November 2, 2006
I read Robert X Cringley's book Accidental Empires shortly after it was published in 1992. It's a gripping worm's eye view of Silicon Valley's formative years. It's also Doc Searls' favorite book about the computer industry. Highly recommended.
I didn't realize that the book was later expanded and made into a three-hour PBS documentary in 1995, Triumph of the Nerds. I rented the movie on Netflix and it's a fantastic companion to the book. The time capsule interviews alone make it worth watching: Steve Jobs, Steve Ballmer, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, and many other key luminaries.
Watching the documentary brought on waves of nostalgia. I've always felt like the home computer and I grew up together. I was born in 1970. In 1971, Bill Gates and Paul Allen formed Traf-O-Data, and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started selling blue boxes in southern California. In 1975, the first "personal" computer, the Altair 8800, was introduced.
It's difficult to get excited about a machine with no display and a row of dip-switches for input. Only two years later, in 1977, the first modern personal computer was introduced: the Apple II.
The Altair is barely recognizable as a personal computer, even though it is technically the first one. And yet the Apple II, a mere two years later, is the archetypal personal computer. Every modern home computer released after 1977 followed the template that Apple established for the industry: molded plastic case, expansion slots, CRT display, integrated keyboard, and floppy disk drive. Apple, along with the first killer app for the personal computer, VisiCalc, dominated the home computer industry until 1981. That's when the IBM PC hit the market-- and the clones followed.
Although I had access to Apple II computers in middle school, we couldn't afford an Apple until 1984, when we brought home the Apple //c. I never quite made the transition to the Macintosh, which was even more expensive. Still, many of my formative programming experiences were in AppleBASIC.
Have personal computers grown up since the early seventies? Sure. They've been around for more than 30 years now. But reading Accidental Empires and watching Triumph of the Nerds, I realized that computers still have a long way to go before they're fully grown up. And so do I.
Posted by Jeff Atwood
My first computer was an acorn electron then an Acorn BBC, but back then my dad was a programmer for British Telecom. I remember sitting next to him while he ran through vast programs written in Basic and talked me through how they worked. I also have fond memories of typing in lines of basic code from the back of the computer magazines and messing with the school programs to change the graphics and colors. Ah, the innocence.
Being a web developer now and having delved into desktop applications in my younger years I have to say that in the past my experiences of these early computers however long ago have helped me solve problems that newer younger programmers have scratched their heads over for hours. hee hee!
I also have fond memories of typing in lines of basic code from the back of the computer magazines and messing with the school programs to change the graphics and colors. Ah, the innocence.
oh yes-- Creative Computing!
Another born in 1970 here, my first computer was the Vic20, I was so excited the first time I made the bird fly across the screen. I couldn't afford the tape drive though, so I had to leave mine on for days at a time, when it turned off, so did all the work. I remember being so excited when I bought a used PC/XT in 1987, it actually had a 10 meg hard drive included, and DUAL floppies baby....
Oh well, I guess I need to grow up some too.
Ah--I don't even know the brand of my first computer. It was some big behemoth keyboard with a built-in tape drive and two joysticks (and each also had a numeric keypad)--just a plastic suitcase with keys that plugged into a TV--but it came with a BASIC tutorial cassette, and that's how I got started programming.
I moved from there to the beloved Commodore 64. I still miss it even to this day--it had some great games for the times (M.U.L.E., Red Storm Rising, the summer and winter olympics games that were hell on joysticks, etc.).
Anyway, I've been owning and programming PCs for over 20 years now. This past weekend, however, I went and bought a MacBook--my first Mac. I figure it's time to try the other guy out for a while--and since it can run Windows and Windows apps, it may just be the best of both worlds.
Ah, yes, 1970 was a fine year indeed ;)
My first home computer was ZX Spectrum (from Clive Sinclair, great engineer but not so great businessman) - it's the same generation as Commodore 64 for example. I used to swear by Z80 assembler but later on I had the chance and used 65xx series processors too (C64 had 6510 if memory servers well, a variant of 6502).
Great days, we were young and still enthusiastic :)
Dar, accoding to your description both yours and my first computer was the ADAM. Did you have a Buck Rogers game on it?
