Home Computing Before Windows

Posted By BrokenClaw on June 7, 1999

My first exposure to a desktop computer came in 1988 when our office got an IBM PS/2. To someone used to running business software at a workstation, it was not very impressive. We had two programs on it: our vendor’s product list and a word processor, which wasn’t much more than a text editor for typing business letters. Imagine a word processor that didn’t use a mouse or arrow keys! The PS/2 ran on the Intel 8086 processor (also called an XT-class) and was notable because it had a hard drive (20 Mb) and used 3.5″ double density diskettes instead of the larger 5.25″ floppies, which were in common usage at the time. It had a small monochrome monitor, not much different from our Unix workstations or what you still might see at a cash register. A year later our department acquired a COMPAQ Deskpro, which was one of the first brand-name IBM PC clones, running on an Intel 80286 processor (AT-class “286″) at 12 mHz, with a 30 Mb hard drive. But the most impressive feature was the EGA video, which produced crisp graphics in 16 colors. We used the new computer for real computer tasks, like calculating pharmacokinetic parameters. Although the actual calculations were nothing more than our programmable Texas Instruments calculator could do, the computer produced cool graphs, and could store the information indefinitely.

One of my coworkers, who had a Tandy PC clone at home, brought in a couple games to show us. It was then that I realized that this computer thing was for me. A few months later I bought my first computer: an Emerson PC clone, running on an Intel 286 processor at a screaming 16 mHz. The system had 1 Mb of RAM, a 40 Mb hard drive, both high density diskette drives, a 24-pin dot matrix printer, and 256-color VGA video. In addition to the operating system, MS-DOS 3.31, the computer came with a word processor, ProWrite, a spreadsheet, Quattro, a programming environment, Turbo Pascal, and of course BASIC. On the suggestion of a friend, I added a 2400 bps modem.

For awhile, I tried to teach myself Pascal programming. However, the version I got with my computer did not include the graphics module. So without the ability to create cool graphics, I soon abandoned that project. Instead, I bought a book on GW-BASIC. Then I moved up to the Microsoft QBasic Interpreter. Eventually I purchased the full MS QuickBasic 4.5 package and started creating real stand-alone executable programs. Later I upgraded again to Visual Basic 5.0. Programming has never been more than a hobby, and most of what I did was just fun stuff for our own use. However, over the years I did write a few programs that we used at work. Today, I’m teaching myself HTML and JavaScript, which is how I wrote all of these web pages.

The very first program I purchased was an educational adventure game from Sierra called Gold Rush!, with EGA graphics and musical sounds produced on the internal PC speaker. It came on five 360 kb floppy disks. At the time, commercial software for IBM-compatible computers varied greatly. You could still buy games designed for the slower XT models, to be run directly from the floppy disk. In fact, some games, like Paperboy, had copy protection which didn’t allow them to be copied to a hard drive. The manual would give directions how to boot your system with the DOS disk, then insert the program disk. Games that were too large for a single floppy would prompt you to insert the next disk, in much the same way that today’s games prompt you to insert the next CD. Some games, like Ms. Pac-man, even included their own operating system on the disk. You had to boot the computer with the game disk itself! Many games and educational programs, like Reader Rabbit, Disney, and Sesame Street games, were still being sold in simple CGA 3-color graphics. EGA was a short-lived video format, but it enhanced two of our favorite games, Skate or Die! and The Sporting News Baseball. Better graphics always make better games, so some companies included different versions in the same package. Tetris, 688 Attack Sub, and DigiTek’s Hole-in-One Miniature Golf shipped with more than one version so the buyer could use the best video possible for their system. Soon thereafter, Sierra began shipping all their games in VGA, beginning with King’s Quest V, which came on ten high-density floppies. More than ten years later, you can still find Gold Rush! on our desktop.

All Program Titles mentioned above are copyrighted by their respective companies, most of which no longer exist.

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