Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

The PC Is 30

September 2011

By Mike Gould

Wired.com published a nice retrospective article on August 12, 2011, all about the 30th birthday of the IBM PC, the Beige Box That Started It All (URL below). This caused my mind to drift back to what I was doing during that era, which invoked a memory binge so big I had to sit down and write this, just so you whipper-snappers out there (I’m talking to you, gens X, Y, and Z) can get a feel for what we geezers had to go through to get our biz done in those dim, dark, pre-icon days.

Waxing Nostalgic
Well, maybe not nostalgic, as that implies “the good ole’ days”, which these were emphatically not, in terms of our relationships with our keyboards. Waxing historic, yeah, that’s the ticket.

In ’81 I was a shipping /receiving clerk for a store on Washtenaw Road (whose name eludes me) that sold Radio Shack TRS-80 computers, my first brush with the dingus digital. I had a brief spell of learning how to shuffle floppies (5.25” disks with 360K worth of data/apps on them) back and forth, and how to print out shipping data.

Then I got laid off (the store went under) and went to work in a pro audio store, again doing shipping/receiving and various audio wiring jobs. My duties were: warehouse manager/shipper/schlepper/mixer-fixer/rack-stacker/snake-maker/truck driver and floor sweeper. The store also sold the Star mini computer, but I wasn’t involved with that. As I recall, the store manager had an Apple IIc he used for billing and such.

I got laid off from that job (and the store went under) and wound up in my first real computer gig, that of repairman for the Inacomp Computer store on Plymouth Road. At the time I could barely turn a computer on, but I convinced the manager that my electronics skills qualified me for the job. I got hands-on training on the IBM PC family, and the early clones by Compaq, Acer, and others I don’t recall. Oh, and I worked on Apple ][‘s and the first Macs, which was a total game changer for me.

The Personal Computer
Yup, that’s what PC stands for. This was to differentiate the genre from the mainframes and mini computers that were starting to fade out as PCs took over in the early eighties. Yes, the Macintosh is a Personal Computer, but it took a separate path from the IBM-dominant DOS and Windows-based systems that have ruled the enterprise since those days.

The typical PC from that era had a monochrome (often green text on black) monitor, two floppy drives, and various connections out the back for printers, modems, and other peripherals. Inside was a whopping 16K of RAM, expandable to 640K through the use of additional memory cards. Remember: 16K is 16 KiloBytes of memory. A KiloByte is 1/1000 th of a GigaByte, which is 1/1000th of a TeraByte. So these puppies had less memory than your wristwatch now has.

Ah, Memory
But apps were small in those days, and you didn’t need a lot to run a vintage word processing system like WordStar or a spreadsheet like Lotus 1-2-3. If you needed more RAM (because you were working with larger files, for instance), you would buy a card and bring it to my shop, where we would laboriously load it with individual memory chips. We had long plastic tubes of 16-pin dual inline package (DIP) RAM, and would have to insert these one by one to bring the card up to its memory limit. And woe betide you if you bent one of the pins and the card didn’t work. IBM had diagnostic software for this that would help you pin-point (so to speak) the bad chip, at which point you would power down the PC, yank the card out, and find the chip with the bad pin or whatever and replace it.

A lot of my job was pulling cards out of the slots in the early PCs. This usually involved grabbing the card at the top and easing it out of its housing. The problem was that the cards had chips and whatnot soldered to them, and the ends of the chip pins were very sharp. So when you grabbed the card, you usually ended up shredding your fingertips. My hands looked like hamburger until we found a mechanical card-grabber that used a lever mechanism to remove the cards.

The Matrix Printer Revolutions
Printers were large, noisy things that were full of moving parts that jammed and broke continuously. Popular flavors were dot matrix printers (a very noisy printhead banged the letters onto paper via a typewriter-like ribbon), daisy wheel printers (a slightly less-noisy wheel spins around, sort of like an IBM Selectric typewriter) and thermal printers, which required special paper.

These dinosaurs were heavy, the winner being the early Apple LaserWriters that weighed in at around 50lbs. Introduced in 1985, these were the expensive (around $7000) and revolutionary printers that, along with Aldous Pagemaker software, started the desktop publishing revolution.

And these were a bitch to work on. First you had to get it out of the customer’s car without hurting yourself, then you had to figure out what part was broken, order the part, and install it without any screws left over. And there were a lot of screws, and they had very specific places they needed to go.

The early Macs were also a challenge to service. You had to remove five concealed screws, and pry the case open with a special tool. Then you had to discharge the CRT monitor so you wouldn’t zap yourself with stored electrical mojo (which I did at least once – not fun). At least the RAM was the familiar stick format we use today, and I spent a lot of time upgrading Mac Pluses to their max of 4M.

So be grateful for the learning steps others had to take so that you can now enjoy the iPad on your lap. Putting an early PC on your lap would have crippled you.

IBM PC Turns 30: http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2011/08/gallery-ibm-5150turns-30/

Mike Gould was a mouse wrangler for the U of M for 20 years, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Training/Digital Photography mega-mall, builds lasers into lunchboxen, performs with the Illuminatus 2.2 Lightshow, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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