TI to iPad … a short history of computers

 

Graveyard for old radios & computers

My first memory of a computer must date back to the late 1950’s. Each year, around April or so, the nightly news on TV (black & white, no remote, 19″ screen) would feature the most recent national science fair winners. There would always be a boy and a girl (one from each sex – we must be fair). The young lady, (outfitted in a knee-length plaid skirt) was introduced first. Her winning contribution to teenage science had the appearance of a hillbilly moonshine still grafted onto the foliage of Burpee’s latest hotbed tomato patch. The accompanying backboard was a two dimensional diorama of glass tubes and rotund flasks with strategically applied carbon-ring labels. You knew that whatever this tropical maze represented it had to be deserving of an award if for no other reason than the baffled expressions it induced on the esteemed judges. As the cameraman panned right our television screen slowly revealed in shades of gray a lanky, self assured young man attired in slacks and sport jacket that were sure to be a proper fit two years hence. He sported the then popular whiz kid bling, pocket protector and Clark Kent-inspired black frame glasses. The Bronx Science junior was flanked to his left by a large plywood box that was studded with ten rows of light bulbs, eight to each row. The lower third of the mysterious box harbored rows of corresponding toggle switches and a final set of sixteen smaller bulbs. Boldly inscribed on the unit’s front panel were the words “Magic Brain”. At the prompting of the program host the youthful scientist consented to a demonstration: “Do you think the Magic Brain might be able to handle 212 times 178?” the host asked with a doubtful side glance towards the camera. “That’s an easy one” responded the future scientist of America. As our intrepid teen manipulated the maze of nickel plated switches the viewer at home was treated to a flurry of blinking lights. The last row to illuminate was the solitary set of sixteen. There was the answer, in hexadecimal glory, staring at all of us. “The answer is 37,736!” exclaimed the proud science fair winner. The home audience took his word for it.

Many years later I found myself teaching 10th grade biology and contending with mimeograph machines, filmstrip projectors, overhead projectors, and various other tools designed to torture 15 year old teenagers. The typewriter and slide rule were the only high tech instruments available at home, the place where my weekly battle plans were developed. All laboratory activities were dependent on having lots of supplies and an equal amount of time to prepare them for the class. Then along came the Apple IIe computer. It looked like a beige wedge with a small television sitting on top of it. Our department was allowed one machine and then another until we had a grand total of 3 with associated disk drives. This was back in the mid-‘80’s. I kept those machines running and in use for at least ten years. My primary use was biological simulations and real time computer-assisted labs. They did everything including demonstrating Mendelian genetics with student input and class participation, Elodea photosynthesis simulations, and actual biometric measurements including heart rate, breathing rate, and skin electrical conduction to determine emotional state (lie detector). The Apple IIe was an amazing machine.

Then came the personal computer explosion. All sorts of companies were marketing personal computers (pc’s). A few of the ones I remember aree Amiga, Atari, Commodore, and Texas Instruments. I thought long and hard as to whether or not I should purchase one. The prices were steep. I finally decided that anything that ended the grind of retyping ditto masters for labs and tests was worth the investment. I had seen a word processor in action and thought it was nothing short of amazing. I went with the TI-99/4A computer by Texas Instruments. The entire computer was not much bigger than an ordinary keyboard. Programs were loaded by inserting cartridges. Program files were saved on an attached cassette tape. I soon graduated from cassette to 5-1/4” floppy drives attached to an “expansion box” that was about as big as a computer monitor. The box allowed you to add computer cards that provided additional memory. At this point word processors were limited to a 40 character per row display and printers were all dot matrix (impact) printers. A typical printer cost about $300, it did not do any complicated graphics, and worked by slamming pins into a typewriter ribbon. The TI played games, wrote, handled numbers, performed voice synthesis (the best I’ve seen to this day), and helped you learn computer programming. I did BASIC and LOGO with the TI. I even had a module for compiling machine language programs. This was also the first computer I used to connect with the Internet. It had a special 300 baud modem that attached to the telephone jack. The modem software was in a cartridge that slid into the TI game slot. At first the only thing to do with a modem was to check into a bulletin board (a message center hosted by just about anybody) and join the discussion. Later when the various BBS nodes sort of merged into one giant system I was given access to the Internet through a Brown University account that a friend gave me. The command manual (no mouse…you typed in every command) was over 200 pages long. We used the Internet to exchange e-mail, download programs, and discuss various topics on message boards.

