My Computing Journey – Part 5 – PCs of My Own

I’m nearing the end of this little series, mainly because everything afterward is already pretty much documented here on this blog in some way. It almost feels like jumping over 25 years of computer use after baby-stepping in jumps of 4-5 years, but well, I’ve been blogging for a long long time.

Note: This picture I found seems to be an AMD model, but mine looked the same.

The next machine, or machines really, are possibly the most important in my computing journey history. In 1998, give or take, I graduated High School and went off to college. Around this time period, because I would need it for college, my parents bought me my first PC. More accurately, the first PC that was “mine alone”. At the time, I want to say it was quite the beefy piece of hardware, and I am pretty sure it cost something like $1800 dollars or so, with the monitor. The machine was an IBM Aptiva, 450mhz 486pc. I may have added it but it even had a discrete graphics card in it. Just after I graduated High School, my parents moved back to Illinois and I moved in with my aunt and uncle for around 6 months while I went to IUPUI (for Engineering). I spent a lot of time on this PC in my free time. Especially as a lot of my friends had moved away to college as well. Eventually, I moved back in with my parents and went to a local Community College there before going back to University.

Probably my primary hobby on this PC was browsing Usenet, which I was super into at the time. I also was exploring a lot of other computer hobbies that would turn into moreover time. My Uncle’s PC had a TV Tuner card in it (I eventually got my own), which I would use to take screenshots of games and TV. I started getting more complex with my web design on GeoCities and such as well.

I also started increasingly upgrading parts in my PC. This is where the “machines” part of this post comes in. At some point in the early 2000s, I had a box of parts and realized that if I bought a case, for the new parts, I could reassemble the old PC again. Fun Fact! I still use that same case today. I bought it, specifically because it was ” boring beige box” and because it “held a lot of hard drives”, because even back then, I knew I was going to be a huge data hoarder. You can see it here, in this older but newish photo.

This led to my first experience using Linux and running a web server. My first Linux distribution was Redhat Linux 5. I know this because I have a book on how to use Redhat Linux 5. I started using IRC a lot during this era and tested the waters a bit by running a server so my friends and I could upload images to share.

The PC I built to replace it, was the first PC I ever built. I forget the exact specs but I know it was an AMD Athlon and I believe at least for a while a Rage 128 Pro graphics card. I used that machine through most of college, for gaming, and CAD work. Also, a lot of Usenet and IRC, as well as some web and C/C++ coding.

I mentioned afterward things got a bit crazier. A few years after leaving college and looking for a job, I ended up starting my sort of, accidental career choice of Broadcast Engineering (my major was in Mechanical), working at a local TV station. Part of this work was also taking care of IT for the office, it was pretty much just my boss and I, and the station was independently owned and operated, for the most part. There was a larger group who owned maybe a dozen stations, but they were pretty much hands-off. One perk of this job was that I ended up with a lot of older and scrapped PC hardware to tinker with. So like I said, things got kind of funky. I also went through probably half a dozen laptops, the first of which was a dinosaur of a device that I think ran Windows 98. (This was during the Windows XP era).

Another fun side effect of this job is that I’ve installed Windows, especially Windows XP, so many times, I could literally do it with my eyes closed probably. Pretty much the go-to method for dealing with major PC issues was to back up files and blow out the machine. You would be surprised just how easily your average user at the time could completely fuck up a PC.

Eventually, after getting married, we had a pre-built Windows Vista PC for a bit, with a few upgrades. I built a fresh PC somewhere in that time period and ended up actually buying some more useful laptops. That isn’t even going into laptops my wife and kids have gone through.

These days I run this as my main Gaming PC, half a dozen Raspberry PIs doing various things, a second desktop loaded with hard drives, a NAS for storage, and I rent cloud space for a web server. It’s all just sort of, built up and exploded over time.

