An updated personal history of computing

Back in 2003 on my “previous” blog, I updated a long-standing essay I’d called “A Personal History of Personal Computing.” That blog is long gone in the transition away from Radio Userland to Typepad, but I think it’s time to reprint and update that essay. 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, and now Network Clarity.

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 onto.

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 history).

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. Macintosh Powerbook 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. 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 whatnot.

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. 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. 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 (update July 2005: after finally dying in early 2005, I replaced the original Weismann with a Netgear Pro VPN firewall). 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.

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.

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).

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 house.

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).

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). It ran XP, which frankly is pretty damn great. 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.

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.

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).

Comments

16 Comments so far. Comments are closed.
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  15. Mark E. Madsen,

    So *that’s* who’s got the gmail address I wanted.

    Yeah, it’s a bit freaky to find somebody else with my name and closely related occupation and interests. There *must* be a way we can take advantage of this…feel like impersonating me at work for, say, 3 month or so while I take a vacation? :)

  16. mark,

    Namesake,

    You’re beginning to freak me out. Aside from appropriating my name and starting to blog around the same time, we both started our computing lives with TRS-80s followed by Apple II+ computers, we both live in the PNW and worked at startups, both like wine and proper bread (I assume) and read an intersecting set of books. Luckily, we look nothing alike so my friends at Microsoft won’t get confused by your appearance there.

    Mark