Thursday, August 14, 2014

Thomas Asks: When Did You Get Your First Computer

In his recent blog post IBM PC Debuts - A Walk Down Memory Lane, Thomas MacEntee asks:

"So when did you get your first personal computer? Was it an IBM PC? An Apple? Perhaps a Commodore 64 or an Osborne? What programs did you run? And what about genealogy . . . what was the first program you used for tracing your family history and keeping track of information?"

I had watched with envy all of the advertisements in the magazines, and on television, when the IBM PC was introduced in 1981.  We did not have personal computers at work - we were still in the card punch, card box, computer center era of IBM 370 computers, programming in FORTRAN, to do our aerospace engineering work.  I could hardly wait to start programming in BASIC at home!

My brother-in-law, Paul, worked for a computer equipment company, Photo and sound up in San Francisco.  They had an office in San Diego, so in (I think) February 1983 I bought an IBM PC with all of 64 kilobits of memory and two 360 kb floppy 5-1/4 inch drives, and MS-DOS was the operating system.  It had a separate green-print monitor, and I got a dot-matrix printer also.  It cost over $3,000.  We set it up in the spare bedroom where it shared my big oak desk with my communication radio set and the big loop antenna, reel-to-reel tape recorder, etc.  

I wrote letters on it using a word processor (I never used Wordstar) called EasyWriter, which saved files in a proprietary format.  I also got a BASIC programming language disc and easily learned the syntax, since I was an expert programmer in FORTRAN.  I used it for my radio listening, writing programs to analyze signal strengths, great-circle routes, etc. associated with radio wave propagation.

Genealogy research started for me in early 1988, and I made good use of my IBM PC.  In about 1990, I managed to get a 300-baud modem to hook up into the telephone, and started connecting to bulletin boards for genealogy.  Eventually, in about 1992, I signed up for the Prodigy network and was off and running with their message boards.  That was great fun - I would spend the whole evening writing and answering queries on my New England and Pennsylvania families.  Eventually, Prodigy started charging more, and I went to other bulletin board systems like Delphi and others.

I think that I got the Personal Ancestral File (PAF) family tree program in 1989 or so, and started building a family tree database.  That was much better than the paper charts that I always had to revise or rewrite, but I still printed out a lot of things.  

That initial IBM PC lasted until 1994, when I bought a no-name PC system from a local company at a computer show with the 80386 processor, a hard drive, a 5-1/4 inch floppy drive, and a 3-1/2 inch floppy drive.  This system was much faster with more memory, used Windows 3.1, but I had to use the Microsoft Works word processor.  I managed to transfer all of my genealogy material to the new system, except for the word processing files.  The EasyWriter files could be printed out but could not read by another program.  

I was actually way ahead of the PC curve relative to the computer systems at my work.  We didn't get our own personal computer on our desks, with email and Microsoft Office programs until 1998.  Before that, we did have a shared PC for ten people or more by the early 1990s.  This was because the work we did was still on the mainframe computers (we had a VAX 11-780 by the mid-1980s) and did our programming and writing text on that system on shared computer terminals.  We still had secretaries who typed formal reports and letters into the late 1990s.  

I had that IBM PC for a long time and it didn't fail on me.  I think I threw it in a trash bin piece by piece in 1994.

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Copyright (c) 2014, Randall J. Seaver


Colleen G. Brown Pasquale said...

Randy, in the early 1990s our children were asking my husband and I for a computer. I said if they wanted to play solitaire we already had cards and if they wanted to type something we already had a typewriter. I didn't think it did much else. ha! When I learned about Personal Ancestral File, computer program for genealogy, I wanted one too.

Diane Gould Hall said...

Randy - got my first computer in 1986. It was a Tandy with a color monitor (not common in those days). Looked much like the picture you posted. Had the 5" floppy and a modem. I too used the message boards from time to time, but not for genealogy. That was pre research for me. I played games like "Where in the World is Carmen San Diego" and other I can't remember. Then along came my next computer with a 20 MG hard drive. WOW! That's all we'll ever need. So much space. LOL! I had an email account with Prodigy back in 1990. Since very few friends even knew what email was, I didn't have many folks to talk to.
The rest is history. Have upgraded about every 5 years.

Claudia said...

Back about 1985 I worked in a hospital and one of my co-workers was an anesthesiologist; he said back then that in the future everyone would have a computer in their homes.

I did not believe him at the time.

Susan said...

Got my Apple II Plus in 1979. It had 4K RAM and cost around $2000. 40 character display on user supplied tv. External floppy drive was another $500. Sure glad those days didn't last long.

Jerry Kocis said...

I got my TI-99/4A in the summer of 1982, for under $600. Eventually, the price was dropped to under $100, and Texas Instruments stopped making home computers.
My second computer, Frankenstein, was more interesting; a home-built PC XT (8088), assembled in 1984 from parts ordered separately from various ads in "Computer Shopper" magazine. It was matched with a stunningly ugly, eye-strain inducing, 12-inch, amber monochrome monitor.
Running XyWrite word processor, IBM BASIC, and a pirated COBOL compiler, it was my pride and joy for a couple of years, until the reasonably priced Seagate ST506 drives became available, and I built a new PC AT (80286) with hard drives, again from "Computer Shopper" ads. For a while it used the same (by this time visibly screen-burned) amber monitor.

GeniAus said...

Got my Commodore 64 around 1984 - still have it somewhere in the garage.

Unknown said...

1984, Mac. Loved it. Never looked at another PC. Now use a MacBook Pro. Have used the Macs for genealogy since 1993.

Rosemary said...

I got the original PC1 the same as you did in 1981. Upgraded the RAM to 256K, added an 8087 chip and happily used Lotus 1-2-3 for many years. I ended up selling the extra chip set, boards and motherboard on eBay.

Sassy Jane Genealogy said...

I think your image is of a Freedom terminal from IBM, c. 1984.

The library director where I worked in 1978 gave us email and an online catalog, but the latter only worked if you entered three characters for the last name and three for the first.

If he demo'd it elsewhere, we had to shut down the online pubic access catalog. Word processing was via something called TECO (Text Editor and COrrector) that made me want to hurl a chair through the nearest window.

My first home computer (if you're still awake) was a Wozniak limited-edition Apple II GS in 1985.

Things have changed, as Bob Dylan sang.