The Infant Moses Owned an IBM Computer. Now It’s Mine

 

“Computer user” defines the limits of my expertise. I can’t describe them with the fluency of @hankrhody. I can’t build precision electronics like @SkipSul. I can’t program them the way @judgemental or @arahant can. But people like me had an important part to play in the microcomputer revolution: We’re the suckers who paid for it, usually cheerfully. I flipped through a few quarter-century old computer magazines, noticing just how wildly expensive everything was in 1994-’97, for much less performance and far fewer capabilities than today’s computers. Still, to a non-computer specialist like me, the mid-Nineties is a world that’s almost two thirds a modern one. There were slick magazines advertising laptops and desktop machines with color monitors. Accessories like printers and modems plugged right in. The software was by then largely standardized on MS-DOS/Windows 3.1. It was already assumed that you’d want a modem for online use, although it would be for contact via plain old telephone lines with bulletin board systems, not the World Wide Web just quite yet. 1994 or so, in other words, is a primitive but recognizable world to a computer user of today.

Recently I acquired a copy of Byte Magazine from August 1982. This is a lucky find because it’s from a brief, in between period in the history of personal computers. 1982 is most of the way back to the crudely printed newsletters and bulletins of the geeky computer clubs of the Seventies, like the one in northern California that spawned Apple. This issue of Byte runs to 512 pages (!), an amount of advertising that demanded filling in with a whole bunch of dry-as-sawdust technical articles about object-oriented programming, and defining characteristics of sprites on mapped x-y coordinates. That was Byte’s readership.

There’s very little here yet about what actual end users might do with these machines. Almost every article and ad page in the 512 of them would be incomprehensibly challenging to anyone who innocently stumbled in, hoping to find out something about using computers. In the early to mid-Eighties, the only true ease-of-use was found with toy computers, the Sinclair, Commodore, Atari and ColecoVision ones you could buy for $99-$199 and hook up to your living room TV. They didn’t do much that was useful. Even the games were lame.

There are applications for sale in Byte, plenty of them, selling at jaw-dropping high prices by today’s standards, but they are either programming fragments that you have to stitch together yourself, or they’re simple turnkey packages dedicated to one purpose, like printing dry cleaning tags. Like the microcomputer newsletters of the Seventies, most of these voluminous ads are black and white, crudely hand-drawn, with a variety of cheap typefaces that would do justice to a 1950s church bulletin. Apple, as well as IBM and Microsoft, are among the few advertisers who’d still be widely recognized today, and they have color ads (still an expensive rarity in computer mags in 1982). These ads are surprisingly ordinary-looking, not that different than nearby pages for Ashton-Tate’s dBASE.

I attended the second Applefest in Boston, May 14-16, 1982. Some friends of mine worked for a new magazine, Softalk, so I had a floor pass. The two Steves were still doing their buddy act at the conference, but almost everyone at the show skipped the Friday night opening in favor of the premiere of “Conan the Barbarian”. It was quite a weekend. Across the street from the Hynes Center, a giant Jolly Roger fluttered in the wind, marking the Pirate’s Convention.

At Applefest, voice I/O system cards and magnetic storage media were all the rage that spring. 1982 was a peculiar half-and-half era, feminism-wise. The term “sexism” had already been in use for a dozen or so years. Women were already writing software for micros and running start-up companies. Yet even in liberal Boston, an Eighties computer show was also full of “booth babes”, like the young women who pose at auto shows. One group of models wore tight t-shirts that proclaimed “We’ve Got the Best Twin Floppies in Town!”. Undeniably eye-catching but rather crass. But another, more subtle approach worked better with this crowd: a booth of nice, but normal-looking women giving away shirts that merely promised “No Bad Memories”–a romantic ideal that both sides can agree on.

There’s an amazing variety of vendors of products that few people in today’s world have ever had to buy. In ’82, regardless of who you bought from, you probably had a green-and-black or orange-and-black monitor and not much to do with it. You couldn’t just plug a computer into a printer. Usually, you needed an add-on circuit card that had to be configured via tiny rocker switches to run with your specific computer and your printer, each end of which could be almost impossible to straighten out. Speaking of printing, a far-from-exotic business necessity, if you didn’t want your expensive machine to come to a stuttering halt while it printed things out, you needed a print buffer, a costly block of outboard memory that accepted full files from the computer and doled them out to the printer, a little bit at a time.

