That’s me in the green outfit, the youngest of a bunch of girls. The last generation to know the world “Before (home) Computers.”
We moved from Indiana over to Florida in 1979. My parents made a few local friends, and in 1982 they were invited to a small town parade. My father managed to buy one of the early RCA camcorder systems, where he recorded the following video of that parade:
In Kindergarten, I still had never seen a computer. Their existence was completely unknown to me. That was 1983. In 1st grade, I saw my first computer, at the school library. At the time, I had no idea these were “dumb terminals” connected to a larger computer. But using these terminals to find books by searching titles, somehow that came natural and intuitive to me even then. We learned all about card catalogs, but I rarely used them; I most often just went straight to the “computers” (terminals) to do searches.
At home, on the PBS TV station, was aired the show Reading Rainbow starting in 1983. Intermixed with that show was commercials about computers, specifically how “computers are coming your way.” Later in the evening, I would watch Computer Chronicles with my dad, which covered many topics about the evolving state of Personal computing. I do believe these shows influenced and inspired me to take notice, that computers were “the future.” But I was also inspired by my father, who used a humble 64KB computer to manage his self-owned pool service business (and some gaming on the side).
While I vaguely remember the famous Apple commercial of 1984, I do well-remember the movie Electric Dreams that was also from that year (the duel scene mesmerized me, along with use of the computer to help design earthquake-proof buildings during its dreaming). I recall classmates (who were in band) debating that digitized audio would never match the quality of “real instruments.” That real string and wind instruments created a more emotional and authentic sound that a machine could never replicate. Perhaps so, but we were still just at the very dawn of computing. Hand-drawn cartoons and symphonies were still then used to depict the potential of computers, which was very soon to become a reality.
NOTE: Other famous fantasy movies at this time were E.T. (1982), The Dark Crystal (1982), The Never Ending Story (1984), Explorers (1985), Legend (1986), Flight of the Navigator (1986).
BELOW: Scenes from the music video of The Dream by Culture Club, as played in the movie Electric Dreams.
January 1986 was marred heavily by the NASA Challenger disaster. It was cold, poor weather, indicators were there that they should not have launched that day. But pride compelled them go anyway. I remember witnessing this live on television, knowing right away that something was wrong mid-way thru the launch. But as tragic as such things are, we can’t dwell on and be eternally bitter about it. We do collectively learn from these moments, even if just to find the boundaries of acceptable risks. After all, just a few months earlier was the horrible Delta Flight 191 accident (especially tragic as it took out key original developers of the IBM PC from 1981). Ultimately, we move on, to honor those who no longer can.
So as a kid in 1986, in addition to trading Garbage Pail Kids, I compared notes on beating King’s Quest (Tandy version) with a classmate (the first 3D animated computer game). But on the side, I was reading RAINBOW magazine and entering BASIC examples into the TRS-80, learning the craft of programming. By 1987, I was using in-classroom computers to write BASIC programs (freehand, without consulting any books). At home, in the evenings, I connected to local Bulletin Board Systems (using contact numbers we had learned from the local ACCUG: Alachua County Computer Users Group, and a device called a MoDem: Modulator/Demodulator). Then in the summer of 1989, I had learned enough Turbo Pascal to compile and run my own BBS (with help from an older kid, that I had met from a multi-user local bulletin board called Dragon Keep).
Thus is my “origin story” of how I came to be involved with computers by the mid-1980s. Gaming was certainly a large appeal, but I never lost sight that these machines were just that: high speed calculating machines that did precisely as they were programmed.
- Playing King’s Quest 1 on Tandy 1000SX with my cousins. While the Tandy KQ1 was released in 1985, this photo is from probably summer of 1989. Although hard to see, the “Sierra” box is opened on the desk below the light. Later that year, my father upgraded to a 486DX50 PC-clone, which meant I got to inherit the Tandy 1000SX that is shown here. I also got my own phone line, and soon after began hosting my own Bulletin Board System: The Lost Cities.
- Gateway P90 system that my father bought from an artist person who “gave up on PCs” and had “Gone Mac.” When my father got this (around 1993), it meant I got to upgrade from the Tandy to his old 486DX50 system. This photo is from a few years later (1995) after I had inherited it from my father. I had found an old monochrome monitor and corresponding monochrome video card, thus (re)discovering the IBM PC “trick” that both a color and monochrome screen could be used at the same time (I wrote a TSR to use the monochrome monitor as my bedroom clock).
- The first computer I bought on my own was a Jetta laptop in 1996. It was $3500 then and I ended up cracking the screen. Jetta did fix it (I think around $800), and I ended up selling that laptop by the end of the year. It was a great laptop, I used it for the church newsletter, and demoing a self-made class scheduling program to a professor (as seen on the screen in the photo). I had used some of my student loan money to buy it, but eventually accepted that it was a bit more laptop then I could afford. (for some reason back then I always called them notebooks instead of laptops)
I had a horrible hard drive crash in early 1995 (on the ‘486 system), losing a lot of source code and all my BBS files with no backup and no recoverable data. It was a devastating moment, at the time, that likely altered my future path. In those days, hard drives weren’t nearly as reliable as they are today. One project in particular I was working on was a BBS “doors” version of the game Civilization. It was also “embarrassing” since in those days I had a bit of competitive rivalry with a few local fellow programmer’s my age. One of them had even tried to hack my BBS (with a clever use of ANSI macros), but that failed. Still, it was a case of “talking big” about a secret project, then never having anything to show for it (since it had all gotten destroyed). In my view, my reputation by my peers had been ruined – a lamer kid who couldn’t actually code. Well, one who neglected backups, that’s for sure.
