My First PC Weighed 25 Pounds

My children like to make comparisons between the technology I had growing up and what they have today. In the course of a recent conversation on this topic, it occurred to me that, having been born in 1966, I have lived through the entire evolution of the personal computer and the internet.

The internet got its start in the 1960s with government funding through an organization called the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA), whose original network was called ARPANet. In time, the project was taken over by the Department of Defense, which changed the name to DARPANet. Advances in DARPANet continued until, in 1983, it was split into military and civilian networks. At first the civilian network was restricted to non-commercial uses such as research. These restrictions were eased over time, allowing the internet to weave its way into nearly every aspect of our lives.

In the fall of 1983, I started my senior year at State College Area High School, which is effectively the Chapel Hill High School of Pennsylvania. This was the first year that the school had a computer lab. We used Apple computers, which look substantially like the one shown here.  Early Apple Computer We learned word processing and computer programming in both BASIC and Pascal. It’s hard to convey to my children how fascinating this was for me, since I had never used a personal computer before.

In August of 1984, I headed to the University of Virginia. I was the only student I knew of who had their own PC. It was the size of a suitcase, weighed a ton, and had a 4” x 6” screen. It looked almost exactly like the one in this picture. 1983 Portable Computer I also had a dot matrix printer so I could type up my homework on the word processor, print it out, and turn it in. This is commonplace now, but in 1984 for a student with atrocious handwriting such as mine, it was a godsend. I had only one computer game, called Lode Runner. My roommates and I played for hours. Here is a screenshot from the 1984 version. load runner

By 1984, most large universities had email capability. Therefore, I could send emails back and forth to my father, who worked at Penn State, using a 300 baud rate modem which looked like this. 300 Baud Modem Today’s internet connection speeds can be millions of times faster. To use this old modem you would dial the phone, wait for the computer to pick up, and then, when you heard a loud, static-like noise, stick the hand set into the two plastic suction cups. The modem also provided access to the main frame computer on campus, allowing me to write computer programs to solve math and engineering problems, which saved me hours of time compared to doing them by hand. Prior to being able to communicate with the mainframe via a simple modem like this, computer programming was done with paper punch cards. Seriously. They looked like this. fortran punch card A complicated computer program required whole boxes of them, which had to be fed into the computer’s card reader in the proper order. During the summer of 1982, I worked cleaning out labs at Penn State University and had to sort through and store many of these old punch card programs.

Looking back, I feel lucky to have been around for the beginning of the PC and internet revolutions. I think you appreciate the value of personal computers and the internet in a more meaningful way if you have memories of hand writing overhead transparencies and doing research in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Looking ahead, I wonder what my grandchildren will think about the technology my children have today. Time will tell.

If you have a comment, question, or personal story about your introduction to computers and the internet, use the interface below or send me an email at

UNC Students Have New Option When Purchasing Laptops

CHAPEL HILL-UNC began selling MacBook Pros through its Student Stores more than two years ago. Lenovo’s ThinkPad, which was the only option for students previously, soon saw its sales dip with the competition from Apple. For this upcoming school year, Lenovo is introducing a new line of computers for students to choose from in hopes that they can regain control of the market.

An ongoing sales battle has recently taken place in UNC Student Stores.

As students look at their options for purchasing a computer, they can now choose Apple’s MacBook Pro when deciding to buy a computer.

The only option before that was Lenovo’s ThinkPad laptops.

“The first year it ran about 50/50 for the MacBook Pros versus the ThinkPad,” says Frank Penn, who is manager of UNC’s Ram Shop.  “Last year it was about 60/40 for the MacBook Pros.”

The Ram Shop houses many technological needs for students, such as headphones, cables, and accessories for computers.

With Macs becoming more popular amongst students, Lenovo is updating its line of options for them to choose from this upcoming school year.

Penn showed off the touch screen capabilities of the newest ThinkPad, a feature he points out that the MacBook doesn’t have.

John Gorsuch, the director of Student Stores, says that the new line of Lenovos have a chance of selling better than the Macs this year.

“The Lenovo models this year are probably one of the most cutting edge models that have ever been introduced on this campus,” he says. “There’s a lot of compelling reasons to choose Lenovo maybe even over the Apple this year for the first time in three years that we’ve been doing two choices.”

Lenovo may be going through a re-branding of sorts by having thinner and lighter touch-screen laptops, but it will take more than that to attract students to buy its products.

As the sales have shown, students are opting for Macs, because of its sleeker design and many believe the software is better as well.

Dominique Moore says he bought a MacBook last year after owning a Lenovo for two years, and he’s happy he made the switch.

“I really love the MacBook a lot more,” he says.  “It’s smaller, it can fit in my backpack a little easier, it’s not as heavy. It does everything the Lenovo can do but 10 times more. It’s much faster.”

Moore cites a number of problems he had with his Lenovo before making the change.

“They don’t last, they’re too big, you’re constantly taking it down to ITS to get something fixed, a button fell off or the hard drive’s not working, the CD drive’s not working, they take forever to start up, they’re very slow.”

Moore’s opinion is shared by many UNC students, as MacBook Pros are becoming a more common sight in the classroom in what was once a scene dominated by ThinkPads.

It remains to be seen whether or not Lenovo’s new models will entice students to opt for their product instead of Apples’ MacBook, but there are early signs of encouragement as Penn points out.

“We’re watching orders starting this year on April 1st,” he says. “Right now the ThinkPads are running at a higher rate than the MacBook Pros at this point in time.”

Time will tell if Lenovo’s efforts will win over the students it has lost.

Progress of Technology

If you read my column a couple of weeks ago, you’ll remember that I talked about the history of the personal computer, extending back into the 1970’s. But I’m only 10, so most of the things I talked about, I wasn’t around for. In fact, virtually the only computers I can remember are today’s powerful, intuitive machines.
So when I learned that, for instance, the original Macintosh had an eight-megahertz processor (hertz is the measure of how fast a processor is), I was blown away that, once upon a time, technology was like that. When you compare that to today’s machines with 2.7 gigahertz processors, you can see the progress.
Progress. There’s good and bad progress, there’s happy and sad progress, there’s all kinds of progress.
Now, what is bad and sad progress? It’s an interesting question. I guess that it could be considered as when new things turn out to have a negative effect. The people who created the invention are sad, and the users of the invention witness bad effects.
There is good and happy progress too. The people who developed X-Rays and MRIs must be so proud of the lives that their invention is saving. Another example: as I said above, the progress from yesterday’s technology to today’s is very good – it’s allowing so many more people to accomplish so many more things.
So what kind of progress will there be in the future? That’s an interesting question, so here’s an answer – from the perspective of a ten-year-old:
I can easily imagine the future being full of mobile devices like tablets and smartphones – notice I didn’t mention laptops or desktops. Like I said in my last article, we are moving into a “post-PC” era.
So what does the post-PC era mean? 2 things:

  • As mobile devices become more affordable, more and more people will be able to adopt them into their lives.
  • As mobile devices become more powerful, people who already own them will be able to use them more often for more things such as:

    • Work- better word processing, presentation editing, etc. Also more options for integrating servers and such into the iPad to make connectivity and access easier.
    • Connections- More/better ways to communicate with others. Better video chatting, messaging, and better (high quality sound) calls.

I, personally, will definitely love this. The ability to take powerful computers with you anywhere, so you can use them whenever you need them, sounds great to me!