I also liked Bob's book and the miniseries. He followed it up with another right before the dot com bubble burst and now writes a regular column and hosts an interview show for PBS. Check it out at http://www.pbs.org/cringely/pulpit/ I actually have his Google widget right next to my Coding Horror widget.
I got to play with an IBM mainframe as a kid (OK, OK I got to sequence punch cards for my aunt) and my friends and I shared a Vic20, TX Sinclair, Apple II and an Osborne suitcase "portable" but my first "mine" computer was a IBM PC. Looking back on it I think maybe I was being punished. Oh well.
I haven't read Accidental Empires, but I did see Triumph of the Nerds (all 3 parts).
It was interesting. It's definitely not as silly as the dramatization of the same period (Pirates of Silicon Valley).
We had an Altair at my high school; I remember nothing about it beyond the front panel and the OS name: CHAOS, for Clairemont High Altair Operating System. If it weren't such a good acronym, I probably wouldn't remember it at all.
interesting. I was moved to watch "Battlestar Galactica" because Elliotte Rusty said it was a Great Show. not so much. but one thing led to another, so wikipedia it was, to find out what the hell I had just watched. well. in one of the pieces, is a PR still from the original. and there in plain sight was a Tektronix 4051, the very machine I used. my boss, a statistician, had been able to get it because it was on the GSA schedule as a calculator.
I've never been able to keep straight whether it pre-dated the Apple.
Cringley's book is one a series that should be required reading for anyone interested in the history of the computer and PC industry. Steven Levy's "Hackers" goes way, way back to the Tech Model Railroad Club at MIT and its transformation into the beginnings of hacker culture on early minicomputers. (Levy has little to say about Gates other than to note -- not approvingly -- that he essentially brought the business mentality to what was a community that looked a lot like Open Source.)
Levy also wrote a compelling history of the Mac titled "Insanely Great." It is left to the reader to determine whether this refers to the machine or its high priest, and on which word in the title should get the emphasis. :-)
The funny thing is that I remember the good old days of our IBM XT. I was born in '82 so many of these things happened before I was born. That does not however stop me from appreciating the old systems.
I still have an Atari 2600 and an 800XL. Those were fun systems...
I started out with computers when my father got an Atari ST. Later on we got an Amiga 500 which is - in my eyes - still the greatest (gaming-)computer ever.
Sometime during my first Amiga 500 years someone gave an ZX Spectrum to me and I spent weeks copying lines of code from some book. When I finally finished with a program and hit the magical "RUN" button, all I received were some interpreter errors which I didn't really understand at that time.
Also, because I couldn't find a cassette-recorder old enough to attach to the Sinclair and had to start all over again after turning it off I usually spent 2-3 weeks typing, one day being totally mad and 2-3 months to recover and build up enough hope that I wouldn't make any mistakes the next time....
Also I fondly remember the times of tuning the autoexec.bat and config.sys to free up as much of the 640k memory as possible and still having sound and mouse support to get some games in dos running.
Would be Apple_soft_ Basic (actually a Microsoft product)or Integer Basic (a woz product)?
Personally, I went from ITT 2020 ( a ][ clone ) through some homemade //e clones to a real //c, quickly followed by a Macintosh Plus, then an SE. Got some side action on a couple of PC's for school with a Pentium 133 (big step up speed wise from an SE) then back to a whole bunch of other Macs and i still use my PowerMac G4 Cube 450 for pretty much everything at home. At work i use a pretty fast Dell rig, but i cannot get used to the crappy keyboards PC's seem to come with these days so i'm using my trusty old Apple Pro keyboard, the black one that came with the Cube. Now looking forward to transition myself to intel on a MacBook Pro, I'll be running Vista probably at least half the time on there, but i'll allways be a Mac guy.
P.S. Am i weird for still owning around 30 of the computers that i once fell in love with?
It's so good to read that there were other Atari ST owners out there. I'm a slightly later vintage, 1973.
I recently threw away my old copies of STart magazine. Thumbing through the old copies was interesting.
I loved that machine and programmed many late nights until I moved on to the PC world.
