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What was your first computer?

On the anniversary of the ENIAC unveiling, we asked industry pros to reminisce about their first computers. Tell us about yours.

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CNET News.com asked a few industry pros to tell us about the first box that got them going. We're asking readers to chime in, too. In 150 words or less, tell us about your first computer. What was it and when did you get it? What do you remember most? What was it like? Share your thoughts in TalkBack. Also, check back in later this week for a gallery featuring as many photos of readers' first computers as we can round up!


Craig Newmark, Founder, Craigslist.org
Way back at Morristown High School, around '69, we got an old IBM 1620. It was focused on scientific computation, in contrast to the 1133. Lots of blinking lights and code that allowed very primitive music to be played. To listen, you needed an AM radio near the memory core: 20K if I remember right. In my second year playing with it, we got something called a hard disk, and my time on the computer increased to the point that I neglected my Humanities studies. I was already wearing a plastic pocket protector and thick black glasses--taped together--so I didn't need something to increase my social dysfunction. It was so long ago, I had to make my own bits, literally, on punch cards.


Michael Dell, Chairman, Dell Computer
I bought my first computer when I was 15 in 1980. It was an Apple II, which back then was the most popular PC in the U.S. Since junior high, I'd been using computers in school and hanging around Radio Shack, playing with their computers. My advanced math teacher had our school's first teletype terminal in her classroom where I could write programs, input equations and get back answers. In 1981, I switched to the IBM PC when it was introduced because it was more powerful and had software programs for business use, which I saw as a great opportunity.

I remember taking it completely apart to understand how it worked. My parents were pretty upset with me. I then put it back together. It was amazing to have a machine that could do so many calculations so quickly. The PC back then was built using discrete logic devices instead of ASICs, so you could look inside and really understand everything that was going on in terms of the architecture. It was primitive by today's standards, but it seemed amazing to me at the time what you could do with a PC.


Rob Glaser, CEO, RealNetworks
The first computer I owned was actually a calculator. A TI-58 programmable calculator. I got it in 1977, when I was 15. I think it cost about $200, which I got by saving a winter of snow-shoveling money. I really wanted a TI-59, which had a built-in magnetic card reader/writer but that cost over $400, so it was out of the question.

The TI-58 was programmed via op-codes that encompassed basic arithmetic functions along with simple branching and a tiny amount of storage for variables. There was no way to save programs when the calculator was turned off. I soon found writing down my programs in longhand to be very laborious, so I saved some more money and bought a companion thermal printer. I still had to re-key them every time I wanted to change programs, but this wasn't too bad as the TI-58 had enough memory for only about 240 instructions. This also forced me to figure out tricks to save instructions, which came in handy later on.

My first real computer was an IBM PC. I worked for IBM in the summer of 1981 and was there when the PC was announced. I did a little networking and got one of the first ones sold at retail. It was love at first sight--640K seemed like a vast ocean compared to 240 instructions!


Dan Hutcheson, CEO, VLSI Research
My first encounter with a computer was a portable terminal my dad would bring home that linked up via an acoustic modem. These awful things were invented only to get around AT&'T's monopoly--they would sue if you were directly wired into their lines. That was in 1967.

In college in 1976 I got my hands on a wonderful PDP 8. It was so cool, with a VKT (Video Keyboard Terminal). But the engineering school was always kicking off everyone else to play Star Trek--unless we came in at 2 a.m. The alternative was the dreaded IBM card-punch machine. So, I came in at 2.

That is until my dad bought one of the first 500 Radio Shack TRS-80s in the Bay Area in 1978. That gave me my first glimpse of the future; what we now know would become the PC. It was love at first keystroke: a VKT, Zilog Z80 processor that ran at a blinding 4 MHz, 16K of DRAM upgradeable to 64K, dual tape drives, BASIC instead of Fortran. And best of all, you could afford to turn it off. It was the last feature that caused me to divorce my mainframes, never to go back.


