Page 3.14


I was born in 1984. My earliest memory of a computer is thumbing through a plastic box of black, square 5.25-inch floppy disks, trying to decide whether I wanted to play The Oregon Trail, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, or Word Munchers on the family Compaq 386.

Since most of the ScienceBloggers have a few years on me, we thought it might be fun to have a stroll down their technological memory lanes. Here’s what they remember about old-school computing. (Feel free to give them a hard time about their ages; they’re all extremely sensitive.)

Revere (b. A long time ago)
“My first computer experience was in 1969 on a PDP-9, booted with paper tape, 48K of wound ferrite core memory. Took up a whole room. A big room. We had to set switches manually to get the boot tape to input. There was a Mac at that time. But it was something called Project Mac at MIT. We just heard rumors of it. It was this amazing machine that could be shared. More than one person could be using it at once. Wow. Something called time sharing. Not condos. There were no condos. All my programs submitted batch on punch cards in Fortran. I EVEN REMEMBER WORLD WAR II !!! Excuse me while I go drool.”

Doc Bushwell (b. 1954)
“I wrote my PhD thesis on a North Star Horizon computer that was linked to our stopped flow spectrophotometer for data acquisition. I rented a typewriter that could be hooked up to North Star for the final thesis product. My ChemDraw figures were processed on a tiny Mac 512 KiB, and the figures were drawn by a plotter in the comp. sci. building across campus. And yes, I had to walk miles and miles through the snow to get to school (hey, this was Wisconsin).”

John Wilkins (b. 1955)
“I had to type my first essay on a four poster manual typewriter that was made in the 1920s. I did my first electronic essay in Wordstar on a PC 8086. My first program was in Fortran on punch cards (it didn’t work, but I had to wait three weeks to find that out). My first computer was a Commodore 64 with a tape drive for storage.

And you try telling the kids of today that, and they won’t believe you.”

PZ (b. 1957)
“I wrote my thesis on an Apple II, using PIE Writer, which was kind of like Wordstar, with imbedded dot commands for formatting. You had to run your text, which was sprinkled with cryptic .p and .sup and .i commands, through a format program that would produce a binary…then you’d send that off to the daisy wheel printer which would make the floor shake for a few hours while it pounded out the words on that awful perforated paper.”

Zuska (b. 1963)
“I typed my senior thesis on an IBM correcting selectric typewriter.

I wrote my MS. in LaTex on a mainframe, had to compile and run the document and walk down two floors to the printing room to pick it up each time I wanted to see changes in it. Oh, the equations…

I wrote my PhD diss. on a MacIntosh Plus. Was that ever sweet or what. I should add that I did have the added support of a never-ending bottle of Old Smuggler, which greatly facilitated the available technology.”

Coturnix (b. 1966)
“Played Hobbit on Sinclair ZX Spectum in 1980. Learned how to punch cards in highschool. Skipped 10 years of computer evolution. Then jumped into Usenet.”

Mark Chu-Carroll (b. 1966)
“My first computer was a Commodore 64. No tape drive – I used to write programs on the computer, and when they worked, I copied them out *by hand* into a notebook. Seriously. I had just enough money to get the computer, no spare money for the tape drive!

I once had to crawl under a raised thermo-floor to run network cables. The machine room at Rutgers was on a raised, perforated floor, where cool air was pumped in from below. I got to crawl through the floor dragging a cable, because I was the only geek skinny enough to do it. I also did the same thing as a prank to scare the living shit out of another student programmer. (Imagine sitting in a chair, and having the floor right in front of you pop open and shout “Boo!”)”

Dave Munger (b. 1967)
“Let me give you some sense of how incredibly advanced our high school newspaper was. We had an electronic typesetting machine, which was connected to our Commodore 64. You could actually type a story on your computer, save it on a floppy disk just 5 1/4 inches in diameter (using a hole-puncher, you could add a notch to the side of the disk casing, allowing you to flip it over and save files on the other side. This increased storage from about 165K to 340K, or less than 1/1000 of my iPod Shuffle.), load it onto the school’s computer, and then, after adding a few cryptic commands into the text, typeset it. Of course, you’d still need to take the typeset copy, wax it, cut it out, and paste it into place on the final master copy of the paper.

Headlines were done by hand, one letter at a time, on our headline machine. Photos, of course, were processed separately, converted into half-tones, and hand-pasted in. Laying out a single page for our newspaper, on a good day, took about 8 to 10 hours. This was “desktop publishing” in 1984.”

John Lynch (b. 1968)
“My first computer was a ZX81 (Timex/Sinclair here in the US). Had 1k of memory. Taught myself assembly.

In high school and college, virtually everything was hand written. Didn’t even use a calculator until college (wasn’t allowed in high school – I remember log tables!)”

Dr. Freeride (b. 1968)
“My high school English teacher made fun of me for wordprocessing my papers (on a Commodore 64 with a program called “PaperClip,” in which I had to type the formatting lines at the top of each document). As revenge, with my term paper I gave him a bag full of the holey strips I removed from the edges of the tractor feed printer paper.”

Dave Ng (b. 1969)
“I had one of those Sinclair machines. Great for space invaders. Then an Apple II, II+, and IIe. Ah good times.

But being Chinese, I’m cool with getting old (you know Fu Manchu’s and getting to call everyone “grasshopper”).”

Chad Orzel (b. 1971)
“The first real home computer we had was a TI 99/4A, which had a weird compact keyboard so that you had to hit something like function-P to get a quote mark. A friend of the family had a business selling them, and we wound up with a huge number of peripheral devices for it.

Some years later, we had an Apple IIgs, which I wrote my college applications on using AppleWorks. We also used it for playing Shanghai and Tetris, so I was well prepared for my freshman year, when my whole hall was obsessed with Tetris—I remember having dreams about those damn falling blocks.”

Mike Dunford (b. 1975)
“I started on the internet when I started college, in 1993. My access then was through a “computer room” in the basement of the dorm. I’m using the scare quotes because the machines in there weren’t stand alone computers. There were about 25 VT-220 terminals in there, which could be used to link to the campus mainframes. Most students used the Vax for recreational stuff, since the IBM was a dinosaur even at the time, and the unix cluster was restricted to students with demonstrated academic need for the machine.”