Keith H. Johnson

The Digital Age(s)

It may seem a bit silly to devote a separate page to nothing but my experiences with computers, but I didn't grow up with them as did today's young folks, and even many adults. I thought it would be worth recounting what I've worked with, partly as an outline of how far things have progressed since the beginning, and partly to mention some of the unusual machines I've worked with that today's experts won't have heard of (or probably much care about, but this is my page, so if you think this is crazy, you can just eat a rock...).

Remote computing. Computers were just beginning to become somewhat available when I was about to graduate from high school. These were not today's desktop boxes, or even racks full of equipment. I took a two-week course in Basic offered by the local junior college my senior year in high school. But we didn't have an actual computer. Instead, we would create our programs by typing them out on a keyboard which punched holes in a reel of paper tape. We'd then call up the actual computer via a 300-baud modem, feed our paper tape over the phone line to the remote station, then get our results back on a new paper tape


TI-59. The immediate ancestor to the desktop personal computer was the programmable calculator. I got a Texas Instruments TI-59, and had a great deal of fun with it. You could enter up to 960 instructions in a program, including loops and branches. You could then save the program on magnetic cards: pieces of stiff magnetic tape about the size of a piece of chewing gum (Wrigley Spearmint, not Double Bubble). I wrote a program for computing the position of a celestial object in the sky for a chosen time of day that required me to read four of these cards in, one after the other. But I used it to earn some consultation fees from an architect who needed to know how much sunlight the north side of a particular planned building would receive at different times of year, which helped pay for the instrument. Now, of course, the same could be done in about two minutes with Starry Night, and with gorgeous images. At the time, though, it was spectacular.

Apple II. Churning along underneath these early efforts was the offspring of two geeks in a garage: the Apple II, the computer I was to fall in love with. My first Apple II was the Apple II Plus, which sat on the desk in my first office. It was a marvelous machine. Previous Apple IIs required you to read in programs from a cassette tape, a process which took every bit as long as you'd think it would, and prone to error. But the Plus had an actual floppy disk drive. Apple provided system software on one disk, and gave you one entire 5.25-inch, 135 KB empty disk. I couldn't figure out how I would ever use that much space. But this particular one was not your typical Apple II Plus: it was black, and marketed to education facilities by Bell & Howell. Where that association ever came from I never figured out. Apple never did anything else with Bell & Howell again.

I eventually decided I needed a machine at home, and invested in an Apple //e. As it came, this computer possessed all of 64 KB of RAM (the II Plus only had 48, which was still amazing). I eventually boosted that up to 1 MB, far above most of my compatriots at the local user group. I had two disk drives to start, but a couple years later bought a 40 MB hard disk, which provided all the storage I needed for many years.

In 1984 Apple came out with a product called AppleWorks, a revolutionary combination of word processor, database app, and spreadsheet that was light years ahead of anything else available at the time (it's distantly related to the current AppleWorks used on Macintoshes, but better in many ways). It was easier to copy and paste information between the three combined applications than is true for any similar product today (and it's not easy to find a multiple application at all now). The filecard interface you saw on your screen was the best interface for serious users until the Macintosh GUI came along, and I still think it would provide a very good alternative even now.

But someone managed to improve on it. The company called Beagle Bros had been providing entertaining and useful utilities and games for several years. Now they introduced an add-on to AppleWorks called UltraMacros. This allowed you to set keystrokes to accomplish tasks that were time-consuming, or even impossible, by hand. I was so taken with UltraMacros that I signed up to be a Beagle Buddy. This required me to serve as a resource for the Beagles' TimeOut series of AppleWorks add-ons, including UltraMacros, but provided me with free upgrades for all of them. I also began writing a monthly column on macros for the national AppleWorks users' magazine. This was great fun.

Beagle Bros combined fun and computing in a way no one else ever did. Their manuals included an advice column hosted by Uncle Louie, with entries like this:

Q. Dear Uncle Louie -- I'm having trouble with my checkbook program. It seems that when I do a gosub from within a triple-nested loop, the stack overflows and zero-page gets clobbered. What should I do?
A. How should I know?

Q. Dear Uncle Louie -- My video projector projects my Apple screen images upside down. What should I do?
A. Turn the screen over.

Q. Dear Uncle Louie -- Why is there no period after the "Bros" in Beagle Bros?
A. There isn't room.

Q. Dear Uncle Louie -- How come the new 3.5-inch disks can hold much more data than the old 5.25-inch disks?

Macintosh. I resisted for several years. But eventually I was dragged, virtually kicking and screaming, into the GUI world. Now I'm a convert. I've owned or used several versions of that misspelled Apple, the Macintosh.

The Macintosh IIsi (and don't ask me to explain the naming conventions employed by the company: Apple can't even explain those) was a 20 MHz machine, but it was sweet. The IIci was just a small step faster, running at 25 MHz instead of 20 MHz, but it was corresonpondingly more expensive. But there was a workaround. Some daring souls replaced the 20 MHz timiing chip on the motherboard with a 25 MHz chip, thereby making it all of 25% faster, and at least half of the machines survived the surgery. I did it to mine, and it survived until I got tired of it and got something new.

That something new was the Macintosh G3 All-In-One (aka AIO, but it doesn't sound any better that way, either) was a marvelous graphics machine. It had all sorts of inputs and outputs; it had a very nice built-in monitor; but that doesn't change the fact that its form factor made it look like a giant molar. Nonetheless, I got one, even though I had the same machine at work. I could bring peripherals back and forth, including slide scanners and hard disks, allowing me to do anything anywhere. It was a very sweet machine.

There was the 7100, and the Quadra 800 (I think), but my current machine at home is a laptop: I don't even have a desktop any more. The Titanium PowerBook G4 was a rather impressive machine, and I wound up getting two of them, the slower one now being used by my wife. Yes, I know, the disk drive is slower and the display is smaller, but the quality of this machine more than makes up for small deficiencies. Besides, this way I can carry a small DVD player/monitor into the kitchen and watch M*A*S*H reruns while I'm doing dishes! Can't do THAT with a G5 tower!

Backup. I try to keep a current backup of all my data, like a good little computer nerd. But when my computer crashes (not often: I do use primarily Macs :-) I find myself in need of a subsitute machine to use until my main computer is repaired. Some years ago I remembered reading about Chinese and Japanese merchants who were able to do calculations with their abacuses (abacusae? abacusi?) faster than a modern adding machine. I felt the same principle should be usable with computers. So I invented my own emergency backup device.

This is, of course, a binary abacus. I first built one to backup my Apple II, so it's only an 8-bit device. But you could always add another 8 rods and beads to make it 16-bit. Feel free to make your own. You're welcome.

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