You know you’re getting old when your first computer was a Commodore Vic 20. I purchased the machine when I was in graduate school at UCLA just as the 1980’s were beginning. The movie, Back to the Future hadn’t come out yet, that’s how far back in the past I was living then. Competing with it at the time were the Apple II and the early offerings from IBM. The Vic 20 had less power and was slower than either of its competitors, but it had one significant advantage for a graduate student: price. For less than two hundred dollars, I was able to procure a functioning computer. Of course, there was still the problem of figuring out exactly what to do with it. I had visions of using it to analyze ancient texts, perhaps to find words and phrases in some of the Hebrew texts that I was laboriously analyzing by hand. That didn’t work out so well, but soon I discovered I could also use it to play simple games, like Pong.
In these wayback times, although there were a few games and other programs that could be purchased, either as cartridges that one plugged into the back of the computer, or on cassette tapes. I used a tape player to load programs into the tiny memory—all of 3 Kilobytes (expandable to the massive 8 Kilobytes if you sprang for the hundred dollar memory module). And since there were very few programs available to purchase, most users of the Vic 20 learned how to program for themselves. In fact, one of the selling features of the machine was that it came with BASIC—a computer programming language—built it! And you could you pick up computer magazines that had programs printed in them. Then all you had to do was copy the lines of code into your computer yourself. It could take hours of careful typing; one tiny misplaced letter or number, and the program would fail to run, necessitating careful proofreading to find the offending error and correct it.
One of the first programs I ever typed into the machine was a fifty line BASIC program that allowed me to play baseball. The sound effects were an odd blooping noise, and the ball players were round dots that blinked on and off as they went around the baseball diamond. Hitting the baseball required smashing the space key at just the right moment, while the pitcher, controlled by the computer (or you, when it was your turn) sent a blinking ball that looked very much like the players, but a different color, pulsating toward the home plate.
Given that it required four hours of time to type and proofread, I decided it was a really entertaining game. I played it frequently in the few spare moments I had between work and going to class—or the longer moments I had during the summer break.
Not long after getting the computer, I discovered that there was something called a MODEM that allowed me to access a place online called CompuServe—a special, proprietary, but nationwide service that resembled the modern internet. You accessed it by dialing a local number on your telephone while you held the receiver to your ear. When you heard a high-pitched whine, you disconnected the handset from the phone and plugged the coiled cable into the modem. The computer then took over and dropped you into the welcome screen for CompuServe, where you then had to enter your username and password.
You could stay online as long as you wanted—at a rate of around 6 dollars per hour! The connection speed was 300 baud. That was dialup with a vengeance. You could download the equivalent of only about 300 alphanumeric characters per second. And you thought your DSL was a bit sluggish!
There were no pictures on CompuServe. It was all text. There were games you could download for free, saving you the time of typing them in. There were news reports, chatrooms and weather updates. I generally spent no more than two hours a month online.
When my children hear my stories about my first computer, they think I’m discussing semaphores and smoke signals. And yet, at the time, it was a wonder. Those of us who used CompuServe back then were on the cutting edge of technology, barely imagining what was about to happen over the next few decades.
My first birthday after I got married, also in the early 1980’s and still before the movie Back to the Future appeared, my wife got me a new computer, a Commodore 64—with 64 kilobytes of memory and a floppy disk drive that could hold a whopping 180 kilobytes and load and save programs in only a fraction of the time it took to load it from a cassette tape.
Although my Commodore Vic 20 and 64 still function, I no longer use them. But my current machine can do all those things with Hebrew texts that I could never get those now antique Commodores to do. And I don’t need to program my own games any more, either.