I’ve got 64K memory, how about you?

Barcelona‘s song “C-64” is a perfect love song to teenage computing in the 80s. I had such a crush on my Commodore!

I’ve got 64k memory
I’ve got cartridge boards on ebony
I’ve got power cords strung out the door
Think I’ll set up my bulletin board
Got a modem when I turned thirteen
But my dad doesn’t know what telephony means
Only 1200 baud
Never leave my room
My skins turning pale
Knocks on the door
Please don’t disturb me I’m here with my C-64

You can hear the first 30 seconds of C-64 on Last.fm but it doesn’t seem to be on sale anywhere. Here’s a hilarious, horrible commercial instead. Apparently Commodore nerds have their own gang sign?!

I would sit on the floor writing long horrible BASIC programs to make “sprites” move around and other sprites shoot them.

My first computer encounter was in a children’s museum in Boston with a room-sized vacuum tube affair with a black and white screen that could play tic-tac-toe. I was sure someone was pulling my leg and there was a person in there, like the illustrations of chess-playing automaton hoaxes. Later in a kids’ programming class on Saturdays I cried along with every other kid when our punch cards didn’t work. Then onward to stolen moments with my dad’s work computer, with a neighbor’s Kaypro “portable” and another neighbor’s Apple II. Mostly I was writing programs that wrote poetry and trying to understand arrays of arrays of arrays, grammar, and how to make random sentences that made sense. Then for months I diagrammed out how to structure a program that could play solitaire – a program I never managed to write. With no Internet, and no books, I had only what I could pick up from random people or figure out for myself. The Commodore 64 though, had books and sound and color, so along with the random poetry generators, I made 7 layers of sprites sail around the screen and learned a lot about waveforms. For games, mostly I played Zork and every other interactive fiction game I could get my hands on.

When my parents bought me the C-64, it was a big deal, a subject of debate and worry to spend all that money but also a lot of speeches about How Things were Different Now because of Feminism; I would have Opportunities that maybe women before me didn’t have. So I had the vague sense that the computer was important beyond what I could do with it; I had to live up to it.

All these computers were the closest thing possible to an alien or a robot. They were like a dream come true, science fiction made real, mysterious stories of UFOs or spontaneous combustion or Atlantis, that would obey my commands. I loved computers passionately!

Questions for the geeky women out there,

And I don’t mean this as any sort of chest-beating old-school-boasty geekier-than-thou thing where whoever touched a PDP-6 wins, but sincerely to explore experiences and emotions and our bonds with machines,

What was your first encounter with computers? What did you first do with them? Were you playing games? Doing Internet stuff? Bulletin boards? Art? Chatting? What did your earliest computer encounters mean to you? And what computer did you first own? How did you feel about your TRS-80, ZX Spectrum, C-64, or whatever came before or after that?

32 thoughts on “I’ve got 64K memory, how about you?

  1. Skud

    Not only did I have that exact C64 ca. 1985, but as I grew up in Australia, I remember that ad all too well, and damn you, I’m earwormed now! We never made the gang sign though.

    My dad worked for IBM from the mid 60s to the mid 80s. I was born in ’75. I remember as a young kid, maybe about 5 years old, going in to the office with my dad when he would work weekends. This was the time of dinosaur-pen computer rooms, like in Tron: minicomputers the size of fridges, tape reels, line printers, etc. I was given used punchcards and tape to play with. I used to make paper chains out of the tape and draw on the punchcards with crayons.

    At age 7, I spent the summer holidays with a schoolfriend and her family at their holiday house in Merimbula, NSW. They had an Atari, which was very exciting. We played Pong on it. Around age 9 (grade 4) my school got a couple of Apple computers, and I got to do a bit of Turtle Logo, which I found straightforward and good fun, and quickly figured out how to draw circles with REPEAT 360 FD 1 RT 1 or whatever it was.

    When I was about 10, my dad married my stepmother, and we went into a phase of upward mobility. That year saw a massive jump in the monetary value of the Christmas gifts on our family, when we got a Commodore 64 for $499. It was a kit that included the computer itself (which was built into the keyboard unit), a tape drive, a joystick, a collection of 12 games, a set of books about learning to program, and a weird plasticky clip-on piano keyboard that sat over the C64 and let you play music on it with the help of some special software. For video and audio, it plugged into the TV.

