Making my first computer work: Staples and hanging wires

My first computer looked something like this. I didn't, though.

I’m seeing occasional articles about how the computer has evolved over the past couple of decades (as if anyone really needs any reminders), and I got to thinking about my 1995 setup.

That was kind of a watershed year for me. That’s when I first telecommuted.

At the time, I had a really primitive computer. I picked it up used for little bit of nothing, and at first I was reluctant to get it. My then-wife thought it might be a good idea to get a computer, and in truth I bucked it. Didn’t think we needed it. Man, I hate being proved wrong.

Eventually I took a job at the Mohave County Standard, a weekly newspaper that was trying to force its way into a crowded market. The only thing we had going for it was that we had our own presses, and the boss man was smart enough to admit he didn’t know anything about journalism. This job was in Kingman, Arizona, I lived 40 miles away in Bullhead City, and the commute (over a mountain) threatened the limitations of my car’s cooling system. I could count on the overheat light kicking on as I crested the mountain.

Rather than usher the car into an early grave, I began telecommuting.

The wife and I lived in a mobile home with a spacious living room, and it had an alcove that became my office. The desk and computer were there, and the phone jack was on the other side of the living room. But that was just one of the design challenges.

The computer itself was ancient. It was a Leading Edge with a racehorse-fast 8088 processor, monochrome display and Hercules graphics card. It had a modem, which made a whole bunch of noise as it connected via phone lines at 2400 bytes per second. The system specs, as I remember them:

 

  • 512K — that’s kilobytes — of RAM.
  • 42M — megabytes — of disk space.
  • Mouse: A two-button type, no wheel. I had to cheat that into the system, using an adaptor to plug it into a serial port.
  • Ports: One serial port, a parallel port, a place to plug the display in, and a phone jack. Nobody heard of a USB port yet.
  • File storage: On that dinky hard drive, or on 5.25 disks. Be careful about bending them. First time I saw one, I tried to open it like an envelope. Didn’t work.
  • Graphical interface: Huh? The DOS command line, though I found a freeware program called InContext that was a bit more intuitive.
  • Internet: Didn’t really exist yet.

The printer sat on my bookcase, and it was one of those screaming dot-matrix types. In full production I might as well have worked in the press room of the Standard; it probably would have been quieter.

This printer let you know when it was working. LOOOOOUD!

I already had some decent freeware on the computer: PC-Write, one of the better word processors of the era, and Procomm, a communications terminal that allowed me to “talk” to the computer at work. Keep in mind this was before the Internet, and only doctors and dope dealers had cell phones.

Being a forward-looking couple, we also had a cordless phone and answering machine, one of those kinds that took mini cassette tapes.

That’s when I needed to do some modifications. I got a Y connector for the phone jack, a staple gun, and the longest phone cord I could find. I think it was something like 25 feet. The phone console sat in one corner of the living room, so I snaked the phone cord from there, ran it up to the ceiling, stapled it in place, and dropped it back down to the desk — a real butt-ugly layout.

Another challenge. The old computer had an old DOS operating system, and the office computers were Macs. Back then the two just didn’t talk to one another. My boss Matt, who was every bit as goofy about technical toys as me, put an old PC (Windows 3.1) in a corner of the office for his communications unit, though I was able to strip my copy down to straight text and upload it into the Mac anyway.

Finally everything was set up, and I was ready for the big day. I put all my copy into one file (done.doc) and stripped out all the code so it would just be straight text. Then I got on the cordless and called Matt.

“You ready for copy?”

Matt made the adjustments on his end, told me to go ahead, and we hung up. I then fired up Procomm and typed in my first message. Matt answered, his words streaming across the screen.

“OK,” I typed. “Here goes nothing.”

Uploaded done.doc to Procomm and waited. And waited. The modem made random noises. I must have been in another world while staring at the computer screen; the wife was checking me for vital signs. She should have been used to it by now. When I’m working on something I’ll have that look on my face and the rest of the world doesn’t exist. She often thought it was terribly funny to play pranks on me — such as tying my shoelaces together — when I was that locked in. Good thing she never thought of giving me a hotfoot.

“Got it,” Matt typed back. “Looks good.”

Duct-tape hackery at its best. I later set things up so the other reporters could send me their copy from their living rooms, I’d edit it and three-corner it to the office.

Still hadn’t figured out how to handle hard copy. The best I could do there was make friends with the folks at the local drug store, where they had a FAX machine. OK, between FAX transmissions and long-distance calls from Bullhead City to Kingman my office expenses got a little high, but it was still a whole lot more convenient than driving.

I wanted one of these.

Later that year, working for another newspaper in Indiana, I worked up a similar system. Taught one of the office people to play catch when I sent copy from my living room. But I later figured out how to work both ends of the transaction, using a program called Telnet. I’d compose my news late Sunday nights and put the computer on receive mode so the computer would pick up the next phone call. I’d then drive to the office, let myself in, and call home. Pick up my files, process them, print them, lock up the office, go back home.

Fun days. But in 1996 I discovered things like the Internet and email, so I didn’t need to go through all those steps.

It’s funny when I think about those days. Now in 2012, I do my writing on the home computer, save it to the SD card on my cell phone, and I have some options from there. I can send the copy directly from the cell phone, or take my netbook to one of my online offices (Trident Technical College or the local library) and complete my work.

The home computer — a fairly new laptop — is a whole lot more advanced than my old Leading Edge. So is the netbook. Shoot, my 10-year-old desktop, hard-wired into my stereo and being used as a music server, is way advanced over that Leading Edge. And its RAM is measured in megabytes.

Even my phone, running Android, is a major technological improvement. That in itself blows me away. A device I carry on my hip has immeasurably more power than my first computer, and it even makes phone calls.

I do kind of miss having those wires stapled across my ceiling, though.

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Sources:

Slahdot: Comparing today’s computers to 1995’s

Paul Thurrott’s Supersite for Windows: Blast from the past: Buying a computer in 1995

Old computers: The museum

 

 

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