Brian Cooley, Editor at Large, CNET
My first machine was the Commodore 64, hotted up with dual 5-1/4-inch floppy drives (one for programs, one for data) and an industrial 9-inch amber monitor (using a TV as a monitor made the thing feel like a toy). Unlike most C64 users, I couldn't care less about gaming; I used it for word processing. There was a great WYSIWYG word processing program from Sierra On-Line, of all companies. This was back in the mid '80s, so several of my professors wouldn't accept papers printed on my C64's Epson LX-80 dot-matrix printer because they weren't "typed." But changing to Courier font, the "extra fine" print setting and microperf paper fooled the old goats into thinking I was still on a Smith Corona. My love for Commodore ended when I "upgraded" to the company's Executive 64 luggable. What a piece of junk. A few months later, I picked up an IBM PC/XT--but I still miss the C64's instant boot!


Mike Kwatinetz, General Partner, Azure Capital Partners
My first computer was a non-branded kit that I won in junior high for being the top math student in the school. This predated the launch of the first PCs. I had to assemble it, and that was very tough. It included schematics and about a thousand wires that had to be correctly connected and a number of other parts. It took me several days to put it together. But it was an incredibly exciting experience. When I was finished, I had a computer that played tic-tac-toe against you. It had the optimal strategy programmed in so that it always won or the game was a draw. There was a three by three grid with light bulbs that lit up as you and the computer made your picks. It may seem pretty prosaic now, but at the time it was very exciting. To put it in perspective, comparing it to a PC is similar to comparing OQO's handheld Windows XP PC to the ENIAC.


William Kahan, Professor of Computer Science, UC Berkeley
Someone (at the University of Toronto in 1953) told me there was something called a computer in an obscure corner of the physics building. I tried to imagine how I would construct one. If you are going to see something new, it is always good to go in mentally prepared. I thought it was marvelous. It made an enormous change in my life. I was interested in math and electricity and the two things crashed together.

(That year, he got a job in the computer lab, where the staff built an online reservation system for an airline.)

My wife would babysit it and I would program it. I was thought to be a nut. "He's as strange as everyone said!" people would think. But what we didn't realize then was that entertainment and games would loom so large as to dwarf everything else.


Harry Huskey, ENIAC engineer
The team had built a two-accumulator system that successfully integrated the sine-cosine equations. We all thought everything would work, even the multiplier when it would not correctly multiply by zero! Since multiplication by zero should produce no result, the zero-circuit was left out! However, at one stage in the multiplication, the signal is inverted and zero is represented by a signal, so the circuit must be there. Some, judging from the tube replacement rate in home radios, said this monster could not run for 5 minutes! However, all tubes were "burned in" for 100 hours, so this was not a problem. I don't think that security was ever a problem! The project was classified "Confidential," and there was restricted access to the area. At the time of the dedication [February 1946], we could freely discuss how the ENIAC worked, but not circuit details.


Charles Cooper, Executive Editor, CNET News.com
Charlie Chaplin forever. Just like you never forget your first love, who can forget their first PC? Mine was the IBM PCjr, a darling little machine that came with an Intel 8088, 64K of memory, and a 360KB 5-1/4 inch diskette drive. I had no idea what any of that meant, but I was determined to buy a computer and find out what all the fuss was about. It wasn't long before I realized this underpowered hunk of junk could not do very much besides take up space. But it was nice to look at. Besides, it taught me a valuable lesson about how to shop for a computer: Buy the least expensive machine you can find. After six months, you'll know what you need. (FYI: Chaplin was the mascot that IBM used to sell the PCjr.)


Jean Bartik, ENIAC programmer

Listen up

Wild nights of ENIAC programming
Listen now... (3MB mp3)

Betty (Holberton) and I were debugging it (ENIAC) for the demo when the dean of the Moore School came down to see us. He left us a fifth of liquor and said, 'Have at it.' We didn't drink it; I was only 20 at the time. We just kept on working, but we were thrilled that he was clearly aware of what we were doing.
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