My introduction to computers started in the mid '60s. But nobody in those days ever thought of having your own computer. Mainframes filled entire floors of buildings.
When I joined IBM, I was lucky to have "hands on" time on the latest and largest computers. My job in new systems development both required extensive computer use (mostly for circuit and design simulations) and gave me lots of free time on those computers for my own experimentation. Because I had all this available, I didn't need anything at home, and I didn't participate in the very early years of minicomputers (the early '70s).
But by 1977 or so, the urge had grown. Home or personal computers such as the Apple II, the Commodore PET, and the Radio Shack TRS-80 were becoming available. We lived in Kingston NY, which was (except for IBM) in the backwoods of technology in those days. But we did have a local Radio Shack store with an excellent and forward-thinking manager. It didn't take him long to talk me into buying a TRS-80 Model 1. $400 doesn't seem like much in these days, but it was a fair amount of cash back then, especially for a young man with a family.
What you got was the keyboard (which contained the processor and RAM), a TV-like monitor, and a cassette recorder for loading and storing programs. The processor had only 4KB (kilobytes) of RAM, and only used the BASIC programming language. Assembler language (a lower level language giving you lots more control of the system) was not available; this upset me because I was a competent Assembler programmer at that time.
My first modification was to add memory to 16KB. The Radio Shack price for the upgrade kit was very high, and soon kits from other vendors started to appear on the market. I bough one, and invited a bunch of my IBM friends over to have a formal ceremony to open the case (voiding the warranty unfortunately) and installing the new memory. Being used to room-sized mainframes, it was amazing to see the small (Z80) microprocessor on the circuit board. The installation went well, and I was soon enjoying the additional memory. Since the program had to be loaded from tape into memory, this enabled me to write much larger programs. I wrote lots of stuff just for the fun of it, much of it educational stuff for my kids.
There was no printer port, so I built a circuit using one of the cassette control lines to interface to an old Army surplus teletypewriter. That was my first printer, and it was so noisy that I had to run in the garage!
Radio Shack later upgraded the BASIC to Level 2, which had a lot more functionality. I eventually added the external box that added RAM up to 48KB and a serial port that could be used for a modem. My first modem was only 300 baud, and I used it to log into the early bulletin board systems of the day.
Assembler language was eventually added, allowing me to write some nifty system utilities, including a tape duplication program.
But the primary need for the external box was to add a floppy disk driver interface (the drive itself was sold separately). These early drives used 5.25" floppy disks that stored only 90KB each. I eventually added a second floppy disk drive, this one not from Radio Shack and supporting 360KB by adding more tracks and using both sides of the diskette.
(Side note: I recently saw the movie "Simone", starring Al Pacino. Although being about computers and creating artificial actors in movies, there were a lot of computer inaccuracies. But the movie showed data being written to a 5.25" floppy disk! I have no idea where they even FOUND one of those outside of a museum and why they used it. They haven't been around for 20 years. I can't seem them making such a mistake, and wonder if there was some reason for it that I can't fathom.)
One purchase that I agonized over was a speech synthesizer. This was (another) external box that allowed you the computer to speak! I was fairly rudimentary by today's standards, but it allowed me to write programs that the kids could use, even though they couldn't read yet.
So, within a few short years, I went from 4KB ROM, 4KB RAM and a cassette drive, to 16KB ROM, 48KB RAM, a 360KB floppy drive, a modem, and speech synthesizer, and a real dot matrix printer (the early Epson MX-80 for those who remember). But, creeping up was 1981 and the introduction of the IBM Personal Computer. More on that later.
(Bob Seidel is a local computer consultant in the Southport / Oak Island area. You can visit his website at www.bobseidel.com or e-mail him at email@example.com).