chris80502 – The Early Computer Years

This is a brief overview of my early years with computers.  I’ve been interested in computers as long as I can remember.  My first computer related memories are playing with the Logo program on Apple IIe machines when I was in first grade (I think 1st).  But it wasn’t until I turned 10 that I really first started learning about computers.  In 1990 my family moved to a different city where they had a much newer computer network comprised of IBM PS2 series machines.  One of those days, early after moving, I was talking to the network system admin and I believe I wanted to copy a disk.  He was kind enough to write down the DOS (v3.3 I believe) commands on a piece of blue ruled yellow paper, copy a>*.*, or something to that effect.  The more I think about it, the more I feel like that must have been some defining moment in my life’s development, almost as if the door had been opened or something.  I can remember that moment in time very vividly, in such clear detail- the admin, the paper, the look of his printing on the paper, the room, our position in the room, the 286 PS/2s in rows around the room.  Okay, anyway… that was the very beginning.

In 1993 my dad purchased a 486 Packard Bell 33MHz, 4MB RAM (IIRC).  I learned a little about Windows and DOS on that machine, however I never messed with things too much because I was nervous I would break things- and at that time I think he had paid about $1850 for the complete setup.  He used it for word processing and spread sheets, and we did go online as early as 1994 (I still have paint brush files that my siblings and I created).  My father is not technical so he also didn’t want me messing with things.  However, I was able to play with the school network a little throughout middle school.

I acquired my own computer in 1995.  It was a Compudyne 386sx 25MHz laptop with 4MB RAM, 80MB HDD 64 color monochrome screen, integrated trackball, and a dead battery.  It cost $684 and my dad bought it for me as an advance Christmas/birthday gift.  I started programming that year.  My high school offered a few qbasic programming classes so I joined and then proceeded to purchase the book Learned qBasic in 21 Days.  Within those 3 weeks I had learned far more than even the teacher knew about the language (what did she know anyway?  She was a math teacher, ugh…).  It was at that point that I became a nuisance to the school faculty.  While I wanted to learn more about computers I was far beyond everyone else in my classes – including the teachers.  So I ended up spending lots of time helping others.  Of course, that got old fast, I am a terrible teacher unfortunately.  Soon I was off to discover how the schools network worked and how I could get to DOS (or whatever the system at the time).  Though never on purpose, I did crash the entire network on at least one occasion.  Each year our high school attempted to rework their network software infrastructure.  After my first year there I guess they decided the network had too many holes, and indeed it did.  You could get to DOS from Microsoft Works somehow, lol!  Our network admin always suspected that I was to blame for some of the problems, however he could never prove that it was me, and quite probably, it wasn’t.  The big problem then was you could use a custom boot disk to circumvent the system startup and deliver you right to DOS.  From there you could do a ton of stuff, plus there were many other ways into DOS- and I was by no means the only person who knew these things.

At the end of my freshman year the admin told me they were going to upgrade the system to a new software that we wouldn’t be able to hack through.  He even offered to let me have a go at the system before the school year started.  Well, the software was installed but they never let me try to get into things.  As you might imagine this kind of made me upset, and I then made it my passion to find every hole in the system.  As an interesting aside, at the beginning of the year, there were new users for every student from the previous year, all without passwords.  So we (my friends and I) added passwords to every student we could think of that left school that last year, to gain extra accounts to use while we attempted to get into the system.  Once again, the admin had no way to track us.  Within the first quarter of the school year we had identified a numerous holes in the new system.   So many in fact that I wrote a small book and left a copy in the library computer lab where I was sure it would be found by an appropriate person.  I guess I just felt super burned by the whole situation.  Certainly, I never did anything to damage things, and by presenting the book, I was only doing what I had originally offered.

During the beginning of my junior year, I acquired my next computer.  To be clear, I did have a few other machines previously, but nothing I considered a real computer, lol.  An old science teacher had given me an old Apple IIe compatible (probably a Franklin).  I played some games on that one, but promptly ended up taking it apart and destroying it – I’ve never had much respect for Apple, then or now.  I also had an old IBM 8088 machine that was gutted and we used an oxy-acetalene torch to remove all the sockets from the motherboard.  I can’t for the life of me recall why we did these things.  Anyway, this new computer was the first I built myself.  I was so worried that I would damage the CPU and RAM that I purchased those parts with the motherboard and had them installed by the seller.  It seems funny to me now, you could can be entirely careless with those early socket 7 CPUs, bend a few pins, no worries, bend them right back.  Nothing like how easily motherboards of today can get a damaged pin, and they can be hard if not impossible to fix.  For this first build I spent some pretty big money for a 16 year old, about $3462!  I was lucky my father was willing to loan me this much via his credit card.  All of these purchases were through companies who advertised in Computer Shopper.  That was my favorite magazine of the 1990s.  I used to carry that huge book around all over, when I found an item I liked, I wrote the page number on the cover.  Back in the 90s it seemed like every part was about $200.  Need a sound card, okay $200, how about a video card – sure $200, RAM upgrade – no problem – $200.  Here is a quick list of the system specifications:

Intel Pentium 150MHz (was supposed to be a Pentium Pro 150MHz…)
3GB Quantum Fireball HDD
Diamond Stealth64 2001 Video Card with 4MB Video Memory & TV Tuner
Sound Blaster AWE32
Cadet AM/FM Radio Tuner Card
Iomega 100MB Zip Drive
6 Disc CD-ROM Changer

For the time, this was an impressive machine.  Kids I went to school with questioned the need for 32MB of RAM, which was certainly a valid point for me in particular, because I really didn’t use the machine to its full potential.  The TV tuner card was awesome, and the radio card was a neat novelty as well.  I also had an ISA fan card installed that was pretty unnecessary.

During those years I was sure of what I wanted to do in life.  Be a programmer.  It was something I thought was fun, and it was something I knew could make a good living.  By my junior year in high school I had moved on to the final programming class our school offered, which switched to the Pascal language.  For some reason I didn’t go after learning Pascal as I did qbasic.  I think I felt it was a bit archaic.  I probably also felt that it wasn’t worth learning another language that I wouldn’t use in a professional career.  Unfortunately, the teacher of the class and I did not get along.  This jerk-off was my math teacher too.  I have never been good at math, and this guy wasn’t a good teacher.  At the time I suppose I was a bit of smart mouth as well, which generally doesn’t bode well for most students.  Due to a combination of the aforementioned issues I did not do well in his class.  I also found myself wasting too much time playing around with things I shouldn’t have been, and not doing work.  I suppose that at the time, network computer time was a premium that you could only have access to so much of per day.  My plan at the time was to get into the advanced placement college courses for computer programming at a local technical school for my senior year in high school.  But as one might expect, that same teacher had to sign off on that, which he was not willing to do.  I was furious, I left the computer lab and about half way down the hall I punched a locker.  I had to trot down the hall quickly as I heard a different teacher came running out to see what caused such a commotion.  All this culminated in my first “walk away” from computers.