A Re-Updated Personal History of Personal Computing

Back in 2003 on my "previous" blog, and in early 2005 on this blog, I updated a long-standing essay I’d
called "A Personal History of Personal Computing." My first and second blogs are long
gone in the transition away from Radio Userland to Typepad, but I think
it’s time to reprint and update that essay (a second time). Moore’s law is one way to
look at the history of personal computing. Another is the history of
companies that have come and gone, making personal computers and
software. Still another is a personal view. This story is about my own
personal computing history — the machines, what I did with them, what
software I thought was important. I omit computers that I didn’t really
have control over, such as University mainframes and Unix servers, and
I also omit the vast array of servers and computers I administered at
RealNetworks, Internap, Network Clarity, and computers I used at Microsoft and now GridNetworks.

By my count, I’ve purchased 21 computers in my life, and of course used and worked with hundreds, if not thousands more (managing a Systems Engineering group will do that for you). 

The story starts in the late 1970’s, shortly after personal computers came about and before IBM changed things forever…. 

TRS-80 Model I Level II 16K, cassette tape storage (1978-1980)

My first direct computer experience. The computer was owned by Kirkland
Junior High school, and was the focus for a couple of years of a small
group of enthusiasts after school under the direction of one of the
math teachers (whose name, sadly, I’ve forgotten). We had the Level II
upgrade but still only a tape drive (in the beginning — we later got a
disk drive if I recall). I typed in the Star Trek game, and had a big
box full of tapes of various programs. I had a copy of "101 Basic
Computer Games" at the time (wish I’d kept it), and we played
adventure, hunt the wumpus, all the classics. I did a bunch of simple
Basic programming, and bought manuals for the Z-80 microprocessor and
dreamed about doing assembly code. Since there was only one machine,
most of the stuff we did was in a group, and it was tough to get time
to hack around by myself in hex code, since it bored everybody else. I
loved the TRS-80. It was my first.

Apple II+ (1980-1982)

I didn’t own an Apple II or II+ personally until much later.
Lake Washington High School had one, though, in addition to an old HP
card punch machine of some type. I never paid much attention to the HP,
however, because of the Apple. Long before I owned one, I had all of
the Applesoft and Integer Basic manuals, as well as Don Lancaster’s
books on great things you could do with the Apple (I still own one of
the old Don Lancaster books). In addition, I somehow managed to glom
onto a copy of the original Apple II "red book" — still a treasured
part of my library. Somewhere around this point, my family was taking a
vacation in California — San Francisco, and then driving to visit
family in Fresno. I convinced Mom and Dad to detour to Cupertino, and I
toured — no, I made a pilgrimage — to Apple and Atari.

Apple IIe (1983)

The first computer I personally owned was the Apple IIe, which came out
in 1983. I had gotten a job at our local Albertson’s grocery store in
1981 to save money to buy a computer (and later, a car). I cleaned the
bakery and meat department, and eventually became a bag-boy (or
whatever they’re now called in politically correct terms). I was going
to buy a II+, but somebody at the Byte Shop (where I dragged my parents
as often as humanly possible) told me about the upcoming IIe, and I
pre-ordered one. When they came out, I got the first one that the shop
received. I was in heaven. Disk drive! 80 columns! 48K RAM! Applesoft
Basic! Naturally I pirated every piece of software that I could glom

Oddly, when I started college in 1984, I didn’t use the
computer much for word processing, preferring to use my old typewriter
instead. Why was that….oh, that’s right, I didn’t own a printer! My
interest in computers kind of waned for a few years as I plugged my way
through college and a degree in anthropology (and nearly one in

Leading Edge XT clone (1988) [DOS]

Before I left for grad school and while I was doing my senior
honors thesis, I bought a new IBM PC clone to make my life easier. I’d
been approved for a credit card, and the first thing I bought at
Ballard Computer was a Leading Edge PC clone, on which I used
WordPerfect 5.1. The Leading Edge stayed with me (including a cranky
dot-matrix printer) through graduate school in Wisconsin and into the
early 90’s. It was last seen sometime in the early 1990’s in the
Thermoluminescence Laboratory at the University of Washington, where I
left it so Jim Feathers could do word processing while calculating TL
dates. There wasn’t any fancy software here. It was all about word
processing — not even spreadsheets. I had Lotus 1-2-3 and some of the
add-ons, but rarely used them for anything.

