981 had a staggering memory of 5K.

I fondly remember my first desktop publishing program, Aldus PageMaker. Bit complicated, but once mastered, all my publications went down to printing text-ready.

I can’t recall now the name of the first CAD program I used, but that too was awesome.

I remember my VIC -20 and its datasette. Storing programs on casette tape. Good times.

It still seems decadent somehow to use more than 8 letters for a filename.

And spaces too! This witchcraft is just unnatural. God Intended man to use underscores, not spaces in a file name.

It is a petabyte which is well within range for larger server clusters already. Next is an exabyte then zettabyte then yottabyte (each is about 1000 times the size of the previous one). About 5 exabytes can store all the words ever spoken by humans but that isn’t nearly enough for today’s data hungry needs. Yearly global data output is already in the low zettabyte range and internet giants like Google are already making plans to deal with data in the yotabyte range in the not so distant future. We still have some time to scale up to the xenottabyte, shilentnobyte, and then domegemegrottebyte which will eventually enable us to store enough data to run at least the whole galaxy.

sigh A VIC-20 is not an early computer. Here is a somewhat early computer - an LGP-21 with 4 k of memory on a disk. It is pre-ASCII, its hex was not abcdef like today, it used paper tape, and didn’t even have any interrupts. The one we had in high school did not have an assembler - I wrote the first one myself. And it isn’t even that old - it is a transistorized model of an LGP-30 from 1956 or so. And even that isn’t all that old - my adviser at Illinois worked for von Neumann on the IAS machine, and probably write the world’s first assembler.

I remember the computers in high school. One of them had the keyboard laid out alphabetically. Both had tape drives. And you couldn’t assign a variable (which had to be 1 character long) a value without the keyword LET. As in LET X = 2.

But my TRS-80 was the balls. You could buy game cartridges for it. Sometimes the games would a whole second or two to load. And I had some card games on tape. They were licensed from some company I’d never heard of. I think it was called MicroSoft.

My first computer was an Atari 800XL.

I can’t recall what size memory it had, but all my files were stored on cassette tape. I would spend hours manually keying in games and backing them up on tape. Usually to find out they didn’t run and then having to go through hundreds of lines of code and try to de-bug the error.
Remember when the internet was young and companies would announce their web sites by telling you to type in H-T-T-P Colon backslash backslash double-you double-you double-you dot ourcompany (all one word!) dot com. Now they just say “you can find us on Google.”

I used to have a great book on how to program the TRS-80 in machine code. I would put it into a hi-res video mode for the Star Trek game I was writing. It worked great, except that there were flashing squiggles on the screen. It turns out that the stack was sharing space with the video memory, so I was actually watching the stack on the screen.

The book said I could get around this by moving the stack to a different memory location. That worked great. In order to exit hi-res mode, though, I had to return the stack to its original location. That always crashed the computer. I spent months trying to figure out why.

I finally ended up calling Radio Shack customer support. The answer I got? “Have you tried rebooting?”


It must have been the summer of 1990, with my first (and only) 286. I remember saving money from my summer job to upgrade from 512KB to 2.5MB of RAM. I went through Computer Shopper, found a local company (Austin) who made 1MB 30-pin SIMMs, called them, and then went to buy them. They didn’t have a store front, but the president of the company was happy to bring me into his office and accept a personal check. I think it was about $200, which was good price at the time. This awesome amount of memory let me run OS/2 1.1, or Wing Commander with a huge amount of extended memory.

That same 286: a roommate came upon an ISA memory expansion board which took chips (not SIMMs) he gave to me. He got it for free because there was no documentation, and nobody could get it to work. The trick was, the address in RAM where the memory started (where main system RAM ended) had to be coded in DIP switches in octal, or something like that. It wasn’t too difficult with multiple programmers and electrical engineering majors under the same roof (I was the token liberal arts major).

Ah, personal computers are a novelty and an abomination. Real men, and a very small number of real women, programmed on Big Iron. By typing a deck of Hollerith cards on a keypunch machine. And running it through a reader with a satisfying thwaaaaaaaap sound. And saving the little squares of punched-out cardboard as confetti.

Way back when I worked for MicroSoft, I worked with a guy who used to work at his mother’s company. He was a Data Transfer Specialist. That is, he drove the forklift with pallettes full of punch cards.

First PC I built was a 16MHz AT-clone. It had a special fast memory bus and a 1MB ram card.

Back in the late-80’s eary 90’s I was working on PC based multi-media computer training systems. No MPEG, no MP3’s, no sound cards. Video/audio came off a serial port controlled laser disk player, or a CD Rom drive. Video/graphics overlays were done with a special ISA expansion board. I designed the board that switched all the video and audio around, and allowed multiple student workstations to network to the teacher’s desktop. Data ran via RS-485 and video and audio ran on dedicated twisted pairs. R,G, & B got their own pair, and sync was phantom-ed onto the video pairs.

This work morphed into a computerized radio station music library, with tunes stored on VHS HiFi, on 16 or 32 VHS decks. It needed to do commercials, and Tape Paul Harvey for later delivery, etc. So we got one of the very first CD quality digital audio boards. Still no MP3 compression, so you needed about 10MB/minute to store CD quality audio. At the time, a typical desktop system would have 20-40MB hard drive…not nearly big enough. Finally someone came out with a 470 MB hard drive. It was a full height 5.25 drive, and you had to load all kinds of fancy drivers so that DOS could deal with such a huge drive. We had to call all over the country (google? what’s that?) to find one, and the Boss’s kid ended up hand carrying it when he came home from college for the weekend.Never could get that silly thing to work. Turned out that this was my first encounter with a PC virus in the wild. Jerusalem-B it was called. The night Janitor had an infected version of a 3-D tetris game he was playing on peoples computers at night.

Windows still wasn’t ready for prime-time, so all this ran under DOS, with a custom GUI using a library called C-worthy.

I also remember sending/receiving program updates between USA and Austria. The phone lines would only support 300baud, and the Austrian phone system would auto-disconnect long-distance calls after 30 min, because who in their right mind would talk long distance for that long?

Jeze, Shagnasty, my head just exploded

This got me thinking, the first 486 I owned I eventually filled all 8 ISA expansion slots, but I can’t remember what everything in there was.

[li]Tseng ET4000 Video card[/li][li]ATI Mach8 Video accelerator. An IBM 8514 clone which was one of the only accelerated graphics options for OS/2 2.x, and later XFree86. I bought it at the Dell Outlet for $10 or something insane. It did not have VGA, so the Tseng was also needed.[/li][li]Adaptec 1542 SCSI card.[/li][li]16550 uart based serial card.[/li][li]Sound Blaster Pro.[/li][li]Maybe a dedicated mouse card.[/li][li]Maybe a 3com 3c509, but I think that was later.[/li][li]??[/li][/ol]
What else could I have put in there? I distinctly remember upgrading at some point to a PCI based 486 with built in NCR 53c810 SCSI and 16550s and using an S3 840? 960? (not the crappy 700 series) video card. I was a bit disappointed that I had empty slots.

I personally think the ORIGINAL internet was all the bulletin board systems that were set up to relay message boards all across the country using long distance calls. Remember all those long, long lists of bbs systems with their inbound telephone number. Those were the days… when the ‘internet’ was moved external modem to external modem… one POTS phone call at a time. Managed by people who had to manually write pauses into each modem string! Those were the high days of ASCII art.

Then AOL came and crapped on everything.

Yeah, well I knew a guy who worked for Babbage on the first calculating engine. :smiley: