Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

Newly Digital

I don’t often join in group blogging things, but this one seemed like a good one. Chris has done it already, along with several other popular techy bloggers.

The idea is from Adam Kalsey – it’s a group thing via Trackback that encourages participants to write about the early computer experiences. So, here goes…

The first computer in our household arrived in 1986. At the time, it was rare for a family to have their own computer, but my mum was fed up with using an electric typewriter and wanted some way of saving her work and the ability to print multiple copies.

Photo of an Amstrad PCW 8256The computer we got was an Amstrad PCW 8256. This was a computer specially designed for word processing as the primary function, using Locomotive Software’s LocoScript package, but through the CP/M operating system you could do other things. It even had Mallard BASIC which gave you a runtime environment for programs written in the BASIC language.

As you can imagine, the computer itself was pretty, well, basic. It didn’t have a hard drive, only came with 256k of RAM, used long-obsolete 3″ disks and the printer was a very slow Dot Matrix (a page took 2 to 3 minutes to print in poor quality black and white). The monitor was monochrome, but you could argue that it was a precursor to the original iMac, since the disk drive and CPU where inside it.

This machine battled on for 9 years, in which time the RAM was upgraded to a whole 1MB and a Canon BJ-10sx bubblejet printer was added – said printer is still working fine today, amazingly enough. We also upgraded to LocoScript 3, which introduced scalable fonts – until now there was only one font size that you could use. I was also given various games to play on it, and we acquired a basic DTP program and spreadsheet utility.

It was put to one side in January 1995 when we decided that we needed a ‘real’ PC. We’d gone for the PCW because, at the time, PCs weren’t the most straightforward things to use – this was before Windows, remember – and the PCW was much simpler. This PC was bought from Escom, a computer manufacturer that grew rapidly during 1995 before going spectacularly bankrupt the following year.

The PC, named ‘Jane’, was a Intel 486DX2 running at 66Mhz, with 4MB of RAM, a 408MB hard disk, 1MB ISA VESA graphics card (capable of 256 colours) and the Canon printer from the PCW. The monitor was 14″, and after going through two cheap mice in 6 months we pushed the boat out and bought a Logitech Pilot Mouse. Software came in the form of DOS6.22, Windows 3.11 and MS Works 3.0. It worked well for the first year, but by Christmas we decided we needed to go multimedia. A double speed CD-ROM drive was added, the 4MB SIMM was replaced by an 8MB one and a 16-bit Aztech Sound Galaxy Pro sound card was installed. This allowed us to install and use the Encarta 96 encyclopaedia.

As time went on, the need to upgrade to Windows 95 became greater and greater, but it didn’t actually happen until 1997. It would have come earlier, but a bug in the installer meant that it would fail if the BIOS questioned its ability to write to the boot partition (it was to prevent boot sector viruses). Had we known this, it would have been installed sooner, but hey, we got there in the end.

95 was certainly the most reliable OS we had on that machine – 3.11 had been reinstalled around 5 times in the 2 1/2 years we had it, especially after we upgraded to 16MB of RAM. But with only 408MB of disk space available, it was a squeeze fitting Windows 95 and everything else on there, and this was before I got in to MP3 music.

By 1999, the computer just wasn’t fast enough to run most programs, so we felt it was necessary to get a new computer. Tesco, the local supermarket, had started to get in cheap computers from manufacturers – end of lines or returns, probably. Anyway, we got ourselves an AMD K6-2 400Mhz beast, with a 10GB HD, 64MB of RAM, 8MB ATi Xpert 98 AGP graphics card, Aztech A3D-338 PCI sound card, internal 56k V.90 modem and a 32 speed CD-ROM drive. The monitor was now a 17″, and we still kept the Canon printer, although after we bought a flatbed scanner we decided it was best to get something that could print colour – cue the Epson Stylus Color 660. During its life its RAM was upgraded to 128MB, it has a 12x10x32 CD rewriter added, and the modem was replaced with a 10/100 ethernet card for use with broadband internet. A new monitor was bought when the old one seized up. My parents still use this machine now.

As for software, it came with Windows 98, but now runs XP, and originally had MS Works 4.5 and Word 97, but now has the full Office 97. I still use it for writing CDs when I’m at home, but now that I have my own computer I tend to use that instead.

Note: The picture of the Amstrad PCW 8256 shown is not the one that we owned – the image is taken from A Brief History of Computing, found via Google Image Search.

3 Comments

  1. Newly Digital

    An essay about my early digital experiences. Warning: dripping with personal nostalgia.

  2. Newly Digital

    When people ask you about your first computer, what do they mean? I mean, do they mean the first one you ever used, the first one you assembled, the first one you monopolized, or the first one you purchased?

  3. What are your early computer experiences?

    I might as well jump on the bandwagon. Adam Kalsey started what he calls “A distributed anthology of early computing experience.” He calls it Newly Digital.