    My older step-brothers more or less monopolised it for most of the summer holidays, playing games, but when they tired of it I got free rein. At first I played through all the games too: we had Space Invaders, Jumping Jack (a Frogger clone), one called Pedro about a market gardener who has to stop ants and other pests from eating his crops, a couple of adventure-style games that I could never really figure out, one called Cosmic Cruiser that involved rescuing people from a damaged spaceship, and which I liked because it seemed to have realish physics in terms of momentum and stuff, and my favourite: BC Bill.

    BC Bill was a game where you played a caveman, and your job was to club women over the head, drag them back to your cave, and leave them there to pump out a baby every springtime as long as you kept them adequately fed. You fed them by going round and clubbing food: hot dogs, hamburgers, chips, etc all waddling around the screen on little legs. But you had to watch out for dinosaurs, which would kill you. You got bonus points whenever any of your kids grew up and left home. Yeah, I don’t even know.

    Eventually I wore out the games and picked up the “how to program” books with my dad’s encouragement. The first two taught BASIC, and the second two were all about graphics programming in this machine code that I don’t even think was assembler… it was all just numbers, no sense or reason to it, as far as I could tell, and you had to type them in exactly or get a catastrophic graphics failure. I never really got far with that (a little sprite moving across the screen was the best I ever managed) but in BASIC I wrote little programs that displayed animated cursor graphics, and games like Hangman and the like. But what I mostly did — like any kid who knew thing one about BASIC — was to find any computer that would support it and write:

    20 GOTO 10

    My dad always seemed to want me to fulfil *his* career goals so he always suggested career paths that he wanted for himself, I think, so he was pretty encouraging about the computer thing. OTOH, he was always one of those dads who was “oh here let me do it” because he wanted to play for himself, or couldn’t bear to see someone get it wrong, or some combination of the two, so I always had to wait til after he’d built the Lego Techno or the crystal radio set or set up the computer or something, and then pull it apart and put it back together myself. I never really did learn electronics as well as I might have without his “help”, I suspect.

    1. Azz

      Oh! Punchcards! My father brought home a huge box of them when they phased them out at his work. They were the greatest thing ever for paper airplanes, and were excellent for drawing and building and all sorts of things. I miss them.

      1. Jonquil

        Ha. We still HAVE a full box of punchcards that we snagged when the college decommissioned its last reader. We have hoarded them ever since. They make the BEST bookmarks. They also made the best shopping lists, but since we are hoarding them now we don’t use them anyway… which is silly. Just how many bookmarks do you need?

        Hated programming with them, tho. Thank God for timesharing.

        Jonquil — bury me nine edge first

      2. Skud

        @Jonquil in 1998 I worked for Monash university’s computer centre, and there was a guy who had an office on the ground floor and did Oracle DBA stuff. He’d been at the university 20 years I guess? So one day I needed some help with some database stuff and went down to see him. I noticed his box of punchcards and went “ooh” and told him about being a kid at IBM and all that. He offered me a stack a couple of inches high to take with me when I went.

        When the guys in the CC found out — I think because I had a sign I put on my office door saying “BRB” when I stepped out, that was made from a punchcard — they all wanted to know how on earth I’d wrangled the cards out of this guy. Apparently he hoarded and wouldn’t share. I guess maybe it was because I was female, or maybe just because I was enthusiastically telling stories about being a kid in the old dinosaur pens, without actually *asking* him for the cards.

      1. Skud

        And your DEC experiences, especially the parties for kids, remind me of IBM! They had these annual Christmas parties and there were bouncy castles and Santa Claus and presents for all the kids — wildly gendered ones that I always had to kind of negotiate around. I remember one year I got a paint-by-numbers kit which wasn’t too bad, and another year I got a toy supermarket thing with little toy cereal boxes and tinned food and plastic money and a cash register. I remember swapping with other girls at least one time, because I’d got something kind of pink and frilly but really wanted the — I guess it was the painting kit? Anyway. They didn’t teach us programming or anything at these events, though.

        From time to time I run into people of my generation whose parents also worked for IBM in Australia, and we swap reminiscences about the Christmas parties in particular.

  2. pfctdayelise

    I have a vague memory of Logo and ‘Where in the world is Carmen San Diego’ in primary school, but my first at-home encounter was when my dad brought a DOS PC. (I was between 8-10.) I have no idea about any other specs it had. It had WordPerfect, that’s about it.

