May 29

Recently I happened to drive past the computer store where I bought my first IBM-compatible computer, way back in 1991. I was surprised that the store was still there after nearly 20 years in the tumultuous home computer hardware business. Then I began to get all misty-eyed about my first real computer.

In 1991 IBM-compatible PCs were quite expensive. I was working as an engineering trainee at BHP Steelworks in Newcastle at the time, and the only way I was able to afford a PC was to sell some BHP shares which I had taken as part of an employee share offer. This gave me around $2,400 – probably a couple of months’ wages – enough to splash out on a (nearly) state-of-the-art Intel 80386 clone.

What did I get for my money? The 386 was the standard desktop computer at that time. I think the 486 had been released but was ridiculously expensive and mainly for high end business use. (A friend bought a 486 not long after and I was jealous as hell.) The speed of the 386 processor in my computer was, I think, 33 MHz. It goes without saying that compared with today’s processors this is mind-numbingly slow. There was, amazingly, a button on the front of the case that you could press which would actually reduce this speed, just in case it was too fast for whatever shitty program you were running.

The amount of RAM (i.e. memory) was 2MB. Many desktop computers these days have a thousand times that or more. The RAM back then came in the form of numerous 128kB “dual in-line package” (DIP) chips which plugged into the motherboard, and looked like this:

The size of the hard disk was 40MB (yes, that’s MEGA-bytes, not gigabytes – 40MB today would hold about 10 songs in MP3 format). This was actually an upgrade on the standard 20MB disk, and seemed like an extravagance, more than I could possibly need. At that time, any software which required much more than a megabyte of disk space was considered ridiculously bloated.

I don’t recall having the option of buying a CD-ROM drive – I don’t think they were that widespread and most software still came on floppy disk. But I did opt for both a 5 ¼” floppy and the new-fangled 3 ½” “stiffy” disk drives.

I completed my home computer setup with a keyboard, mouse, pair of crappy speakers, and a dot matrix printer. (Laser printers back then were around the size of a bar fridge and cost as much as a small car.) The printer was pretty slow and made a loud Zzzzzzzzzzzt noise each time it printed a line of text. If you wanted to print graphics you started it before you went to bed and prayed that there would not be a blackout during the night.

The computer came with DOS 5.0 – no Windows – so when I raced home and switched it on for the first time what greeted me was a prompt like C:> and then a little flashing cursor. This is where you typed the commands to view and edit files, run programs, and so on. Fortunately I used PCs at work and knew what I was doing. The first thing I did was to go through the contents of the hard disk and delete all the shitty software that had been installed by the vendor.

For the first week I stayed up pretty much all night playing with my new computer. It felt amazing to have so much raw computing power on my desk, in my bedroom, all mine. I was able to work on uni projects at home rather than wait to use the godawful terminals in the computer labs. I wrote my own programs and played around with it endlessly. It was great.

Sometime in 1992 I took the plunge and bought Microsoft Windows 3.1. The windows environment seemed light years ahead of DOS, but was still clunky compared to what I had experienced on my sister’s Apple Macintosh back in 1986. Also, I realised after installing Windows that I needed more RAM. At that time there was some sort of worldwide memory shortage; the rumour was that a factory in Thailand had burned down – seriously! Consequently prices were high, and for me to upgrade from 2MB to 4MB cost around $400. (Devastatingly, I had no room for expansion and had to rip out my existing 2MB of precious RAM chips and buy a whole 4MB of higher capacity chips.) These days RAM is about 1/1000th the cost or less.

Around 1993 I upgraded to DOS 6.0, mainly for the included DoubleSpace disk compression software, which effectively increased the size of the hard disk to about a whopping 70 MB. Woohoo! Not long after this software started to increase radically in size. Programs like Microsoft Office for Windows became de facto standards in the workplace, and people began talking about something called the “internet”.

In 1994 I bought a new 486 computer and the old 386 was returned to mum & dad’s house. I set it up in the spare room so mum could play card games and dad could type up his bills and compose bush poetry. It was still running perfectly well when finally, with a tear in my eye, I tossed it onto the nature strip out front of the house sometime around 2004.

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