Essays on Technology and Culture

A Personal History of Personal Computing, Part 1

The first computer I ever saw was at my mother’s office. I was in pre-school. It had a green phosphor display, and a big mechanical keyboard. Someone in my mom’s office showed me how it worked. I pressed a key and the letter showed up on the screen. We made a drawing out of text, crude ASCII art, and printed it out on one of those extra-wide sheets of form-feed printer paper with the green and white stripes. I think we wrote out “Merry Christmas,” but don’t hold me to that.

In elementary school, I used Apple IIs in various configurations. I even got to use a TRS–80 at one point. From second to fifth grade, I got to go to the Mentally Gifted program at another school, where they had Apple IIs, and I got interested in typing out LOGO programs from a huge book. I still know how to draw a star in LOGO. It’s embedded in my brain. However, those computers were mostly used for playing Where in the World is Carmine Sandiego? It was enough to get me hooked. Soon, I started bugging my parents for my own machine.

On Christmas in 1992, I got my first, real, personal computer. It was a VTech PCPartner 486DX/33 Mhz. It came with a 3.5” High Density floppy drive, a 5.25” High Density floppy drive, a 470 MB hard disk drive, 4 MB of RAM, MS-DOS 5.0, and Windows 3.1. This machine saw me through a lot. Over the years, my dad and I upgraded it, first with a 2X CD-ROM Drive, and SoundBlaster 16, later with a 1.26 GB hard drive and a whopping 16 MB of RAM. It played Doom and SimCity 2000 like a champ. We put in a 56K modem, and after upgrading to Windows 95, it was the machine that got me on the Internet for the first time. I built my first website on it, a MST3k fan site, hosted on Geocities.

Not long after I got online, the old girl began to show its age. The machine began to randomly restart. Taking it to the local computer repair shop, we found out the memory slots had cracked open, and the RAM was becoming unseated. They put in a couple shims to keep the RAM from popping out, but the writing was on the wall. Time to put this old thing out to pasture. That Christmas, I got my second computer: a Gateway 2000 Pentium II 266 Mhz, with 64MB of RAM, and a 6.4 GB hard drive. It was an oddly shaped machine, with bulging sides, to avoid the boring “beige box” look. Of course, the day I got it, I ended up snapping part of the CD-ROM drive tray. It still worked, and ended up being my parents machine for years, until I took it back to turn into a Linux file server. [1]

That machine’s replacement was a computer I won in a contest during High School. A no-name/off-brand Celeron 466 Mhz machine. I remember upgrading it to 256MB of RAM, and smoothly playing Quake III on it. Shortly after the upgrade, I named it Pandora, after Nick’s computer in the webcomic _General Protection Fault. The Pandora naming convention lasted through to its successor, a custom-built white box PC, Pandora Mk. II, which was based around a Pentium III 866Mhz. This is the computer I took to college, and back. I built the original version of Sanspoint on it, too.

Pandora Mk. II was the first Pandora to actually live up to its name. When I first got it, it would overheat, necessitating a trip back to the guy who built it to repair it. During this time I used my Dad’s old work ThinkPad, which had been crudely upgraded with a Pentium II. It was enough to get me online, but the battery life was non-existent. After it was fixed, Pandora Mk. II lasted a while, but later developed an odd symptom where the DVD drive would start automatically ejecting the tray… even while using it. Replacing the drive fixed that. I also had a video card die on me, as well as a monitor using that machine. I was not sorry to see it go.

In college I got my first laptop: an IBM ThinkPad T30, paid for by my tuition. I named it Kayo, after the keyboard player for the Japanese rock band POLYSICS. For a time, however, I had three computers in my dorm room: Pandora Mk. II, Kayo, and BastardSon, the old Gateway 2000 machine, now running Slackware and holding my MP3 collection. At one point, I actually blew a circuit breaker for my dorm room running all three machines, and an Ethernet hub.

During college, I made the transition from being a Windows user to a full-time Linux user, installing Red Hat, then later Fedora Core on my desktop and laptop. Using Linux gave me a bit of hacker cred at Polytechnic University, but my abysmal Computer Science—and other grades—lost the cred again. I stuck with Linux for a good four years, eventually getting frustrated with it, particularly after I got a digital camera and an iPod, which set me up for the next phase of my computing life.

But that’s for another post.

  1. Installing a massive 250GB drive in the old Gateway machine led to the greatest MacGuyver feat I’ve ever pulled. Unplugging the original hard drive, I wrenched a pin off its logic board. I managed to get the drive recognized by placing a piece of Scotch tape over the lead, and where it connected on the board. I’d have bet anything that wouldn’t work.  ↩