But then, the outlay didn’t seem like all that big a deal when your printer already cost you $1300, and your computer $3000. That $4300 starter system would be about $11,292 in today’s money. To add insult to financial injury, the computers you bought for that kind of money were no great shakes, and that wouldn’t even have included the main software you’d want to make the thing minimally useful. For example, the first really successful word processing software for microcomputers was WordStar. At a hefty $400; say a thousand bucks in 2019.

Another approach to personal computing was briefly popular. The Kaypro and Osborne computers were similar packages–a (damn heavy!) “portable” computer with a built-in monochrome monitor, two floppy disk drives, and—the dealmaker!—a library of name-brand business software guaranteed to run. Both companies were too small and ill-managed to survive, but they had a great idea for making computing as non-threatening and worry-free as possible 35 years ago. For $1795, either company gave you a complete package that you didn’t have to be a computer hobbyist to use. My own office was first equipped with Kaypros, which became a great Hollywood favorite. Arthur C. Clarke and Peter Hyams used it to send each other overnight drafts of the script to “2010: The Year We Make Contact”. William F. Buckley liked his Kaypro so much he did all his writing on it almost to the end of his life.

The IBM AT series and Apple’s Macintosh would appear in 1984. That generation of the personal computer would grow over the years into being a powerful step up in usefulness, as well as ease of use. But it took time. Alfred Sloan, the longtime chairman of General Motors during its glory days, confessed in his memoirs that the unsung hero of early automobiling was the patient, long-suffering customer, who paid for the progress we all benefit from now. Personal computers were no different.

I owe you an explanation about baby Moses’s very own IBM computer and how it ended up in my hands. Here it is: Charlton Heston was one of the most influential of trustees of the American Film Institute. Like a number of other industry big shots, like Ray Stark and Jerry Weintraub, he donated filmmaking gear and then-current office equipment to AFI. One batch from the Hestons included a few family-owned personal computers, still very expensive at the time.

AFI had just received a massive grant from Apple, both in cash and in-kind contributions, and one requirement was Appletalk wiring and an all-Apple AFI campus. That meant they couldn’t use donated IBM computers anymore, so they quietly asked a few people if they had use for them. I walked away with Fraser Heston’s 1983-vintage XT, a big heavy thing with two hard drives and two floppy disc drives.

Fraser had been pressed into service in 1956 to play his own father as a baby in Cecil B. de Mille’s “The Ten Commandments”. And that’s how come I have Moses’s computer in my storeroom.

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There are 105 comments.

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  1. Thatcher

    Gary McVey: I can’t program them the way @judgemental or @arahant can.

    So what am I? A monkey with a keyboard?

    • #1
    • May 8, 2019, at 3:44 PM PDT
    • 10 likes
  2. Contributor

    If it was baby Moses’s computer, it must have been an early tablet design. Tell us more!

    • #2
    • May 8, 2019, at 3:46 PM PDT
    • 17 likes
  3. Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    The IBM in question. This small photo utterly fails to convey its scale; think of the amount of desk space taken up by a thick stack of pizza boxes, weighing 32 pounds. 

    • #3
    • May 8, 2019, at 3:50 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  4. Contributor

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    The IBM in question. This small photo utterly fails to convey its scale; think of the amount of desk space taken up by a thick stack of pizza boxes, weighing 32 pounds.

    So, in the neighborhood of the likely weight of stone tablets.

    • #4
    • May 8, 2019, at 3:51 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  5. Member

    Percival (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: I can’t program them the way Judge Mental or Arahant can.

    So what am I? A monkey with a keyboard?

    Yes.

    • #5
    • May 8, 2019, at 4:54 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  6. Thatcher

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: I can’t program them the way Judge Mental or Arahant can.

    So what am I? A monkey with a keyboard?

    Yes.

