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Tech Industry

Anatomy of a computer-phile

CNET News.com's Scott Ard shares the random experiences with a succession of early computers that cemented his lifelong passion with the PC.

This week, we asked readers to send in memories of their first PCs. The flood of e-mail inspired recollections (however flawed) of my early experiences with various computers.

In elementary school in the 1970s, I find my father's Hewlett-Packard calculator that can be programmed by sliding a small plastic strip through a slot, like using an ATM card at the grocery store. I pull the game marked "Lunar Lander" from a small wallet filled with cards, slide it through the slot, and try to maneuver my craft (a series of digits) to the moon's surface before burning up all my fuel.

Later, when I visit a technology exhibit at U.C. Berkeley with some classmates, I appear to be an old pro as I play "Lunar Lander" on a full-sized computer.

I accompany my dad to the Army Corps of Engineers offices in San Francisco, where I help feed punchcards into an IBM computer and watch a plotter the size of a bumper pool table draw cross sections of the bottom of San Francisco Bay. In a noisy, frigid room, I look up at refrigerator-size, glass-doored cabinets that house reel-to-reel tapes, which jerk forward and back, causing the sagging strands of tape between them to dance. I wait in vain to see the wheels get out of sync, causing the tape to snap.

***

In high school, I try my hand at programming, completing a game that rolls a pair of dice. The computer saves my work by punching holes on a thin strip of paper, like ticker tape. To run the program, I take it to another machine--remembering to touch a small metal plate on the wall before typing, lest any static electricity permanently zap the keyboard. Programming is not for me.

It takes hours entering my meager finances into a Texas Instruments 99/4A that's attached to my TV, and more time to save the data onto a cassette tape. But I will never use the program again, realizing that the lack of a counter on the cassette player makes retrieving the information an unbearably tedious process.

A kid I baby-sit shows me his Apple II+. "I must get one of these," I vow, trying to calculate how many weeks it will take to save about $1,500 at $5.75 an hour.

At a small computer shop near my home I nervously eye an Apple Lisa sitting alone on a large table. With a price tag around $10,000--about one-fifth the cost of my parents' house--I do not touch it, or even waste the salesman's time asking questions.

A Timex Sinclair with a membrane keyboard is sold at the local Long's Drug store alongside Atari game cartridges and clock radios. Is it a fancy calculator, meager computer or toy?

Inside Macy's, in the back of the stereo/TV department, I cross the threshold of a small room stuffed with the latest computers. A Compaq "portable," with its amber screen, squats next to an upright new machine called a Macintosh. With the "mouse" I write my name on the screen and print it exactly on the nearby Apple printer. Magic. Compaq is a goner, I mutter as I grab some Mac brochures.

***

As a college student, I open my 401(k) statement one day and realize that I finally have enough money saved to buy an Apple, a used one, and certainly not a Mac. I fill out the required paperwork to withdraw the funds, explaining that I need the money to pay for housing for college (a lie that allows me to avoid a penalty). Money in hand, I scour the want ads until I find an Apple IIe, barely used, with all boxes for $1,300. I call the seller and set up an appointment to visit his office in downtown San Francisco. It has a Duodisk! With two disk drives in one housing, I know how much easier it will be to copy games from my neighbor's II+. I pay in cash and haul the goods down Market Street to my car, giddy.

I buy single-sided diskettes at Price Club and cut small notches in them so I can use them as double-sided. I'm careful to write on the labels before I stick them to the disks, so as not to damage them.

Using Locksmith 6.0, I copy countless games, a tedious process even with the Duodisk that often requires rewriting over bad sectors. "Robotron 2084" and "Sea Dragon" are worth the hours, however.

I eventually buy a 9-pin, dot matrix printer for $200 (a serious bargain), a 300 baud modem ($300), a mouse ($150), and an Olympia daisy wheel printer ($200) for those college professors who refuse to accept papers obviously printed from a word processor.

At a computer trade show I buy an adapter that allows me to use an Atari joystick on the IIe, a real luxury.

I sign up for CompuServe and try out a chat feature called CB (named after the citizen-band radio craze of the '70s, I think), but am bored by babble about bands such as Depeche Mode. I try to learn some of the research services but am discouraged when I accidentally get about six months' worth of daily--rather than monthly--quotes for Apple stock, and have to pay a few cents for each quote.

At the college newspaper, I draft my resume on a massive CompuGraphic typesetting machine that uses dinner plate-size floppies and spits out strips of film that are used to create news pages. My resume is effectively typeset and looks great; I make some money creating resumes for other students.

***

Today, I watch my 4-year-old daughter play games like Reader Rabbit and help her surf barbie.com on her iMac. It's not an HP calculator, and it's not Robotron. But it's a start.

The writer, News.com's news editor, still yearns for an Apple Lisa, with Twiggy drives, of course.