Macintosh SE (1988-1989), Macintosh II (various models, 1988-1989)

While I was in Wisconsin I went back to my Apple roots and
became a Macintosh convert, mostly thanks to my friend Carl Lipo and
the fact that UWisconsin had a ton of Macs all over the place, so it
was the dominant platform in our department as well as the school
computer labs. I still did most of my core writing on the Leading Edge,
but all of the scientific and programming exploration Carl and I did
was on Macintosh. It was around this time (1988) that I also started
using email, on BITNET. I’d had computer accounts at UWashington on the
CDC Cyber and some of the VAX machines, but mostly to do SPSS
statistics runs. Email for the general populace even on campus was
still in the future prior to 1988, except in some lucky pockets. The
big thing on software here was various graphing and statistics
packages. We were/are archaeologists, and we finally had analytical
power comparable to the Unix and mainframe-based stuff we’d been using
before. Things like Surfer, for topographic mapping, were still fairly
specialized, so we were using stuff on the Mac at this point even more
primitive but still powerful.

Various 286 and 386 clones [DOS]

Coming back to UWashington in 1990, our computer lab was mostly
286 and 386 clones, running DOS and WordPerfect. By 1991, we were
switching over to Windows, which Carl and I were heavily involved with.
We also drove the upgrade of Macintosh capabilities, and the
installation of a single 486 powerful enough to run some of the
scientific software we were working with (e.g., CAD stuff). At this
point, Carl and I were into all sorts of software, but the big thing
was still word processing, spreadsheets for data, and stats programs. A
few games, but I’d gotten away from games at this point.


The department also bought a Powerbook, which could
theoretically be checked out by students for fieldwork. In practice,
Carl and I had this machine all the time, and I seemed to use it a lot,
for working on my dissertation proposal either at Cafe Allegro, or at
the Still Life in Fremont near our apartment (the former is still my
favorite place to write, the latter is now gone).

Macintosh SE II (1992-1993)

This was the first Macintosh I bought — my colleague Carl and I
were starting work on the PGT/PG&E pipeline project in 1992, and
bought SE II’s in Eugene, Oregon (since there was no sales tax and
that’s where the project office was). I carried this around for two
years in a Mac soft carrying case through a zillion motels and offices
along the pipeline route. I sold it to my friend Sarah Sterling in 1993
when I bought my Centris 660AV. As far as I know, she may still have
it, or at least did in the late 90’s (2008 – I’m guessing not). I had an Apple Stylewriter with
this, and still have the padded bag for the printer — it’s a perfect
bag for wine tastings, holding a small box of glasses and miscellaneous

486 clone (1992-1993) [Windows 3.11]

This was my office computer on the pipeline project at Woods
Cultural Research. It did very little, except Microsoft Word and Excel,
but it was hooked up to the laser printer so I did my reporting work on
it. Nothing impressive here.

Macintosh Centris 660AV (1993-1995)

This was the dream machine I’d saved my per diem money for. I’d
even given up my apartment in Bend, Oregon, and spent the last three
months of my time on the pipeline project in a sleeping bag on the
office floor and showering at the gym to save every last dime for this
baby. Onboard DSP chips which gave me full-motion video capture, audio
input and output, a decent size hard drive and memory, and one of the
Apple Audiovision screens with microphone and speakers. And it cost a
friggin’ bundle, given Apple’s pricing model — between 3 and 4
thousand if I recall. I still have this machine, in its boxes in the
basement (2008 note – this was finally junked when I moved to San Juan Island). There’s a ton of stuff on the hard drive if it still runs,
but of course none of it is relevant. This machine is where
applications blossomed. The web, programming, statistics, simulation
modelling. Metroworks Codewarrior opened whole new worlds for us in
terms of agent-based simulations (this was before the Swarm toolkit).
Early web stuff — BBedit, MacWeb, early versions of Netscape
Navigator. Sadly, the migration to PowerPC and software that would only
run on PPC made this machine obsolete. But this machine was my primary
machine around the time I transitioned from grad school to RealNetworks
(then Progressive Networks) and became a fulltime nerd.

Felix.law.washington.edu 486/66 (1994-1995) [Linux 1.09]

Felix was the first Unix server I had root on. Bron Miller and I
built Felix for the Law School at the University of Washington, to
serve as a web server and email server. Given that the rest of the
network was Novell Netware 3.11 with Windows 3.11 clients, we built
Felix mostly for the experience and to have something flexible. Felix
was retired sometime in the late 90’s when Bron got into the ASP
environment and started working in NT. I learned a lot from Felix and
owe a lot to that box, the law school, and Bron Miller, my partner in
crime at that point.

Emergent Media’s servers (darwin, weismann, huxley) (1995-1997) [Linux/SunOS]

When we started Emergent Media, Inc. in the spring and summer of
1995, we had nothing in terms of web servers. Steve Patnode, who ran
Outdoors Online at that point, was a consulting client of ours. He
bought a Pentium box, and we ran both OOL and Emergentmedia.com on it
for several years. That box was the original darwin, now defunct.
Darwin lives on as darwin.pinpointvg.com, however (2008 note – again, defunct). Weismann was our
first "wholly owned" server, and we used it to serve hosted websites,
and also did web and RealAudio streaming for Dan Savage’s website and
radio show in 1996 and 1997. Weismann was a Pentium Pro 200, and lives
on today as a hardened firewall box for my home network (2008 update: after finally dying in early 2005, I replaced the original
Weismann with a Netgear Pro VPN firewall, and Weismann’s hard drive with the Savage Love Live and original Toys in Babeland website is sitting in a box in my office)
. Huxley was a Sun Sparc 5,
formerly owned by Point of Presence Company, with whom we were sharing
space. Glenn Fleishmann had upgraded, and Huxley was basically
worthless to him. We set it up for electronic commerce applications,
and ran some of the OOL licensing sites from it for some period of
time. I don’t know what happened to Huxley, but it probably is in a
corner somewhere down at Allrecipes.com/Emergentmedia (2008 note – undoubtedly defunct, given the sale of ARN to Reader’s Digest)

Pentium 120 clone (1996) [Linux]

I bought this P120 clone from Bear Computer in order to have a
Linux box at home. I learned Java on this box, writing a pretty cool
modular web server from scratch in the snowstorm over the holidays in
1996/1997. It served as my only home box for a long time — after I
moved into Fremont with my friend and coworker Jon Miller, I didn’t
bother with the Centris anymore. This box was finally retired in 2000
when I moved into my current house and replaced it with the "current
lineup." It lingered on in the "parts bin" at home and was highly
useful for a source of stuff for fixing my Mom and aunt’s computers.

Macintosh Powerbook Duo 120 (1996)

I don’t remember why I grabbed this, but Glenn Fleishmann sold me this
for a pittance sometime in 1996, I think. At the time it was already
old, slow, and didn’t really do anything. I think the keyboard was
wonky or something, but it was fairly cheap. I don’t recall if I ever
got it working much at all, and it long ago joined some junk pile.

IBM Thinkpad 560X 200MHz (1997) [Windows 95]

I bought this laptop to be my personal machine sometime in early
1997, after Emergent Media declared its first shareholder dividend
based on our profits from doing MSN and Microsoft consulting. We were
buying laptops for Internap, and moving into IBM Thinkpads at the time
instead of the old Toshiba laptops for oncall. The 560X was a good
machine, and served me well. I keep intending to reinstall something on
it and put it down in the wine cellar to maintain inventory, but I’ve
somehow lost the serial number of the recovery CD and can’t get the
factory load to work. I could install something more modern on it, but
it hasn’t been worth the time (2008 update – completely defunct and junked some years ago)

Pentium 500MHz [personal]

I finally felt the need sometime in 2000 to get a Windows box to
have at home alongside my Linux system, so this was another cheap Bear
Computer special. It served the purpose of having Microsoft Office
available (since I was managing people at that point and used Excel and
Word a ton). I eventually gave this machine to one of my employees and
upgraded to my current Windows system.