    Actually I remember my brother and I figured out how to delete and rename files. We would rename them to make them insults to each other. And when we realised that deleted files were _gone_, we would create new empty files with the same name. As if having the same name might make the contents reappear inside them. I’m sure my dad appreciated that. :)

    In late primary/early high school we made it to Windows. And the internet! Oh, dial-up. Somehow our home internet and the internet at my dad’s business would dial the same number, so only one of them could be online at the same time. There was lots of afternoon phone calls to kick me off the internet. Later he caved and got two home lines. One of my school friends and I spent lots of time in Yahoo chat rooms pretending to be 16. (That was So Old! Or a Cool Age, or something.)

    But when I first realised the awesomeness of the internet (and by extension, computers) is when I got heavily into X-Files fandom. That was super fun, and a great escape from living in a small country town. It pretty much saved my teen years from being a black hole of suck.
    Forums and mailing lists and newsgroups of sub-sub-sub-communities led to my own websites (thankyou Angelfire, and also later, Geocities). Fanfic. Slash!

    I later gave up TXF in disgust but I still have very fond memories of that fandom, and how rewarding internet communities could be.

  3. Sofia Blackthorne

    My father used to bring Macs home from work. This would have been the very early 90s, or possibly even earlier (and as I was born in 1988, I think there were a couple of years where I wasn’t actually using the computer because I couldn’t handle the mouse or keyboard).

    They were some kind of all-in-one model, with beige plastic cases and very small screens. The computers themselves were tiny, too, which is why I think he was able to lug them home.

    The only things I ever did with his work-Macs was play with MacPaint, which had this amazing feature where you could mirror your scribbles along multiple axes. I made a ton of snowflakes, heh. (I loved MacPaint so much that when I got my first laptop – one of the earliest models of the chiclet-type iBook, I partitioned my hard drive and bought a floppy drive to install the program.)

    At some point during my childhood, Dad bought a Centris 650. I kept on messing with MacPaint, but I also got some computer games. Oregon Trail, but only after I had played it in the school’s PC computer lab. (Mom would threaten to take it away if I didn’t stop trying to kill the characters as rapidly as possible.) We had Amazon Trail and I think Yukon Trail, but they weren’t as fun, as well as a few math games that were fun mainly because they were so far below my skill level. I didn’t have to fight them or play levels a million times. We used the Centris until about 2000, and occasionally booted it up for shenanigans even after that. It was in the house until 2005.

    We didn’t get internet until I was in 6th grade or possibly later, but we jumped straight from nothing to DSL. (There had been a second phone line, but it was only for Dad to connect with work, and I never bothered to ask if I could use it.) This coincided with the first computer which was purchased for me – a grape iMac. The understanding was that it would be the family computer for a while, and then we’d buy another one and I would get the iMac to myself.

    But before that happened, my younger sister was diagnosed with a learning disability, and she needed a laptop. She was debating the big clamshell blue-or-orange iBook versus the Powerbook. Just as she decided on the Powerbook (good call, kiddo), Apple introduced the plain white rectangular iBook, which was a lot less expensive. So, in the interest of fairness or whatever, I got one of those iBooks, too. (The grape iMac was my mother’s computer after that. It lasted about six years total before the screen gave out.)

    So that’s my first experiences with computers, plus the first ones that were actually mine. :)

  4. Cesy

    My earliest computer-related memory is when dad’s printer started emitting smoke. I can remember typing text files on his Atari, but I didn’t really understand anything. We had Turtle Logo at school but I never got enough time to play on it. He got a Gateway with Windows 95 when I was 8, and that was when I really got interested in computers. Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing was how I learnt to touch type, because it was the only game other than Solitaire, Minesweeper, Freecell and Hearts. Then he heard about the internet, and got a book on HTML out of the library, and I read it after him, and when he created our family website, I created pages for the gerbils and all the stuffed toys. It was several years later that I discovered that other programming languages existed, and they worked much better than HTML for creating games, because you could do more than one thing at once, and have proper if-then-else statements and stuff.

  5. Azz

    My first encounter with a computer was when I was too young to remember it properly: it was my father’s office, with the lights off and that yellow sticker by the lightswitch to remind him to turn it off when not in use. There was a giant cabinet in the room, and it had blinking lights and things that moved. It was his computer, and it scared me.

