Sunday, August 27, 2006

My Fascination with Computers

I was just sitting here watching the Science Channel and reading the news on the Internet at the same time (Computer users quickly learn how to multitask without even thinking about it), when I began to wax nostalgic over the old computers I grew up with, so to speak.

Actually, when I was growing up, computers were owned by governments and big corporations. They were often the butt of jokes on sitcoms of the 1960s and ‘70s.

But in 1969, Americans were awed by the spectacle of a human-built spacecraft landing on the surface of the moon. Many were also struck by the fact that an onboard computer did much of the work during that descent.

The computer on board the Eagle was nowhere near as powerful as even a handheld scientific calculator of today. But it didn’t have to be. It had one basic job to do and it did it well.

It wasn’t until a decade later that computers were small and cheap enough for me to be able to afford one. It was my fourth year out of college. I was teaching upstate in Goshen and I decided to take out a small loan and purchase the first TRS-80 computer from Radio Shack. It cost $699 including a black-and-white monitor and a portable cassette recorder for storing the data.

It had no disk drives and the computer itself was built into the keyboard unit. And it had a whopping four kilobytes of memory. For those who are not that familiar with computer terminology, that’s enough memory to store about 4,000 keystrokes. The memory card in my digital camera has the capacity to store the equivalent of half a billion keystrokes. And most modern desktop computers can store about two billion keystrokes in their onboard memory.

In the early 1980s, Timex-Sinclair came out with a tiny computer that was somewhat smaller than most of today’s laptops. It had a membrane keyboard but you had to connect it to a television set to view its output. A cassette recorder was needed to store programs.

It was tiny, but it was also fairly useless, as was the TRS-80. The radio shack computer could play some games. And I liked to program it in the BASIC language that I picked up in college. But the Timex-Sinclair with its one kilobyte of memory could do very little.

Those early computers were primarily for hobbyists. There was really not much practical reason to own one. Some of them had productivity software that could, say, calculate your taxes, but very few people actually trusted them at the time.

In the mid-1980s a format war erupted between those who liked Apple computers and those who liked the IBM-compatible PCs. IBM allowed other companies to clone their PCs, but Apple strictly protected their proprietary system. The result was that PCs flourished and Apple’s sales sagged.

There is still a dichotomy of preference today over which is better, the Macintosh, a descendent of the early Apples, or the PC. Most businesses and household users prefer PCs because they are cheaper and will run more software. But Macs are more prevalent in schools, with graphic designers, and among those who can afford to pay extra for styling and simplicity.

To me, it’s still fascinating that I can sit here in my easy chair, typing on my laptop, and knowing that I have far more computing capability in my lap than was on board the early space shuttles.

That fascination seems to be lost to the younger generation who grew up with computers and think nothing of them except as just another tool or game machine. Yes, that’s what they are designed for, but I am still fascinated by them and how far they’ve come since that first TRS-80 I tinkered with.

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