Dell Latitude CPx 600MHz (2000-current) [personal Linux]

This was my Internap laptop (bacchus.internap.com) for a long
time. INAP gave me the machine when I left, and it’s variously been my
early Network Clarity machine, a "loaner" machine for new Network
Clarity employees when Dell is slow shipping, and now it’s become my
Redhat 8.0 test box. I love the new Redhat 8.0 install and look. I’m
using this box as a clean place to build a Ruby development
environment, to learn Ruby. I’ll probably also use it as a personal
test box for Network Clarity’s software product. (update July 2005:
this machine is back to being my NC development box, now that the
Inspiron 8200 developed motherboard/power supply connector problems – 2008 note:  dead and junked when I moved to SJI).

Pentium III 800MHz [home Linux]

Pentium IV 1.4GHz [home windows]

Behind the firewall box, my home configuration from 2000 to 2005
was a Linux box with a ton of disk for music, a Windows box for doing
word processing and presentations, a Turtle Beach Audiotron for playing
the music, and Orinoco 802.11b gear for networking throughout the

(2008 update:  the P3 800 MHz has been running continuously since 2000, and still houses a couple of storage disks I haven’t yet migrated old stuff from.  This box is the most ancient computer I have functioning on a daily basis on the network.  I’m quite sure its cost is now below a nickel per day). 

Sony Vaio Picturebook (Transmeta Crusoe) (2001-current) [travel]

I bought the Vaio when it came out because it’s tiny (regular
laptop width but only 4 inches across, less than 2 pounds). I also
bought it because it runs the Transmeta chip, and I wanted to check
that out. Also, my business partner Sam Long (Pinpoint Venture Group)
bought one, and I had gear envy. The Vaio is great for traveling, but
right now it’s honked up and won’t stay running without compulsively
crashing. It’s a good enough travel computer that I do intend to have
it serviced and XP installed. (update July 2005: no real point anymore,
but this was a very cool computer when it worked; 2008 – junked when I moved to SJI, and now replaced for travel by the Macbook Air).

Dell Inspiron 8200 1.6GHz (2002-current) [work/personal Windows XP]

The Dell 8200 was a superb personal and engineering laptop,
which I bought when we started Network Clarity using the proceeds from
selling my old Toyota pickup truck to Marc Olsen for use on Stuart
Island (where it still is, even in 2008). It ran XP, which frankly is pretty damn
great (2008 note – huh, WTF?  I must have been under the influence). For the time, this laptop was performance-packed: 1.6GHz
processor, 1GB RAM, big HD, DVD/CDRW, wireless, 100MB ethernet,
firewire, and an ultra-bright 15" display. Eats the new 90w batteries
for breakfast, but with two batteries I also get nearly 5 hours of
life. If I’m willing to drag 8-9 pounds around on my shoulder. This
machine has a ton of development environments, multimedia, UML
diagramming tools, databases, competitor products, and whatnot.

Dell Inspiron 8500

Well, since I first posted this story, the 8200 stopped charging
batteries, which became something of a problem if you travel. So I
bought an 8500 from eBay (brand-new, never been used). This became my
standard Windows laptop, and it’s pretty nice. Thinner, lighter, and
with a wide aspect screen, it’s also faster than the 8200. As of July
2005, this remains my Windows laptop, although not my primary machine
given my new Powerbook (2008 note – again, dead as a door nail.  Dell is good for business laptops, but the lifetime ain’t great)

Fry’s Special PC for $199

When the "home windows box" mentioned above died early in 2005,
I went to Fry’s and bought one of their $199 specials, a Chinese-built
Sempron box with 128MB of RAM (which I upgraded) and a 40GB drive. The
thing ran Lindows when I first got it, which was "cute," but was soon
replaced with Ubuntu Linux, and now serves as an "up to date" Linux box
in my home network. The older 800MHz box is still the major file
server, but the fans are starting to sound bad and the disks almost
full, and it needs work soon.

