Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Diary of a Man and His Machines, Part 1: The 20th Century

I’ve swiped the title from Dave Hays, my teacher and later friend and colleague, who wrote a weekly column entitled, “The Diary of a Man and His Machine”. This was back in the ancient days of the previous millennium when personal computers were new and hence novel. I forget just when he bought his machine, back in 1977 or 1978 I suppose. I forget the brand – Cromemco? – but it used a Z80 CPU chip and a S-100 bus, common specs back in those days. Hays bought his machine to go into some kind of consulting business and, for awhile, he mailed out a weekly newsletter which he wrote on his computer and printed out on a daisywheel printer of some sort. While the Internet existed in those days, it was not open to the public and the WWW was decades in the future.

Anyhow, his newsletter consisted on things and stuff – a favorite phrase of Bill Doyle, another of Hays’s students – and one of those things, or was it stuff? – was a column in which Hays talked about this new computer of his: what the machine and its software were like, what he was doing with it, and so forth. It was a fun column, and I’m sure the hundred or two hundred of so recipients of the newsletter got pleasure out of it. These machines, after all, were so new. A computer in my home? Who’d have thought!

A couple of years later, perhaps the spring of 1981, I embarked on my own adventure in computer ownership. I took out a small loan from my bank and bought an S-100/Z80 machine, a NorthStar Horizon:

NorthStar Horizon.jpg
"NorthStar Horizon" by joho345 - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

It had little software, if any, beyond its operating system and a version of the Basic programming language. I got it with the peculiar idea that I’d teach myself to program and write myself some useful software, maybe even a word-processor.

Ha! Yes, I’d taken a programming course as at undergraduate at Johns Hopkins in the 1980s, and did well enough in it. But I had no real passion for programming, not like my friend Rich, who lived and breathed programming. I lent the Horizon to him for a couple of months so that he could have the fun of exploring a new machine and writing me a word-processing program.

It was a nice little program. The transition from writing on a typewriter to writing with that crude word-processor was more dramatic than any tech transition I’ve been involved with since then except MacPaint, and for the web, and that was a different kind of transition. I write a lot and computerized cut-and-paste was a revelation. It make roughing and revising documents so much easier.

And when I say “crude”, I mean it. Yes, the words appeared on the screen in roughly the same geometry as they got printed on the page. But there was no fancy font stuff, either on the screen or on the printed page (low res dot matrix printer), no graphics at all. Just blocks of neon green text on a black background. No columns, no footnotes at the bottom of the page, no indexes or tables of contents, none of that. Cut and past, search, and a few other operations, and that was it.

As for the Horizon, it had 32K of RAM and two 5.25 inch floppy drives for storage. The floppy disk held all of 256K of data. Pretty soon I had a big pile of floppies.

Then, in 1984, lightening struck. My friend Rich had gotten access to a Macintosh and sent me a letter which had both text and graphics on the same page. As soon as I saw that I knew I had to get one of those machines. So I went out and bought one of those first 128K Macs. As the name indicates, it had 128K of RAM, thus way more than my Horizon, and an internal disk drive that took a 3.5-inch floppy with 400K capacity. I also got an external floppy drive.

It came with two programs, MacWrite and MacPaint. MacPaint was a revelation. With it I did things like this:



I devoted hours upon hours to playing with MacPaint. I also wrote a lot of stuff in MacWrite, including an article that appeared in Byte Magazine, “The Visual Mind and the MacIntosh” in 1985, in January of 1985. I did, and they published, a bunch of illustrations on my trusty old Mac. I also did the cover illustration for The Soft Machine: Cybernetic Fiction, by my good friend, David Porush, one of the first, perhaps even THE first academic study of computers and computation as a core theme and metaphor in contemporary fiction.

Ever since then I’ve worked on Macs. After that first 128K Mac I had another one the classic “toaster” form factor, perhaps it was a plus or an SE, I don’t really remember. At some point I got an external hard drive that had all of 5MB of memory, which felt huge. Never could afford a laser printer. But I added a daisywheel to the dot-matrix printer I got with my first Mac.

I stayed with the toaster Macs for a decade or so, accumulating boxes and boxes of 3.25 floppies. Finally, in 1994 or so I got a Performa. I forget which model, and it hardly matters, but it had a “pizza box” form factor, an internal hard drive, and a color monitor. Whoohoo! Now I did things like this:

rahsaan broadcast

That machine lasted almost to the end of the century. Almost, but not quite. Late in the century, perhaps 1999, I moved from upstate New York, where I’d lived since the fall of 1978, to Jersey City, NJ. A friend – the Bill Doyle I’d mentioned near the beginning of this post – had started a company located in Hoboken and I signed on. That gave me enough money to buy a G3 tower Mac. Here’s a photo of the heat sink from that machine:


Now I could run Photoshop, which allowed me to go from something like this:


to something like this:


That first image is a scan of my footprints as a newborn infant, which I’d scanned into my computer. The second shows what I did with my sister’s footprints in Photoshop after I’d scanned them in.

Of course, by this time I’d been on the web since the mid-1990s, but I don’t need to tell that story here, as I’ve already covered it.

That pretty much finishes the century, four distinctly different machines: First, a Z80 Horizon; then several “toaster” Macs, all monochrome; then a color Mac, and finally a tower Mac, with an LCD monitor (my first). In a later piece I’ll bring you up to date with the three Macs I’ve bought in this century. The last one arrived just a couple of days ago and I’m still in the throes of getting stuff moved over from the previous machine to the new one. But we’re far enough along that I’m writing this on the new machine.


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