My computers :
* ZX-81 : 1K is not enough :)
* Commodore 64 : what a great invention. the ultimate classic
* Commodore 128 : when I figured out all the good stuff required you to run in C-64 mode, it was already too late.
* Atari ST ( 1MB ) : the next Commodore 64
* Amiga 500 : sheer magic this machine
* 486 DX : aaaah, a hard disk, finally
* Pentium 60 MHz : this was the machine that I finished Doom I on, need I say more?
* Pentium 233 MMX
* Pentium II 400 MHz
* Athlon 2400+
* Athlon 3200+
The Amiga was most amazing. Main CPU and some helper chips for graphics, synthesis, and text rendering I believe. A multi-tasking OS.
They produced a model that had a plug-in board with an Intel 286 on it so you could run DOS stuff, but I never got to try that out.
My first computer was the little Vic-20 and a wierd little game involving money, serfs, soldiers, and taxes. I was ecstatic when I could get a C-64 and spend hours typing in code from the magazines. I stayed with the next computer, an Apple IIE for a few years after that. Great apps to use and more than a few great games.
About the time a lot of posters here were born(early 70s), I was in high school and we were able to get an hour or two of time from the mainframe at M.I.T. Heady times.
By the way, I added the Triumph of the Nerds to the top of my Netflix queue, much to the dismay of my darling wife. Mwuahahahaha.
"Accidental Empires" is terrific. I received a copy as a Christmas present last year and have been slowly working my way through it as time permits. I've enjoyed every second of it.
There was a sequel to Triumph of the Nerds, called a href="http://www.pbs.org/opb/nerds2.0.1/"Nerds 2.0.1/a -- sadly it doesn't appear to be available on DVD, and when I saw it, it wasn't quite as compelling as the original.
Jeff, if you liked those two, have you ever watched NerdTV? It's somewhere on the pulpit... ah, http://www.pbs.org/nerdtv/
It's an ongoing collection of interviews, much like revenge of the nerds, but these are an hour long each, and full of some fascinating history, insight, social commentary, and future plans. Some of it has to be taken with a grain of salt, sure, but he hits all the big names and gets so much out of them. Too bad Hewlett and Packard are dead, along with some of the other great voices of the early era.
I haven't kept up, though. ^^;
I feel so young now, i was brutally dumped on this awkward planet in 1979. Still, i would kill for a real Apple //c+ you know, the one with the 3.5" unidisk internally.
I am surprised no one has mentioned my first love - the TRS-80. As a writer, I know that no machine, even today, has since matched that beauty for ease of use, cleanliness of display, and gorgeousness of its feel. It was just easy and fun to use.
Actually, it wasn't the TRS-80 - now I have forgotten the name! (Let's just say that when Traf-O-Data was founded, I was in high school, so age is a factor here....)
What was the model numbel for that sleek little 15-line screen, white handheld doodad that Radio Shck came out with?
TRS-80 Model 100 - now THAT was a machine...
can i use some images from google images in my Alevel I.C.T work
my last post was a bit rubbish LOL
can i use some images of the Apple II computer and also can i use a image of the old multicolourd logo please
many thanks jaye
A Speccy? I was the original zx81 here. I later moved to the Timex Sinclair 1000. All 16k there.
My opinion is that the machines have grown up, but mentality behind them has not. As processors increase, the ease of coding stays in line bloating the overall "use" of a box.
Prime examples can be found from games to word processors. Though not as easy, I could write my letters just as easy in Wordperfect in 1993 as I can today in Word. The difference? About 300 meg. Bigger is not always better, and simplicity shines in the games of yesteryear. The example of M.U.L.E. brings to light true gameplay. This is something we have traded for flashing lights, bells, and whistles.
Just my .02
1970, also. A great vintage for programmers. :) My first PC was a ZX-81. Ah, those where the days.
Thanks for the history book/DVD tips. Will order today. I've build up a decent sized computer history library so far and these will be splendid additions.
I nearly cried the day Byte went out of publication. May 1999 was the last edition, if memory serves me correctly.
It is amazing how much I learned from reading Byte, tinkering with my ZX-81 and later Apple //c.
Long live 300 baud modems!