(2008 update:  this machine still serves as a Subversion repository on my home network on San Juan — an incredible value, running about 23 cents per day now and falling….)

Apple Powerbook 12" 1.0GHz/768MB RAM/60GB/Tiger OS X 10.4

This is the latest acquisition, as regular readers know. I love this
machine, and love the fact that I’ve come back to Apple after nearly a
decade of non-use. Prices are finally getting into the zone where it’s
rational to buy their hardware, and OS X is finally maturing into a
very sweet operating system, with a Unix core which makes long-time
Unix/Linux people happy while still providing an amazing GUI
experience. I believe I’ll be staying on Apple for personal machines
for the foreseeable future, using Windows when needed and having Linux
servers at home for storage and playing around.

That’s about it. These are the machines in my life, that are my
own personal computing history. The requirements keep going up, but
I’ll never forget the simple pleasures of the TRS-80 or my first Apple
IIe….. What does the future hold? I’m hoping to centralize all my
disk storage on the network at home, and create some redundancy (I have
a DLT tape drive but I hate the thought of doing tape backup at home).

(2008 note – this machine still is in use, but I gave it to dear friends up on Saltspring Island when I bought my MBP)

Macbook Pro 17inch "Number One"

This was bought in the Spring of 2006, right after the "glossy screen" option came out along with Core Duo processors, and it instantly became my only personal machine.  This machine only runs with 2GB RAM, so it’s a bit tight given everything I run, including virtual machines with Parallels.  I gutted the optical drive out of it within a year and installed a second hard drive for extra storage, which got me into trouble with Apple when I needed repairs for the "magical expanding battery" problem.  The upshot is that this became my "backup" laptop, and I keep it updated and ready to Target Disk Mode as my backup should the next machine crap out….

Macbook Pro 17inch "Number Two" (aka The Current Machine)

This was bought when the guy at the Apple Store pissed me off by getting righteous about my optical/disk modifications of "Number One" and wouldn’t give me a repair estimate and was going to leave me without a computer for days or weeks.  So I bit the bullet and bought backup/new primary hardware, and I’m still using it.  This one has the 3GB RAM limit, but the Core 2 Duo, and the matte screen (since I found the glossy screen difficult to use sitting in sunlight outside, on the deck or sitting on the beach — life’s rough, huh?).  This is currently my daily machine both at GridNetworks and for academic use, and it’s pushed to the hilt.  Disk is nearly full, RAM is almost always short, but it works well and I’d be lost without it (hence the "backup" laptop). 

Macbook Air

I bought the Macbook Air simply because I couldn’t stop myself.  Steve Jobs was still on stage during the keynote, and I found myself filling out the form on the Apple Store.  It was hypnotic, and I still am not sure how it happened.  The Air is my "couch" laptop, so I can leave the 17inch on the desk playing music, etc, and have something portable and small on my lap for "light" work, Wikipedia reading, writing, email, etc.  Plus it’s fun to take to meetings.  For the first 10 days I really did carry it in a manila envelope because they hadn’t shipped anything that fit it yet. 

Mac Mini

Oh, I almost forgot the Mac Mini.  The Mini is my stereo, under the kitchen island at the house, connected to the monitor that swivels over the island.  I keep zero files or software on it, it’s pretty much a stock Leopard load, and its job is to pull iTunes off the Infrant NAS storage server and let me read email and browse the web while downstairs.  And keep friends entertained with YouTube and FunnyOrDie while we’re cooking.

Dell Dimension 9200

And I nearly forgot the simulation workhorse.  I bought a fairly cheap Dell desktop, the Dimension 9200 with decent graphics card, 2GB RAM, and the Core 2 Duo, in fall of 2006 or so.  I think.  I use it as a Linux box in the office at home, on which I do development, and run simulations in batch mode for research purposes.  A good deal, all things considered.



9 Comments so far. Comments are closed.
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