    The next computer was a Compaq Portable with a tape drive and a floppy drive. It may have been 1987 when he brought it home. He programmed, so he had need of a portable computer. I could almost lift it by myself. There were also computers in the classrooms by then: a whole computer lab full of Apple IIes, and, excitingly, new Macs with mice half-bought with a promotional program where we saved receipts. I loved Print Shop the best, and would print up fantastic warning signs. There was a giant poster about LOGO and its controls, and giant typing layouts with colored zones on the keyboards. I hated Oregon Trail because I always died. I loved a little math strategy game with a character in a cart rolling through a mine of some sort. Since it was simple math, it was little more than a game with trivial CAPTCHAs to me, but other kids were threatened by it.

    In the 4th grade, after my parents discovered that the worst thing about school for me was my execrable handwriting and my thorough loathing of cursive, I wound up typing certain crucial assignments, with my parents reassuring me that after a certain point no one cared about cursive, and it was more professional to type anyway, fuming and steaming the whole way, but happy to be able to type instead of horrid horrid writing. There were templates that fit on the keyboard so you could remember what key did what with what program, and the one for the F-keys reversed so you would have a guide for some of the major programs. I used WordPerfect a lot. I loved WordPerfect.

    I learned about Bold when my father’s great big rooster, Gong Ji, flew up onto the keyboard and hit the correct F-key. That was the beginning of my introduction to markup language.

    My father bought a Mac, a Quadra 660 AV that I promptly dubbed Majel, in 1994. (She could speak to you and had speech recognition, so it was obvious.) The following year, he bought a Gateway 2000, a lovely massive tower. He had planned that the children would use the Mac and he would use the Gateway, but we sort of took over both, much to his consternation. He occasionally interrupted my writing to have me do little computer-related chores, like install programs. One fateful day he handed me the stack of Windows 95 disks and told me to install the new operating system and get the computer set up for use again. All our files were saved to disk, and I sat there with a book, feeding the machine disk after disk. I installed all our programs, then I tried to use the thing.

    After it bluescreened when I did the wrong thing with the disk, I got mad. I continued trying to use it. By the time my father returned, I let him know that for his convenience, I’d reinstalled Windows 3.11 on the box, and if he wanted to use ’95, he could install it himself. I think he recognized how spitting mad I was, and the Gateway remained on 3.11 until ’98 came out.

    I used that machine as my own personal desktop publishing platform. We had WordPerfect and Presentations, and I knew what to do with them. I desktop-published the draft of my first novel, complete with cover, page numbers, gutters, and everything. I animated two movies with Presentations. I dove into Reveal Codes on WordPerfect, which taught me everything I needed to know about markup languages and clean coding.

    My father eventually got a modem and a MosquitoNet account. I had already started to explore the internet through a stunning variety of various school computers: I had a HoTMaiL account (and had to reassure my nervous mother about the nature of ad-supported services), and kept in touch with a friend that I would only meet in person nearly a decade later. (She was the girlfriend of a camp friend.) I discovered the Bujold Nexus and its glorious List. My parents later mentioned that they’d been a bit nervous about me communicating with strangers over e-mail, but I couldn’t imagine a better community to raise a teenager new to the net. They were hilarious and wise and caring and inclusive, and I got a glimpse of how other adults besides my parents conducted themselves (an important thing for a child raised in semi-isolation in Alaska). I ran into The New Hacker’s Dictionary in the humor section of the library, read it cover to cover, and realized that I’d come home to my people. It was like a checklist. Yes. Yes. Yes. Most of the time. Yes. I realized that I’d been raised to be a geek by a geek, even though I didn’t have the hard programming skills. I discovered internet smut, then fanfiction (long live Gossamer!). Someone on the List pointed to the Sith Academy, and I discovered slash (Mulder/Skinner and Mulder/Krycek hadn’t done it for me, but Maul/Obi-Wan did), and cheerfully lied about my age to read the smutty stuff.

    I knew I needed a computer before I moved out on my own, so I enlisted the help of a friend to pick out and order a laptop. (The friend became a fiancé and was instrumental in my relocation to Arizona for college.) At college, I discovered that the business parts of my original major, Business Information Systems, did not do it for me; the Information Systems did it, and I was helping idiot kids in Computer Information Systems some ways ahead of me in debugging their stupid programs. I switched majors. College didn’t work out (and neither did the fiancé) but I was left with a solid grounding in computers, and an abiding love for program design and sharing my utter glee in computers with people who thought they’d never be able to understand them.

  6. Virginia

    My first computer was a C-64, too. Complete with floppy disks. Except I was the mom buying it for myself, and my kids were playing PacMan with a little gadget from Radio Shack.

