My Computing Years






Take away Charles Babbage, and my life has coincided pretty much with the development and growth of the digital computer.  During the Second World War, though I was a babe in arms at the time, the earliest devices were being developed, as we now know, to crack the German Enigma cipher machine. 


By the ’60s, whatever the early input of British scientists, the industry had come of age in the States, with IBM beginning to establish dominance of the world market for commercially, as opposed to scientifically, useful machines.  I remember at that time being shown the IBM 1400 series, the main data processing engine of the time, boasting a full 48 kb (yes, that’s ‘kb’ not ‘Mb’) of addressable memory, programmable in assembly language.  The all conquering 360 series followed, programmable principally in Fortran, or in PL-1, IBM’s similar all-purpose language.


As far as I recall, most computing remained a corporate activity in the early ’70s, though the first pocket calculators, some with a limited programmable capability, began to appear on the market.  I remember buying a Sinclair Cambridge, a basic four function model with a battery life of only a few hours (no LCDs there), more out of curiosity than that I had any serious use for it.


But by the end of that decade, the revolution was under way, and the pace has not stopped increasing since – where will it all end?  When we watched Captain Kirk contacting Mr Spock on his ‘communicator’, did we envisage that within a generation we would all have them?


We got our first home computer in 1984, by no means in the first wave of those who did.  But, until then, the home computer market in the UK really offered little at an affordable price except games-oriented machines, typically with 16 kb memories or less, Atari, Amiga, Dragon, Spectrum etc, which you plugged into the television.  Whereas we were well aware that in the offices of the world (and already in the homes of some Americans), Apple, and, to a lesser extent, Commodore (with the PET), were establishing a de facto standard of 64 kb RAM, monitor and floppy disk drive and a ‘standard’ operating system.  Trouble is, that little bundle cost well over £3,000 in the UK.

Then Amstrad, which had made its name offering high-spec audio at low prices, brought out the CPC-464:  64 kb RAM and dedicated monitor for less than £250.  It was a breakthrough.  True, the built-in cassette deck was a bit of a joke, but it got us started, and we soon added a floppy disk drive.  Teresa, in particular, explored the gaming and word-processing capability, and was well and truly hooked.






There was a marvellous game called ‘Bouncer’, free on the cover of a magazine, which involved crashing an oscillating bobbin into fixed obstructions until they were all gone.  The first time we played we thought the high score would be for the most obstructions knocked down.  Only later did we realise that you were expected to knock them all down.  We battled hard for supremacy, getting our scores down to 20 seconds, then 15.  I started to post scores of around 10 seconds regularly and was looking good until one day Teresa sat down and finished in just over 7.  Unbeatable (and unrepeatable).  We hardly played again.










Meanwhile, Helen enjoyed ‘Torpedo’ (shooting up battleships), from the same stable, while we all got a curious and morbid satisfaction from ‘Parachute’, where you had to land a parachutist on the correct landing zone.  If you missed, a poignant ‘splat’ issued from the tiny speaker.


  I also had a chess game which spoke its moves in a malevolent Dalek-like monotone – ‘M-y-y-y mo-o-ove is … I wi-i-in’ – alas all too often.


Of course, long before we tired of the Amstrad, or indeed were able to contemplate changing it, the PC had arrived.  Do youngsters today realise that this was IBM’s belated attempt to catch up with, and capture, that market?  But, in their haste, they contracted out the operating system to a little-known company called Microsoft.  The rest is, as they say, history.

We bought our first PC in 1994, one of the last of the 386’s, with one Mb of memory; it came at a keen price and, fortuitously, in a large box.  It’s still doing yeoman service, having been upgraded many times since then (that’s why the large box proved so useful).  We have added extra memory, a CD drive, and an internal modem – all of which we installed ourselves despite our lack of technical knowledge – before finally getting the motherboard and hard disk replaced professionally.  Earlier this year, a second machine joined the family.  It’s already outdated.









When we changed our car this year, the new one, give or take a few electronic gimmicks, could do no more than the old one, ten years older.  When will we reach such a plateau for computers?  And how shall we keep up until then?  When we get there, will there be a nostalgic interest in ‘vintage’ computers?






I got the Amstrad out of its boxes last year and switched on.  ‘Ready’, it said, as it always used to do, but unfortunately the disk drive failed to spring into life.  Off it went to the corporation dump.





Written in 2000.




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Amended 1 March 2001