    • #6
    • May 8, 2019, at 5:44 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
  7. Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    This is what I love about Ricochet. It’s not just the witty repartee, but the cutting edge intellect that makes us a mighty force for progress. 

    • #7
    • May 8, 2019, at 6:01 PM PDT
    • 12 likes
  8. Contributor

    Percival (View Comment):
    So what am I? A monkey with a keyboard?

    No, you’re thinking of @WhiskeySam.

    • #8
    • May 8, 2019, at 6:02 PM PDT
    • 12 likes
  9. Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    Fantastic style and timeless beauty. Plus, when she steps away from the tape drive, the computer doesn’t look too shabby either. 

    • #9
    • May 8, 2019, at 6:20 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  10. Member

    Gary McVey: In the early to mid Eighties the only true ease-of-use was found with toy computers, the Sinclair, Commodore, Atari and ColecoVision ones you could buy for $99-$199 and hook up to your living room TV. They didn’t do much that was useful. Even the games were lame.

    That’s not quite true. I had an integrated data base/spreadsheet/word processor for my Commodore 64 that was better than anything I found for IBM’s until Windows 98.

    • #10
    • May 8, 2019, at 6:28 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
  11. Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: In the early to mid Eighties the only true ease-of-use was found with toy computers, the Sinclair, Commodore, Atari and ColecoVision ones you could buy for $99-$199 and hook up to your living room TV. They didn’t do much that was useful. Even the games were lame.

    That’s not quite true. I had an integrated data base/spreadsheet/word processor for my Commodore 64 that was better than anything I found for IBM’s until Windows 98.

    I accept corrections with a smile, but as a former Atari owner I do not associate with Commodore. 

    • #11
    • May 8, 2019, at 6:32 PM PDT
    • 10 likes
  12. Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    “So did you meet the new guys?” “Yeah, they’re really nice. The one with the beard is really cute”.

    “Hank, you mean. He is! But that one in the chain mail and steel helmet–what a hunk!”

    • #12
    • May 8, 2019, at 6:39 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
  13. Thatcher

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    The IBM in question. This small photo utterly fails to convey its scale; think of the amount of desk space taken up by a thick stack of pizza boxes, weighing 32 pounds.

    So, in the neighborhood of the likely weight of stone tablets.

    On a price per pound comparison, then it is a deal!!!

    I mean we are always looking for a bargin at the butcher’s shop, no?

    • #13
    • May 8, 2019, at 6:54 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  14. Member

    For 20 years I chased every advance in computer power. I built my own. I went from 286’s to 386’s to 486’s to Pentiums. I bought co-processors when I thought I needed them. I had eight computers running SETI at one time. I bought Intel processors, AMD processors, and another brand whose name I can’t remember I had extended memory cards and expanded memory cards (though I couldn’t tell you the difference now). But the changes came so thick and fast that I couldn’t keep up. So I didn’t. The computer I use now is about five years old. It was just behind bleeding edge when I had someone build it for me. And it’s still OK. Ten years ago a five year old computer sucked. Mine’s still pretty good.

    • #14
    • May 8, 2019, at 6:55 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  15. Thatcher

    Percival (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: I can’t program them the way Judge Mental or Arahant can.

    So what am I? A monkey with a keyboard?

    Yes.

    Don’t go fishing it you cannot handle what the catch of the day yields.

    • #15
    • May 8, 2019, at 6:55 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  16. Member

    GLDIII Temporarily Essential (View Comment):
    Don’t go fishing it you cannot handle what the catch of the day yields.

    Lol. Some of my co-workers really like to fish. My response when they ask me if I want to go is always “No matter how successful you are when you go fishing, what you end up with is a fish.”

    • #16
    • May 8, 2019, at 7:00 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  17. Moderator

    Randy Webster (View Comment):
    bought Intel processors, AMD processors, and another brand whose name I can’t remember

    Was it Cyrix? We had one of those, it was terrible.

    • #17
    • May 8, 2019, at 7:05 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  18. Moderator

    My dad hoarded old computers for decades before chucking them out. We found a Commodore 64 modem in its box, with a mail in subscription card for Compuserve. “Only $150 per month!”