    I bought it the Commadore to write with. I wrote some terrible fiction with that baby. I also tried out spread sheets and made a list of a coin collection using that technology. There was some programming game for the Commadore that made a turtle move around the screen that I experimented with a bit. Words were more fun.

    By the time I had something to write that I could actually sell (a book for teachers) I had graduated to the early Mac with the monitor built into the casing. Had a tiny screen in only black and white.

  7. jadelennox

    Because my mum worked with computers long before before they were common (she had one job programming punch cards in the 60s, and when I was a kid she taught math and computers at my school) I was always exposed to computers earlier than the other kids around me. When she worked at RadioShack, we had a TRS 80 Color Computer (hooked up to the television and programmed via cassette tape player, of course) and a Tandy Model III — which at the time felt like a poor substitute given that the rich kids in my class had Ataris and Commodores, but meant that I was playing around with BASIC pretty early. At school at around this time we were planning on Apple ][s, programming our own interactive fiction games in Logo. (Seriously. You could do a lot more text-based stuff in Logo than most people knew. Also, making your interactive fiction game dynamically map was really easy.)

    Then she worked at DEC, and we had a Rainbow running CP/M, and that was totally awesome. We had all of these bad pirated Infocom games that I couldn’t solve because they had in-game copy protection that required you look at materials on the box. I learned to write documents with WPS-80 (well, technically I had used Scripsit on the Tandy first, but not very much) before any of my more well-to-do classmates had Brother typewriters. And we watched the animated ASCII control sequence-generated movie of Bambi versus Godzilla.

    Also there was this incredibly cool box that sat next to the computer, and if you dialed a phone number and put your phone on the box, the phone and the box would whistle to each other and then you could talk to people who weren’t in your house. Magic.

    I got to wander around the basements of DEC a lot as a child, looking at the binary switches on the front of massive mainframe computers named things like “Batman” and “Mickey Mouse”. Also I got to xerox my face and raid the supply closets for bright orange stickers. And I got to wander around the cubicle farm with all of the neat inspirational posters that said things like “TEAMWORK” over a picture of a fried egg or something, and I got to go to the annual DEC company outing at Canobie Lake Park where they fed us tons of ice cream and we got to ride on the flume, and I got to go to these classes that were run for the children of employees where they taught us all about computers and gave us pens and brightly colored folders. I know most of these things don’t sound like they are about computers, but they are — learning about computers and playing Infocom games is tied up in my mind with the excitement of amusement parks and a child’s-eye view of cube farms.

    Of course, plenty about it sucked, too. All of the other kids in class got Trapper Keepers and Lisa frank binders, and my entire childhood my binders were bright blue. I suppose I was lucky; they could have been orange if I’d been a little bit older.

    When I went to college told they needed to hire me as the VAX systems administrator because I knew everything there was to know about VAXen. *was very, very wrong*

    1. Jonquil

      It is SO COOL to hear from a woman geek who got her start from her mom, not her dad!

      1. jadelennox

        You know, it took me years to realize that wasn’t normal. I knew that girls shouldn’t do math, and I was the only girl in math club — but it never occurred to me that it was weird that my mother taught math and computer science. He knew the girls didn’t do computers, but it never occurred to me that it was weird that my mother had worked with computers her entire professional life and my father could barely hunt and peck his way around a copy of Peachtree.

        When I think about it, I was incredibly lucky. I was one of those kids who reads everything around me, even milk cartons. And what I was surrounded with was copies of Math magazine and Gödel, Escher, Bach and interactive fiction games and the Time Life series math books. They didn’t have to tell me “girls can do computers, too” because all of the computers, all of the math, all of the puzzle solving in my house came from my mother.

    2. Skud

      Oh god, the binders. So remember I’m Australian, but IBM is a US-based company. Australia uses A4 paper and IBM used Letter. And my dad’s a cheap bastard. So when it came time for school supplies, he’d bring home ring binders from work. They were navy blue with THINK on them in that ugly typeface, and because they were letter sized, all my schoolwork stuck out by about 1/4″ at the top and the bottom, meaning you couldn’t stand the binders up on a shelf, and the edges got all ratty. I *hated* it.

      Re: in-game copy protection, I worked at a computer game shop at some point around 1990, and whenever we pirated games from there we always made sure to photocopy the manual as well, so we could find what the 3rd word on page 7 was, or whatever. Once you knew the magic word, you’d write it on the floppy disk label, and pass it on to other people that way.

