What Was Your First Computer?

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A lovely book landed on my desk today: Core Memory: A Visual Survey of Vintage Computers by John Alderman, Dag Spicer, and Mark Richards. It starts with a reconstructed version of the Z3 Adder, a WWII-era machine that used “hole-punched movie film” to store data, and goes up through Google’s first production server, which is not very vintage but somehow appropriate anyway. The photos are gorgeous — the windy blue-white guts of a Cray-3, the humble plywood case of an Apple I, a purple-and-white portable suitcase-style Osborne

But I was disappointed not to see either of my first two computers in there. Somewhere around 2nd or 3rd grade students in my elementary school were taken out of class, in small groups, and ushered in hushed silence into the awesome presence of a Commodore PET, which lived underground, like the Minotaur in its maze, in the school’s fallout shelter (this is such a perfect period piece). Under close supervision, we were permitted to play Hunt the Wumpus for about half an hour. Thus educamated, we were returned back to our surface lives.

Later my family actually took possession of a Sinclair ZX81, a tiny little guy with a touchpad keyboard that hooked up to your TV. IIRC, it had a mighty 1K of RAM (can that possibly be right?) For storage it hooked up to my dad’s boombox — my siblings and I would play the data tapes out loud, at high volume, to annoy him. What I remember most about our beloved ZX81 was that you could program in BASIC, and it would bug-check as you typed — if what you were saying made no sense, it wouldn’t let you add the line. That kind of thing would probably annoy me now — I always disable grammar-checkers — but for an 11-year-old it was handy.

If I got a PC now, of course, I would never consider programming it. I would just surf the Web endlessly. But back then, trapped as we were on our little computational islands, we made our own fun.