When I conduct interviews with people in tech, one of my favorite questions is to ask what their first computer was. Depending on their age it’s sometimes a Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX80, or Atari Portfolio, or if they’re a bit younger they might have started out on, say, an IBM Thinkpad with its curious nipple joystick, or a run-of-the-mill Dell laptop. Then I’ll hear about the first game they created, the software program they coded, the BBSes they frequented, or maybe even hear a confession involving the first company or website they hacked.
First computers leave a strong impression. They frame a user’s expectation for all the technology that follows. You never forget your first schoolyard crush and you likely never forget your first computer. Because afterward nothing is ever quite the same.
The first computer I ever encountered up close and person was a Macintosh circa 1984. I was a student at Reed College in Portland, OR, and Reed had one of the earliest personal computer labs in the country, courtesy of Apple. Maybe Reed was selected because Steve Jobs was the college’s most famous drop out — he lasted 6 months but stuck around to take calligraphy — or perhaps it was because Reed professor Richard Crandall had worked with Jobs at Apple. Whatever the reason, Reed stuffed a small room in Eliot Hall with perhaps 8 or 10 Macs.
You have to realize, up until the moment I inserted a floppy disc into the machine and was greeted with Apple’s iconic happy face, I had done all of my writing on a portable Olympus electric typewriter that weighed about 30 pounds. My idea of high tech was the auto correct function, which, if you hit the right key it would blot out the errant letter with dried liquid paper.
The Mac had no hard drive. Everything was stored on floppy discs that were easily corrupted — you had to keep them away from paperclips. It came in one color — white — and was shaped like a hat box with a small black-and-white screen and a telephone cord jutting out that connected to a matching white keyboard. The third object on the table was something called a mouse, a palm-sized, rectangular box the width of a deck of playing cards.
“Word processing” is a dry term for something utterly fantastical for those of us who started writing before the advent of PCs (but after quill and ink). If you’ve never worked on a typewriter imagine how much harder it would be if you couldn’t cut and paste. I might have never become a writer if I had been forced to write books and articles on a typewriter. For me, being able to correct and move sentences and whole paragraphs makes the process far more enjoyable and productive.
I remember writing a letter to my parents, explaining this far-out contraption, showing them how I could enlarge text, even single letters, and I must have shown them 5 or 6 different fonts. Then I hit print and a dot matrix printer spat out my letter. The printer paper from that era was perforated so that there were a series of tiny holes on both sides — and I had to carefully rip the sides off. Eventually I wrote my undergraduate thesis on these machines. It may have been a crappy thesis (I studied developmental economics in college) but at least it looked good.
As I look back I realize that Apple had engaged in some ingenious marketing. My experiences on that Mac stayed with me and ultimately I became a Mac devotee. In the three decades since I tried out my first Mac I have owned exactly one non-Apple computer — a Toshiba laptop with a 20 megabyte hard drive in the early 1990s. At the time, Apple didn’t offer a laptop. As soon as the company released one, I got rid of the Toshiba and its irritating Disk Operating System (DOS).
Over the years I have owned many Apple products — several laptops with various names, routers, iPods, iPads, iPhones, and accessories. If I add up all the money I have spent on Apple products it has to be in excess of $20,000.
But it all ties back to a Macintosh computer I didn’t even own.
Today the Mac turned 30.
Happy Birthday, Macintosh.
Image via Wikimedia.