  8. Mackenzie

    The first computers I used were Apple //e systems in first grade. There was also a Macintosh. We’d all argue over who got to use the Mac instead of the normal Apple computers (side note: can you imagine? kids growing up now have no idea that there are Apple computers that aren’t Macs!) Oregon Trail and “The Turtle Game” (ie. programming in LOGO) were what we did.

    In second grade, my parents got us a DEC Rainbow 100. That machine was about 5 years older than me. This results in fun times due to my age. A woman I worked with said, when we met, “I used to be a geek. I worked for a company you’ve never heard of called Digital Equip—” “I had a DEC.” She was surprised that someone my age had heard of DEC let alone had one of their computers. A hacker I know who’s about ten years older than me boggled at learning that my first computer and his first computer were the same generation.

    That machine was also quite useless. All I knew about computers at the time was that the big black disks have games on them. If you get some big black disks, you can put them into a computer and a game will happen. I did not know that big black disks could hold things other than games. I did not know that certain games (or programs, I suppose) would work only on certain computers. My mother knew that computers used very large tape drives. That was the sum total of computer knowledge in our household. It is thus no wonder that I set about trying to find some of these big black disks. I scored some off a neighbor at a garage sale. They had labels I couldn’t read, but of course they had to have games, since all black disks have games, right? Er…apparently not. I did get rather used to green-text-driven menus on a black screen though.

    A Windows 95 machine followed shortly thereafter. I spent my time online making websites, practicing Spanish in Spanish-language AOL chatrooms, and some group-writing of Harry Potter fanfic. Unlike some of the others commenting here, I didn’t do any programming after LOGO and before high school. My high school offered a few university-level programming classes, so I took those.

    1. Bene

      My experiences were pretty similar, save the DEC. Fond memories of the Apple ][e from elementary school indeed; there was a program called Paint With Words that I cannot find for the life of me on any ][e program list out there.

      Our first computer at home was a Packard Bell 436 running Win3.1 and DOS, so there were those (and we had Prodigy for a time, and AOL, way back). At the same time, the father of my then-best friend is a surgeon, and he would get to bring home the latest Macs from his hospital. So I’ve got a weird POV, having both watched my father play hours of Duke Nukem and playing my own hours of the early Cyan Hypercard games with my friend. (There needs to be an old-school Mac emulator for today’s Macs, because I WANT TO PLAY COSMIC OSMO.)

      I also remember the BASIC programs that were published in the back of 321-Contact magazine, which we had a subscription to for years. Sometimes when I had the patience, I would work with them, but they always seemed so terribly long…at the risk of outing myself, I still don’t code much at all outside of web stuff, just greatly admire those who do.

  9. Yvi

    My father is an engineer / sys admin and we had a C-64 from when I was about 8, I think. At 10 I got my first PC for Christmas, that was in 1994, so it was running Win 3.11, I think.

    I didn’t start programming until I was 16, I mainly used computers for playing / as toys until college. But starting at such a young age, it meant I was never afraid to break anything just by trying.

    And my father also brought home punchcards!

  10. Jamoche

    Technically the first programmable thing I owned was a calculator, and it counts because that’s how I got into the computer math class. I got it for Christmas in 1980, because I’d been doing my chemistry homework with a slide rule and it’s *amazing* how quickly misplaced decimal places accumulate.

    So when our math class had a demo from the computer math class – a class normally restricted to seniors – I talked my way into it despite being a sophomore by saying “see, I can do this – I’ve programmed this calculator!”

    We had one Apple ][, one TRS-80, and one timeshare teletype terminal. Most of our work was done on the timeshare – while all three had Basic, the timeshare had math functions the others lacked, like built-in matrix math support, and this was a math class. Naturally there was a bit of competition for it; there was one time when I started writing the program while the teacher described it, and figuring everyone else was doing the same, literally jumped from my seat to the computer as soon as she was done – much to everyone else’s surprise, as not only was I the only one to have a program ready to enter, I was the only one to even have one *started*. (And yes, it worked.)

    We helped the teacher draw up specs for a computer lab, very carefully setting the requirements so the cheaper but pretty much useless TRS-80s would *not* qualify (“must have 16-color low-res and 8-color hi-res graphics”), and the next year we had 20 Apple ][s. I also had one of my own at home.

