“Personal” Computing 1.0

A thread over at the outlinersoftware.com forum got me thinking about my computing past. I’ve been using personal computers for almost four decades now. Crazy. Most everything about computing has changed over that time, except that I was always fascinated by how computers can help us manage our information.

This looks a lot like my first personal computer. (Photo credit: oldcomputers.net)

Early on I had a tense relationship with computers. The first time I ever touched one was in the last semester of my senior year of college. We had a senior seminar that was supposed to be about how we could go about becoming a professional in the career we were studying. Instead, the brain trust of the department realized they were about to spurt out a class of graduates who had never had any computer training. This was 1978. Personal computing was only just barely a blip and I was completely oblivious to it. The computer we were “trained” on was a mainframe, and the keyboards and CRT monitors were merely workstations. We were really not trained at all, just given rote instructions on what keystrokes were necessary. I suspect we were working in Cobalt or something like it. Our work was spit out on that light green and white paper that was next to impossible to read. In short, this was an utter waste of time that only made me think that computers were unapproachable for me.

The next time I laid my fingers on a computer, it was on another mainframe workstation. I had just gotten a job with a sporting goods manufacturer. I was to use the computer to place orders. I was terrified that I’d hit the wrong button and shut the whole thing down. Luckily, I had a coworker who was much more comfortable with the computer than I was, so I didn’t have to give myself a nervous breakdown. I ended up shifting from the outlet store to the marketing department, where I was the copywriter, among other things. I did most of my writing in the early days on an IBM Selectric typewriter, rolling out sheets of copy that the art department spec’d and sent out to a typesetter, who returned it looking more or less like it would when they placed it onto the paste boards. A break through came when the company bought a typesetting machine for the art folks. This was another type of computer dedicated to one task. I was trained to enter my copy into the typesetter, adding the codes that would flow out the text the way the art people wanted. Around this same time, the IBM personal computer was introduced and I was one of the very first people in the company to get one. At first my old terror returned. What the hell was I supposed to do with this thing? The hard drive hadn’t quite arrived in the PC world yet. But my machine had two floppy drives, one for the software and one for the data. It didn’t take me long to become acquainted with Word Star, the word processing application I wrote with. Pretty soon my copy and press releases were spewing forth on the new fangled dot matrix printer on my desk. 

I was hooked.

I took out a personal loan to purchase a Compaq Portable. It looked like a portable sewing machine. The keyboard formed the cover of the unit and dropped down to reveal the half-sized CRT monitor and two floppy drives. I bought Word Star and a flat-file database. One of the first things I did was transcribe the list of books I had read into the database from the notebook in which I’d been recording my reading. (That original set of data has travelled with me through various export formats and is currently living in Airtable.) 

When an Egghead Software store opened in my town (dangerously, it was a mere four miles from my home), I was a frequent browser. Each piece of software on the shelves was like a passport to a new world of computing. Writing and productivity apps appealed to me most. I remember one application (we didn’t call them apps back then) named Sidekick promised a bunch of benefits, including a calculator, calendar and — most miraculously — the ability to copy some text in one program and paste it into another. 

Sidekick 2.0 was a revolutionary piece of software when it was released. (Image source: winworldpc.com)

I was given newer and faster machines at work. I remember when I first ran the 386 machine with 100 mb hard drive. The text on the monitor was orange, as if emulating the flames of its blazingly fast handling of the large DOS spreadsheets I was now working with in Quattro, from Borland, the same company that made Sidekick.

By the end of the 1980s, I had become the head of the marketing department at the company. We purchased a 486 machine for the department, on which we would run a new application called PageMaker. Created for the Macintosh, PageMaker had to run on DOS PCs in a shell called Windows. It was clumsy, but it was clear to see that so-called desktop publishing was going to completely change the way our art department worked. 

I left the company to move to Vermont, where I got a job in the marketing department at a college. We still had DOS machines and farmed out the layout of the catalogs and other literature to a local designer. I remember the designer used PageMaker, but was still a real neophyte. If there was a font spec change, she would manually apply it to every piece of text in that font throughout the whole document. I showed her how to use styles, and I think I was her hero for a while.

The epitome of the DOS era for me was the discovery of the outliner GrandView. To this day, I think GrandView is the best app I’ve ever used. You can read about it in this post I did several years ago. When Windows finally took a death hold on the PC world, GrandView became an antique. Much of my computing life in the 25 years since then, I think, has been a search for a GrandView replacement.

2 comments

    1. Just seeing those pictures brings back a thrill I used to get reading about those early gadgets, although you were clearly way more technically advanced than I was. I would have been too timid to try a PC before the IBM PC came out, I think.

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