When IBM finally got into the act with their personal computer (the XT?) everyone copied them and it was now the age of the “IBM Compatible” computer. The operating system war was quickly won by Microsoft who seemed to have a new version out every six months. My first compatible was an import from the UK, the Amstrad PC-1520. It was an 8 MHz computer running the Intel 8086 processor (this is before the 286, 386, 486, and Pentium). The unit came with 2 floppy drives and 512 KB of RAM (that was kilobyte, not megabyte). The Amstrad ran two different operating systems, Microsoft DOS 3.2 or something called DOS Plus by Digital Research. If you ran it in DOS mode you only got 8 different colors while in DOS Plus with the GEM interface there were 16! I remember one humid August night during a thunderstorm when I upgraded to 640 KB by carefully inserting onto the Amstrad motherboard 16 microprocessor chips, all stored in a clear plastic tube, one at a time. I was barefoot with my feet on the cement basement floor; any static electricity was going to go through my feet, so I thought, not the expensive chips.

My next discovery was the Macintosh computer. My first exposure to it had been while I still owned the TI-99/4A. At one of our local TI computer club meetings (The New England 99’ers, meeting every Thursday night in Pawtucket, RI) we were given a demonstration of the Apple Lisa computer. This thing was amazing, even when compared to the transition computers like the Swan (a TI-compatible computer that ran with 3rd party hardware in IBM mode). The handwriting was on the wall. Apple was no longer just the computer of choice for schools; they were going after the personal computer market. I stuck with my Amstrad (see above) for some time until the opportunity came along to participate in a biology software development program hosted by the University of Rhode Island and Brown University. Participants would receive instruction, program development time, a stipend, and a free Macintosh Classic computer. What a deal! I eventually got that Classic to do everything including remote control of my ham radio transceiver and duty as a packet radio station. This was about the time that the Internet was just coming into its own and it was now possible to display pictures rather than just text. The Mac handled it all with aplomb (except those times when a little bomb graphic appeared on the screen…that was not good).
I kept the Classic running for some time…I even made my very first E-bay purchase, a voice synthesizer for the Classic. (I think that one finally went in the trash a few months ago during the big move.) My desire for a bigger and better Macintosh led me to look at the used market. Mac’s were always very expensive but the price came down rapidly with each introduction of a new model. My quest led me to a MIT flea market held in a Boston parking garage (resistor wheels on the lower level, computers in the middle, and ham radios up at the top of the ramp). I came home with an Apple IIci, a computer that actually displayed thousands of colors and had an 80 megabyte hard drive (what to do with such a big drive!). The original $8,800.00 price when new had come down to about $150.00, the deal of the century. The IIci was the most fun Apple to date. It was eventually retired as the PC’s exceeded its technology but they never showed as much class.
Computer ownership since those early days has been a succession of PC products that usually came in the door when the then current household unit had a hard drive failure or motherboard meltdown (events that are way too common with these modern day appliances). Along the way I accumulated a few spare units to add to my growing museum of mothballed computing machines, including an Apple IIc with software, case, and baby monitor (do you remember what that looked like?). Each addition to the museum (junk pile) became a project for retirement. They are now standing in line for the day when my son says he has enough space to take them. Somebody has to be the curator of these electronic marvels.

My fascination with computers was beginning to dull just a bit. Then Apple did it again. They came out with the iPad. My son made a point of showing me the neat tricks it could do. He let me hold it during a winter breakfast at a Providence restaurant. I was impressed. They had finally come up with a computer that wasn’t a computer. It was a radio, a book, a letter writer, a photo album, and so much more. Programs were out and apps were in. My new iPad arrived this past Christmas as a gift from my family. Someday I will replace the HP Pavilion workhorse when it fails, but the iPad will only be replaced with another iPad. They finally got it right and I need search no more.

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