    • #18
    • May 8, 2019, at 7:07 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  19. Member

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):
    bought Intel processors, AMD processors, and another brand whose name I can’t remember

    Was it Cyrix? We had one of those, it was terrible.

    Yes, it was Cyrix. I don’t remember any particular problems with the chips.

    • #19
    • May 8, 2019, at 7:12 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  20. Thatcher

    GLDIII Temporarily Essential (View Comment):
    Don’t go fishing it you cannot handle what the catch of the day yields.

    • #20
    • May 8, 2019, at 7:15 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  21. Thatcher

    Hank Rhody, Drunk on Power (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):
    So what am I? A monkey with a keyboard?

    No, you’re thinking of @WhiskeySam.

    • #21
    • May 8, 2019, at 7:23 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  22. Member

    I fiddled with computers for quite a while – the first one I spent time on was a mainframe (courtesy of my roommate’s account) where I played things like ADVENT.

    The first one I owned was a 64k Apple IIe with a color monitor and a single 140k floppy drive. That set me back a total of $2400 in 1983 (about $6100 now). For comparison, I have two reasonably high-end computers, each with a virtual reality headset and 4K HDR monitor, along with a ridiculous amount of accessories – and added together, it’s all somewhat less expensive than my Apple IIe was, post-inflation.

    The keyboard I’m typing this on is supposedly more powerful than the Apple IIe.

    Just about any recent-model smartphone is more powerful in real-world performance than an early-90s supercomputer.

    On the other hand, I have a TRS-80 Model 100 that I got at a garage sale for $5, with 32k of RAM and an eight-line, 40 character display, that runs off of 4 AA batteries – and the thing still works. Built in 1982.

    • #22
    • May 8, 2019, at 7:56 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
  23. Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    cirby (View Comment):

    I fiddled with computers for quite a while – the first one I spent time on was a mainframe (courtesy of my roommate’s account) where I played things like ADVENT.

    The first one I owned was a 64k Apple IIe with a color monitor and a single 140k floppy drive. That set me back a total of $2400 in 1983 (about $6100 now). For comparison, I have two reasonably high-end computers, each with a virtual reality headset and 4K HDR monitor, along with a ridiculous amount of accessories – and added together, it’s all somewhat less expensive than my Apple IIe was, post-inflation.

    The keyboard I’m typing this on is supposedly more powerful than the Apple IIe.

    Just about any recent-model smartphone is more powerful in real-world performance than an early-90s supercomputer.

    On the other hand, I have a TRS-80 Model 100 that I got at a garage sale for $5, with 32k of RAM and an eight-line, 40 character display, that runs off of 4 AA batteries – and the thing still works. Built in 1982.

    The TRS-80 Model 100 was the first mobile computer to achieve cult status with journalists who traveled with candidates. For what it was, and especially for when it was, it was great. There’s a whole forgotten field of “clamshell” hand held PCs with keyboards, and like the anonymous test pilots memorialized by the narration of “The Right Stuff”, “And nobody knew their names”. 

    At the time of that 1982 Applefest, their showroom product was the ill-fated Apple III, launched with so many defects that Jobs and Wozniak told (relatively) self-deprecating jokes about it. 

    • #23
    • May 8, 2019, at 8:04 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  24. Contributor

    This seems like a good place to ask if everyone’s watched “Halt and Catch Fire,” an AMC series about the early days of computing. Rough first season, but it got very, very good.

    • #24
    • May 8, 2019, at 9:18 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  25. Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    For 20 years I chased every advance in computer power. I built my own. I went from 286’s to 386’s to 486’s to Pentiums. I bought co-processors when I thought I needed them. I had eight computers running SETI at one time. I bought Intel processors, AMD processors, and another brand whose name I can’t remember I had extended memory cards and expanded memory cards (though I couldn’t tell you the difference now). But the changes came so thick and fast that I couldn’t keep up. So I didn’t. The computer I use now is about five years old. It was just behind bleeding edge when I had someone build it for me. And it’s still OK. Ten years ago a five year old computer sucked. Mine’s still pretty good.

