The PC Made Me Do IT

BYTE technologist Dino Londis tries to figure out if the IBM PC really was his first computer.

The original IBM Personal Computer (Model 5150) was my first real personal computer.

Well, it was one.

Then again, the Heathkit computer kit -- I bought it from the Edmund-Scientific catalog -- came first for me. It was the first computer that made me think that every office worker might someday have his or her own computer. Back then, businesses had all the control, issuing dumb terminals that you couldn't really do anything with.

It's hard to believe, but most people couldn't even imagine a world of personal computers back then.

As a kid, I was the kind who waited for that Edmund Catalog every quarter. Along with pieces on weather balloons and multistage rockets, its articles described how someone like me could build and own his own actual computer. If you built it. So I did.

But now, wait. I can't call the Heathkit computer my first real computer, either. RadioShack's 100-in-1 Kit came before that. This was, basically, an erector set for computer junkies. And what an erector set. It had a solar panel, infrared relay and an actual integrated circuit!

The IC was the size of a quarter and you could see every component with the naked eye. But it was (gasp!) integrated! I mean, I distinctly remember how you could see a diode on the board without trying too hard. And it had an LED.

I liked it so much, I ended up building a little counter for it.

This was all before I turned 16.

Illustration: Dino Londis

In 1981, while in high school, I got my hands on the original IBM Personal Computer -- the new IBM 5150. My school ended up with eight of them lined up in the back of the room -- that for a class of about 25 kids. No printers. And no local storage. We all had to share the cassette drive to store our files -- our programs and projects.

Back then, like now, the real computer guys in the crowd weren't on the IBM PC. They used the Apple IIs the class already had.

And that's where I discovered BASIC.

We had an assignment that first semester: create a program in BASIC. Mine was to come up with something like Atari's Lunar Lander.

For those of us who remember, in the early 1980s it was pretty amazing for a classroom to have computers. There wasn't a line around the block trying to get into the class, either. Heck, my school's mime troupe was three times bigger than its computer club. Google the names Shields and Yarnell and you'll know why. And that same year my dad fell in love with RadioShack and brought home a TRS-80.

Looking back, I see I was lucky to grow up around so many computers back at a time when few regular businesses had PCs and almost nobody else did, either.

My dad bought every new gadget RadioShack put on the shelf -- back in the days when the computer store gave out a free battery a month and when the clerks wrote out all receipts by hand.

My dad bought floppy drives, printers. He even bought a 300 baud modem with rubber cups -- an acoustic coupler -- that fit over a physical phone. I don't know the network he was connecting to, but it was certainly running on an early, primordial version of the then Web-less Internet.

After the PC, I switched camps again and got a TRS-80, Model 200. I bought it for myself -- it had kind of a glorified word-processor built-in.

Funny, it was every bit as portable as the netbook I'm typing on now. More so, really. Because back then, if power was running low, I'd just pop in four fresh new batteries. The TRS-80 Model 200 had no hard disk, three floppies that came with MS-DOS, GW Basic and PC-Link, the modem software. The modem hardware was extra, by the way.

The portability amazed me. If I cared to lug my dot-matrix printer, I could write and print anywhere I went. Even back then, 25 years or more ago.

I was a young writer then, too, and I remember that you couldn't cut and paste from one program to another. Next thing I know, I'm standing in a Best Buy watching someone demo that feature on a card program running Microsoft Works for a PC. I bought it immediately.

So that's how I ended up, in 1989, buying the first real computer that did more than word processing. It was the IBM PS/2.

Photo Courtesy IBM

A monster replaced my TRS-80 Model 200. I unpacked this behemoth and wondered what I would do with it now.

It almost had too much power -- an 80286 Intel CPU, 1MB memory (just 640K addressable!), an 80MB hard drive and Microsoft Windows for Workgroups. It felt like overkilll. Not too long after that I was on AOL, buying expensive add-in peripheral cards to expand the PS/2's proprietary Microchannel bus.

And that's what I remember most, in a way. I never bought a single PC after that. I built them myself -- using the original IBM ISA slot for expansion -- from then on. The PC had a lot to do with it. And a tech addict and a future IT guy was born.

I guess everyone has his own tech story . . . What were your first computers?

Dino Londis is a BYTE technologist specializing in the consumerization for IT. He has a full-time gig working in IT at a Manhattan law firm by day. Email him at [email protected].

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