With the Internet becoming more wide-spread by this point anyway, I wasn’t motivated to resume the BBS or resurrect any of my projects. But we certainly still used the modem for dial-up access the Internet. We used altavista.com to search for things (which is now Yahoo). The last time I used dial-up was probably in 2001, which by then DSL and cable modems were generally available.
This is the very first digital photo that I took (July 6th, 1998) on the road to my parents house. Using an Epson PhotoPC 550 camera at standard 320×240 pixel resolution. That road is still not paved to this day.
BELOW: Good friends and co-workers from my 2nd programming job. These show typical office computers from 1999. No one had cellular phones back then, but I carried my little Epson PC 550 everywhere.
Here (below) is how I looked at the turn of the century, 1999. My (now) brother-in-law and I had gone to a Job Fair in Atlanta, which was a five hour drive away (I borrowed my fathers truck to make the drive). So we were dressed our best and splurged on a nice dinner. We recalled about the Olympic bombing that happened in Atlanta in 1996.
While I did apply and was accepted to Raytheon, it turns out that particular business unit that I had applied to was shutdown and relocated (they didn’t tell us during the interviews that negotiations were being made right then). Instead of re-applying, I decided to continue on college for my Masters Degree (and be more hardware focused, so I chose Computer Engineering). I worked as a Teaching Assistant ($15/hr), did C/Java tutoring ($25/hr), and worked during the summer at my old programming job ($11/hr).
In 2001, I had a Robotics class. This was my introduction to programming a microcontroller. My maternal grandfather passed away in that semester, which I took a week off for that. During my travel for the funeral, my uncle helped welding together a sort of axle I needed for some gears, to actuate my stair-climbing robot (which was a blessing since I didn’t have the skill or equipment to do this myself, and it was key to my design). The system in the photo below was probably a 486DX100 PC-clone. This photo is also interesting since my first digital camera (Epson PhotoPC 550 from 1998) is on the table. When the course was finished, I moved that system back to my room.
I don’t recall much between 2002 and 2003 (in terms of computers that I used). In those years, I spent most of my time hot-rodding my Honda (an unwise way to spend the signing bonus of my new job, but I learned how to swap an engine and transmission). A good friend from Arlington, that I met at a local wrench shop, helped me in a garage nearly every weekend for about three months. While not the fastest machine, it did turn heads (basically a Civic turned into a turbo ITR, including 4-wheel disc, teeth-rattling suspension, and B-series engine). This required swapping out and reprogramming the fuel ratios of the ECU, so it became my hardware project on wheels.
Then in 2004-2006 was a “crunch time” at work, consistent 60 hour weeks. It wasn’t until about 2007, I had saved up a little money and discovered Fry’s Electronics. Since then, I’ve built many “IBM PC”-clones over the years. More than I can remember. It was in these years that 64-bit and multi-core became mainstream. I also got into “extreme” overclocking, which meant “lapping” the CPU. I was one of the first to push past 4GHz stable.
Lapping processors never really caught on (likely since it took about six hours of manual sanding), but it did decrease temperatures when done properly and on both contact surfaces. However, liquid cooling certainly did catch on.
My excuse for these machines was that my wife and I played a variety of MMOs, but ironically never Warcraft. The following are the ones I played the most (more than a few weeks):
- Ultima Online (1997)
- Wulfram2/ShockForce2 (2002) [up to 32 vs 32 arena]
- Guild Wars (2005)
- Call of Duty 2 / BF2142 (2005-2006) [ not an MMO per-se ]
- DDO (2006)
- Knight Online (2007-2012)
- Aion (2008, 2011)
- Age of Conan (2009)
- Archeage (2014, 2018)
- Guild Wars 2 (2013-2015)
- Tera (2017)
- Riders of Icarus (2019-2020)
- Black Desert (2020-2021)
Knight Online (KO) was the first MMO where I became a guild leader. The interesting thing there is the KO community was mostly Turkish-speaking players (even though the servers weren’t hosted in Turkey, so I don’t know the full story of how that community came about), so it was a lot of fun learning bits of a foreign language. But also we were the only English speaking guild within the Top Ten ranks. I ended up winning an event in the game, after a long six month gamble (I had collected all the Ultima Necklaces in the market, based in a rumor that there would be an event that would convert those into Iron Necklaces – the gamble paid off, resulting in enough in-game capital to deck out myself and many friends with top-gear). It was also around this time, 2006, that the concept of using real-money for virtual-items became much more popular and accepted (i.e. Premiums Scrolls or Buff Scrolls from the “cash shop” for extra in-game perks).
But, before MMOs, as seen in the photo below (from 2007), my wife loved to play Age of Empire 3. It was the first computer game she ever played, and she got quite good at it. She snapped a photo here at the end of one of our 2vs2 rounds during a day off. If you look closely in the photo, there are a few interesting things:
- (1) there are actually three computers, the one on the left is KVM switched to two CPUs,
- (2) the computer on the left is also using the same speakers I had back in 1999 – I kept those Altec Lansing speakers for nearly 10 years,
- (3) on the whiteboard on the left, I kept notes on both wired and wireless aspects of my network. Keeping track of the evolving home network was an on-going effort (I ran my own CAT5E cabling throughout the house, going through the attic and down the walls).
- (4) I splurged a lot for some nice solid wood desks (with a modular configuration), which were made locally and I still use them to this day.
NOTE: One reason I never got into online audio (or using voice chat) is from my old modem days. That stuff induced a lot of lag/latency in a game, so I just never bothered with a headset. But I think it also stems from my Boy Scout days of “always be prepared” and I like to be aware of the sounds going on around me (such as intruders downstairs or just any noise in the neighborhood). Lastly, I’m just always having conversations with my wife or people around me, so voice chat gets in the way of that.
For even further details, see About the Author PART 1