The first computer I can remember using — as in actually sitting down in front of it and interacting with it — was in 1986 in my dad’s office at Lincoln Land Community college. I was 6.
The computer was an off-brand IBM PC clone and I vividly remember playing with a program that drew pie charts and another that played really crude music through the PC’s speaker. (These were two of the demo BASICA programs that came with IBM PC-DOS 3.0.)
My school at the time had a few Bell & Howell Apple II machines but I don’t recall ever actually getting to use one. A few years later I had friends with Commodore 64s and Ataris and one with a Coleco ADAM (I still feel sorry for that family). The computer lab at Lakeside Elementary (no relation to the one Bill and Paul went to) was stocked with Apple IIs on which we used Appleworks to write stories and to play video games (mostly the latter). I didn’t have a computer of my own until 1991.
The first computer that was all mine was an IBM 5150, the original IBM PC (introduced 1981) that went on to conquer the world. It was given to our family in the spring of 1991 (by a family that had just upgraded to something better) right as I was finishing the 5th grade. It came equipped with two 360K floppy drives, a whopping 640K of RAM (should be enough for anybody), a 4.77Mhz Intel 8088 processor, and an IBM CGA adapter connected to an Amdek Color II display. It also came with a couple of boxes of software and the IBM PC-DOS and IBM BASIC reference manuals.
While I don’t necessarily recommend it, one can teach one’s self BASIC by reading the IBM BASIC Reference manual, and this is how I got my start with computer programming. The summer following 5th grade I learned how to manipulate the crude graphics of the CGA board (4 colors! Well, three colors really, and none of them ones you’d want to use for anything) producing drawings and animations, and to make the speaker emit crude beeps. My addiction at the time was Ms. Pac-Man and so what I wanted most in the world was to write my own rendition.
It took me some time to get there and… well, it wasn’t very good but I did eventually write something that kind of resembled Pac-Man if you squinted just right and also didn’t care about gameplay or fun.
In 1991 the 16-bit 8088-based IBM PC was already ten years old — the state of the art was the new 32-bit i80486 at speeds of up to 50Mhz. (My dad had a Northgate 486 system in his office at work for running Maple really quickly). But technology moved slower then: you could still go to your local Electronics Boutique and buy new software that came on 5.25″ 360K disks and ran on the original PC with CGA graphics. Heck, in those days you could still buy a new system based on the 8088 or 8086 — many of the cheaper laptops and portables of the day were still 8086 systems (albeit at 8Mhz) with 640K of memory and CGA graphics. I bought Print Shop Pro and printed out the most awesome banners on the IBM Graphics Printer. I played Monty Python’s Flying Circus: The Computer Game, and indulged myself on scads of older games scrounged from local BBSes and traded with friends.
And I yearned for more speed and maybe more than four colors on my display. And over the coming years I saved my money to pay for half of a new computer (my parents were very generous): In the summer of 1993 I bought a CompuAdd 425TX laptop (25Mhz 486, 4MB memory, SVGA greyscale display at 640×480 pixels, and an 80 megabyte hard drive which filled up more quickly than I’d expected) which I used and cherished until 1998… but the IBM PC will always hold a special place in my heart.