    The TRS-80 wasn’t the *worst* computer that we had, though – that goes to the TI 99/A. The one with the chiklet keyboard, where the command key was where you expected shift, and command-2 was a hard reset – and for people used to touch-typing Apple ][s, where shift-2 was the quote, that happened a *lot*. We didn’t want it. It had been first prize in a high school programming contest. Second was a kit computer, and we were aiming for second – so were the team who *did* come in second, and they would not trade. We used it as a doorstop; that was all it was good for.

  11. Jonquil

    From an oldgeek: My dad taught computer science. We owned a ripoff of the Altair 8080, with the colored switches in octal on the front. I got to go into his work and play with the DEC machines.

    That said — it was a PAIN IN THE ASS to program either by flicking switches or by loading cassette tapes, so I didn’t. I spent much more time playing Moon Landing than I ever did programming in BASIC (although I did show up at college in 1977 knowing BASIC, my contemporary male geeks had already been programming in assembler and with patch-cords.)

    I had ample opportunities to learn programming in the home, but the barriers to entry were high enough and the rewards low enough that I didn’t get very far. I didn’t program seriously until I got to college.

  12. Anna

    Oh gosh. There was this turtle-thing we played with at school,. where you programmed it to draw in a certain way, and then let it go on the screen to see what you did. It was really fun. :)

    Our first home computer was a Vic-20. I remember using it to write choose your own adventure stories for my friends, but I can’t remember about saving programs at all.

    I miss the old cassette tape drives.

  13. Li

    I actually have had a computer since before I can remember, because my grandmother left me her Commodore 128 when she died, and my parents were still counting my age in months when that happened. Though my father is a computer engineer, so there’s always been computerthings in the house anyway, and if we hadn’t had my grandmother’s computer, I’m sure he would have gotten his own. I wasn’t super attached to the Commodore, though I did love that Slinky game I had. I also had one about Coney Island, I believe. I liked using the floppies.

    The first computer I remember being really attached to was the Gateway my father bought. It had 128 MB of harddrive and ran Windows 3.11. And I loved it and wanted to play with it all the time. I played a lot of Chip’s Challenge and the card games that came on it, and my father also got some discs for external games to play, that you actually had to boot out of Windows and into DOS to run. I taught myself to type correctly, though it wasn’t really drilled into me until middle school, when I had my first typing class, but it was still kind of interesting since a lot of the kids I knew then had hardly ever or never touched a computer until that point, but I’d grown up on them.

    I think all the different computers we had taught me different things (getting online, web design, Linux), and I loved them all, pretty much.

    My parents did kind of talk about the computer and my interest in/ability with it as some sort of magical thing of opportunity for girls because I’d be welcome to the field if I tried, and I liked being a nerd. I thought it was kind of some magical thing to aspire to: One day I might even be a Programmer or an Engineer. I did know it wasn’t something most girls liked or were encouraged to do, but that only made it more interesting to me, really. My mother wasn’t as interested in computers personally, but she is a math/science person, so I did kind of get the sense that “can’t” wasn’t applicable.

  14. Mackenzie

    The mentions of “for girls” “not a girl thing” are making me want to point something out:
    There was no concept in our house of whether computers were for boys or girls. Computers were for kids to play games on, and they were the kids’ responsibility to fix if they broke. Being the only one willing to risk breaking it in order to figure out the problem, that always fell to me.

    1. Bene

      At the risk of being an echo, I have been and remain the customer service tech for my house…but after doing a number to the screen resolution of our computer back in 1998, I’m also the one who gets blamed if something goes wrong.

      1. Azz

        Mama got grumpy enough about us kids changing the color scheme that I wound up setting up separate user accounts for everybody. It just made more sense that way. Then I had to teach her how to use them…

        Mama does not really have an aptitude for computers. My first adventure in documentation was evidently (I can no longer remember this, but Dad brought it up) writing a tutorial on how to change the time on the stereo clock, because I could make sense of the manual and she couldn’t. (Dad says that Mama still brings it out twice a year to change the clock.)

    2. Azz

      Nor in my house. My parents were disgusted by the “this is girl stuff and this is boy stuff” culture, and tried to shelter us from that as much as they could. They just had girls, so it was easier to treat us consistently. After discovering some technical aptitudes and interests in me (my sister was less interested) my father would make a point of showing me what he was doing on some home improvement project or other, and I was the one who figured out the problem with the installation of the second phone line. (I’m still proud of that one. Dad thought we’d have to get a professional, but I passed my logic check and sure enough the outer pair of wires on the house end weren’t hooked up.)