    That’s why I gradually stopped bothering to read computer magazines; essentially, all viable machines did what I needed so it became an appliance market, by and large. That’s not a bad thing; refrigerator-style reliability and nearly universal user interfaces would have seemed pretty damn miraculous to us 35 years ago. I’m typing this on a 2012 laptop. 

    • #25
    • May 8, 2019, at 9:20 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  26. Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    This seems like a good place to ask if everyone’s watched “Halt and Catch Fire,” an AMC series about the early days of computing. Rough first season, but it got very, very good.

    I agree. It’s always interesting how much knowledge of the subject the storyteller has a right to expect us to already know, and by and large writers who fictionalize technical subjects don’t expect much anymore. And reasonably so; it’s a long time ago now. 

    Sometimes a merely OK film has a few really good scenes, and Ashton Kutcher was, I think, underestimated as Steve Jobs. One overlooked turning point in Apple history is the scene when he and Wozniak have promised finished, complete computers to their local tech hardware store, but are unable to deliver anything but motherboards. The whole thing could have gone down the drain right there, and the store owner had every right to toss them out. But Jobs–and here, Kutcher’s own natural salesmanship and charisma gets Jobs right–manages to convince the guy that this is no disaster, but a great opportunity to also sell cases, keyboards, power supplies and monitors. 

    Contrary to popular opinion, movie stars are usually at least decent actors. But they are luckiest and most successful at roles that the audience senses are a bit of them, too. 

    • #26
    • May 8, 2019, at 9:36 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  27. Member

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    This seems like a good place to ask if everyone’s watched “Halt and Catch Fire,” an AMC series about the early days of computing. Rough first season, but it got very, very good.

    Something like, “Let’s put chips on BOTH sides of the board!” And your favorite: the sullen problem super girl that nobody believed in. 

    • #27
    • May 8, 2019, at 10:16 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  28. Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    Some of the earliest computer people I knew in the Bay Area got their tech start in the Fone Phreax “movement”, building so-called blue boxes that emulated AT&T long distance switching frequencies. The Blue Boxes were sold on the black market, like drugs. There wasn’t a great deal of public pity for the phone company in those days, so it was winked at. 

    One of the leaders was called Captain Crunch, because a plastic toy whistle once carried as a cereal promotion blew the exact note needed to call the tone system to attention. 

    Now, of course, thanks in great part to a multi-decade tech revolution roiling from the Bay Area, long distance voice is usually free domestically, and can be free entirely overseas. It’s like a Twilight Zone episode where stolen gold turns out to be worthless in the future. 

    • #28
    • May 8, 2019, at 10:29 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  29. Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Some of the earliest computer people I knew in the Bay Area got their tech start in the Fone Phreax “movement”, building so-called blue boxes that emulated AT&T long distance switching frequencies. The Blue Boxes were sold on the black market, like drugs. There wasn’t a great deal of public pity for the phone company in those days, so it was winked at.

    One of the leaders was called Captain Crunch, because a plastic toy whistle once carried as a cereal promotion blew the exact note needed to call the tone system to attention.

    Now, of course, thanks in great part to a multi-decade tech revolution roiling from the Bay Area, long distance voice is usually free domestically, and can be free entirely overseas. It’s like a Twilight Zone episode where stolen gold turns out to be worthless in the future.

    I met Captain Crunch. He was crippled in a car accident, made wealthy by the insurance settlement, and bored out of his mind. He discovered the Captain Crunch whistle that could capture a trunk line after you dialed an 800 number because he had taught himself to whistle touch tone phone codes. He later worked for AT&T as a security consultant.

    • #29
    • May 9, 2019, at 6:17 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  30. Member

    I opened a store in Kansas City, Missouri in 1976. I sold Commodore Pets, IMSAI 8080s and Polymorphic S-100 based machines. The business conked out just as the Commodore 64 and Radio Shack Color Computer were starting to sell. Pioneers get arrows in the butt; settlers make money.

    • #30
    • May 9, 2019, at 6:21 AM PDT
    • 9 likes
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