Twenty years of computers

Introduction

It's New Years Eve and we are soon to welcome in 2004. I can confidently predict that next year's computers will be faster, the hard disks bigger and the price of monitors will drop. How can I say this? Well, 2003 marked my twentieth year of owning a computer. In that time I have witnessed many changes, not as a detached "expert commentator", but as someone who has grown up with the technology.

I am writing this piece on a computer at least two thousand and six hundred times as fast in clock speed as my original PC. It's graphics, sounds and storage capacities similarly outclass that first computer. Some complain that the complexity of modern computers makes them less fun to tinker with, that it is difficult to gain a complete knowledge and understanding of their inner workings. While I confess that such thoughts sometimes cross my mind, I am also continually astonished by how much we can do today that we only dreamed about a few years ago.

I'm not going to write an accurate history of the personal computer. What follows is a reminisence of the machines I experienced using over the past 20 years. Hopefully, in remembering the past we can gain an appreciation of what we have today.

The beginnings

My first memory of computers was from 1981 when my grade two teacher gave my Dad and I complimentory tickets to a computer show at Melbourne's Royal Exhibition Building. Under the dome lay stalls displaying mainframe names such as Prime and Wang. I remember few details now, except for the postcard size advertisement of Big Bird wearing Crosby sneakers that was printed out in glossy colour at one of the stands. That, and the frankfurts and lime-flavoured softdrink that I had at the pub after the event.

Dad's electronic repair business gave us the chance to play customers' Pong consoles (not really computers) and handheld LED lit Space Invaders type games. In my child's mind, computers were associated with games.

That changed when my family purchased its first computer from Radio Parts in 1983. The Multitech Micro Professor 2 was sold to us as an Apple II compatible machine, although it was barely that. The system consisted of a small notebook sized CPU unit with a equally small built in keyboard and 64 kilobytes of RAM inside, a rubber-keyed external keyboard, plus an external powerpack. The tape based software was loaded by plugging in an ordinary tape player. Alternatively, programs could be typed in through the standard BASIC command line interface.

Over the next few months we bought a joystick (the pivot turned to dust after much use), a thermal printer (good only for program listings) and games. The tape based games were clones of popular titles, though they sported different names. There was a Galaxian clone, a top down racing car game, parachutes and a maze game called Cockroach which sported a horrible synthesised voice saying "We got you!". My favourite (ie the one I beat my brothers at) was a ballistics game called bomber involving an antiaircraft gun.

The MPF-2 was my first introduction to BASIC programming. I was 9 years old. We bought a book on basic games programming and typed in a few of the listings. The programs contained variations for computers such as the Vic 20, Spectrum and Apple II. The text games worked fine, but the pokes and peeks were too different for games involving graphics. The BASIC commands available on the MPF-2 were listed in the thick manual that came with the purchase.

The system was too primitive for wordprocessing software (it only printed capitals without special codes) and was more useful to us for experimentation and play than real work. Still, Dad did write programs to test my spelling and knowledge of multiplication. Since then, I have never had trouble spelling thoroughly and went on to get a masters in mathematics! Interestingly, Multitech later changed its name to become Acer, one of the biggest computer hardware manufacturers in the world.