    3. Jonquil

      Hah. This reminds me of my new motto, “Mom’s Customer Support, In Business Since 1990!” Need your disk drive replaced, the spyware deleted, the network fixed? Call Mom.

      I have NEVER forgotten the time my toddler, messing around with the Mac Plus, managed to get into the Resource Editor. Dayamn. Fortunately, I got there before anything … interesting happened. Shortly after that, I bought a special desktop program for kids that *only* let them get to their icons.

  15. rivenwanderer

    The first computers I remember were pretty exclusively my dad’s, from my very young point of view: An Apple IIe and later a DOS IBM of some sort. They had some games that he’d let me play once in a while, but I wasn’t really given free rein of the system.

    The first computer I had some attachment to was our Windows 3.1 computer. I messed around with Paint and learned Solitaire and whatever, but the big thing was Myst. I’d never played video games before, so this was really my first experience with immersive, interactive storytelling and sophisticated computer graphics. The other major component was the internet. I was living in a really rural place at the time, and to connect anywhere in the world was quite something. (But the computer couldn’t handle Java applets. Still a little bitter at my dad for not waiting a few more months until Windows 95 came out.)

    Eventually we got a Windows 98 computer and I could finally play Riven! And I began to explore Myst/Riven fandom some more, intrigued most of all by people who’d put together fan-made worlds in website form for everyone to explore. This led to me eventually discovering and learning Blender, and also learning about HTML and website creation. I suppose it’s kind of a strange “geek success story” that I became a programmer rather than a digital artist of some sort, but in any case I definitely credit fandom and computer graphics with changing the way I think about computers, as a tool and a medium rather than just a source of passive entertainment.

  16. Kate Bolin

    My mom got us a Tandy (around 1987/88), one of those that you hooked up to the TV and it had 5-inch floppy disks to put into it.

    My mother insisted it had to go into my brother’s room, nominally because he had the room, but there was also that element of “boys like science and computers and stuff”, but my brother was only interested in the baseball game that came with it.

    I was the one with the “How to program in BASIC” book in my left hand, typing with my right, copying the programs exactly to see what they did and then making my own incredibly silly little programs, where the computer would ask you what you wanted, and then repeat it.

    Not to mention the always popular:

    10 Print “You are a dork.”
    20 Goto 10

    (I was 12. What else do you expect me to do?)

    The computer labs in high school gave me Hypercard, Logo, Gopher, Eudora, Mozilla (oh, the original Mozilla!), and, above all else, those rickety ancient VAX terminals with telnet connections to MUDs around the world. That brought me into the Internet, which brought me into everything.

    But it all goes back to that Tandy attached to the TV, fingers cramping slightly as I hold open the book, peering at the code and carefully, slowly, delightedly picking out code.

  17. Cyberspice

    I’m a Brit and so have a different computing history to many of you from the other side of the pond. However my first computing experiences were with an Altair 8800 and a TRS-80 Model 1 (16K) plugged in to a small B & W portable TV. It was 1980. I quickly found the limits of Microsoft BASIC and learnt Z80 assembler.

    At this time TRS-80s were not cheap in the UK. Apple ][s (which I really wanted) were even more expensive. However, in the UK, the beginning of the 1980s was a bonanza time for UK designed and manufactured micro-computers. The nearest British equivalent to Apple was Acorn and I really wanted an Atom.

    By the time I could afford one it had been replaced by the BBC Micro (which was originally to be called the Proton). I ended up getting one of these. At the same time Sinclair came out with the first, really cheap computer, the ZX80. You could either buy it pre-built, or solder it up yourself (which was cheaper). It had 1K of RAM but was expandable. A year later a revised model, the ZX81 (which I believe was sold by Timex in the US), came out with a smaller chip count. It was the first sub 100 GBP computer. Other computers from UK manufacturers were Oric, Dragon, Amstrad, etc. We also had the US imports of C64s and Atari 800s.

    An awful lot of engineers in this country were brought up on these machines. They taught a generation to code and there’s a song about this era which takes me back to my childhood.

    I went from the TRS-80 to the BBC B to further ARM powered Acorn machines in the late 80s. Acorn finally ended as a company in the late 90s. I moved on to Linux in the early 90s (whilst still having an Acorn machine). Now I use Macs and Linux. I blogged about my love of Macs recently. My BBC Micro is still going and I recently refurbished it. I now build small electronics projects to connect to it like Ethernet.

    Thank you all for your reminiscences. I’m feeling really nostalgic right now.

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