My history with computers, Part 1: “Early 90s”

An early computer using the Intel Pentium

Context

As hinted at in a previous post, I thought I’d go over a history of my interaction with computers. This was … harder than I thought, mostly because I barely remember anything. If only I had pictures, notes or journals, sigh (so, I picked a generically representative image here above). Still, it’s a useful exercise to try to recount all this, so I will do my bit.

Chronologically, this post is set between roughly 1994 and 1997.

Images

Before I physically saw a computer or used one, I knew of its existence through magazines, and reference books1.

I do remember one occasion where someone I knew bought a big and expensive computer at their home, and I got to see it, and was very impressed by the (at the time, very, very novel) color graphics display and a mouse.

School

I was fortunate to have a “computer lab” at my school. It was populated by what would today by utter relics, not notable enough to feature even in a museum2.

Yet with no context and not having every physically touched anything else, they were, of course, quite marvelous to me. They were even then oddballs, one-offs — and they had to be, because hardware was incredibly expensive then! — but I do recall a good number of them being BBC Micros3 (and there might have been a solitary Sinclair4).

Two features to note here, common to each:

  • a Floppy drive, the sole mode of connection to the outer world (no network of any sort), and also the sole means of storage (yes, no hard drives either!)
  • Basic 5 as the sole programming language (okay, it was Logo before that for a while)
  • Black-and-white raster graphics on a roughly 14-inch screen. Yep.

Thinking back, I can accept the floppy drive (noisy and slow, and this was the older 5-1/4” jumbo drive, btw), but thinking of how anything to do with “real programming” was limited to Basic makes me tear my hair out. It made it so hard to imagine how anything else was made.

Home

It was a big deal then, when we at home got a computer of our own. This was relatively very expensive at the time, and I’m fortunate to have parents who spent money on this as opposed to almost anything else for themselves.

So one day we had a shiny6 new 386 7.

It had 4MB of RAM8 , and a 256MB hard-drive9, along with a 14-inch black-and-white raster display.

It ran MS-DOS 6.2210 and came pre-installed with … yes, Basic11

Over time, we got “office suite” applications, and I felt very accomplished as I learnt Lotus 1-2-312, DBase 413 and WordStar14.

There were early games (e.g. Arkanoid15, Dave16) at this point, which me and my brother played in isolation, though later on, he brought cooler games (e.g. Commander Keen17) from his friends.

Transition

I’m going to stop here, because I could go on and on otherwise, but also because this was fun to write and if I actually “get this out”, I can actually write “the rest” too.


  1. Which were pretty good for the time, btw, remember this was before the widespread advent of “the web”, e.g. this Time-Life series ↩︎
  2. I’m thinking, for example, of the Computer History Museum ↩︎
  3. I think of them as the big hulking Raspeberry Pis of that era ↩︎
  4. maybe this one ↩︎
  5. Or rather, GW-BASIC ↩︎
  6. I used to keep taking off and putting on the dust cover on it. Seriously. ↩︎
  7. At the time, I remember the “range” of computers were roughly defined as Intel chip generations. So, 186, 286, 386, 486, and 586 a.k.a. the “Pentium”. This sounds silly now, the equivalent of people deciding whether to buy a Kaby, Coffee, Comet or Cooper -lake today ↩︎
  8. I remember thinking, wow, 4 million sounds so big! ↩︎
  9. A big upgrade from the floppy-disk-only machines I had seen earlier ↩︎
  10. I remember the version because I read the manual (cringe) front-to-back a couple of times ↩︎
  11. Or rather, QBASIC ↩︎
  12. it was an early instance of what is today called a “killer app” ↩︎
  13. I found an old manual (!) that shows what it looked like … and I was fascinated/horrified to see that its newsgroups are still active ↩︎
  14. Hey, R. R. Martin still uses it ↩︎
  15. I always felt this was a crazy name for a glorified pinball machine ↩︎
  16. you can play this in your browser today! ↩︎
  17. I don’t know which version, maybe this one ↩︎

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