My Computing Journey – Part 4 – Going Online

The next phase of my computing journey would have been in High School. I am pretty sure this machine was some kind of Pentium, I don’t know a lot of the details beyond that. Like I mentioned last week, some of the specific details get a bit hazy for a bit here, though the next round is decidedly not hazy again.

While the main computer was still technically the family computer, I ended up with one of the older machines in my room at one point as well. There are a few key defining moments of this era in my computing cycle. I got a bit more experience dealing with computer hardware. I bought a 2.5 GB drive for the family PC because I needed more space. Which would lead to some fun because Windows 95/98 didn’t support a drive larger than 2GB. I actually don’t remember if I partitioned it or if it just, had .5GB unused.

I also got a ZIP100 Drive sometime around this time as well. These were like disks, but “huge” at 100MB each. I spent my own money on both of these things. I guess it was sort of the start of my digital hoarding life. I had a lot of disposable income around this time because I started working at McDonald’s at 16. Aside from the $20 each paycheck or two to fill my gas tank, I spent the rest on whatever. Usually VHS movies, CDs, and VHS Anime tapes. Sometimes expensive computer hardware. I had 10 of those ZIP disks and they cost me $100.

The bigger moment of this era was going online.

It was all done with dial-up, so it tied up the phone line and was slow slow slow. My dad worked for the phone company so our internet was through Ameritech, or SBC, or whatever it was called at the time. I had other outlets though, that I could use on my bedroom PC. I remember three specifically. One was some sort of message board for IUPUI, the university, though I was not in college at the time. Another was this dial-in BBS system for the Illinois Education system. My friends and I would post there and use the chat system. It was at that time I learned that things are not always as anonymous as one might think when this dude came to me at school one day and told me to stop talking to his girlfriend over the system.

How did he know that “Bevis” was me?? The world may never know.

I also posted some stories there that are, sadly, lost to time and the ether of the internet.

Lastly was this MUD, or MUCK, I don’t know which it was. I know I could dial in, and it was this text based RPG thing. You could go around town, or go down in a dungeon deeper and deeper. I never really left the town, but I became extremely rich. I found a bug of sorts. I believe the process was something like…

  • Go to the inn.
  • Murder all of the sleeping player characters
  • Take and sell their possessions
  • Give the gold to an alt
  • Wait a day
  • All of the dead PCs would be revived
  • Wash, rinse repeat.

After I amassed enough wealth, I had enough money to buy the “fancy room” that had dragon guards. No one was going to be murdering ME in my sleep.

Aside rom these side escapades, there was the “real internet.” I spent a lot of time browsing all sorts of websites about video games and anime. Eventually, I started my own couple of pages on GeoCities as well. At the time using Microsoft Page, an early WYSIWYG editor.

I also downloaded videos and music, though they were hard to find at the time. There was no Spotify or even places to buy wave files at the time. For anything large, it meant starting it before bed, and letting it run for hours to download. There were special programs you could use to pause and resume large downloads.

It was all the start of something amazing and wonderful in this perfect digital world of the Internet.

My Computing Journey – Part 3 – The x86 Era

This actually get a bit hazy here for actual computer models, and I spent a bit of time browsing through Vintage Packard Bell machines to see if I could figure out which machines cover this era of my computing. This would have been somewhere between 1991 and 1995, give or take a bit, after we moved across town when I was 11-12-ish and before we moved to Indiana for a bit when I was 14-15ish. I am not positive if there were one or two PCs in this era, there was either one 286 (for sure, for reasons I’ll touch on) and possibly later a 486. For simplicity’s sake, I’m just going to refer to this as one PC, that was a 286. If for some reason you’re keeping score, and notice something that doesn’t match for a 286, then well, assume there was a 486 in there.

I am pretty sure it was this PC though (not my picture, and that PC is filthy.).

Why am I so confident there was a 286?

That’s simple, Doom. At one point during this time frame, and for some weird reason, I have a lot of strong memories of this whole night and event, a bunch of my friends and I spent the night over at one of their homes. I know we played a lot of Jurassic Park on the SEGA Genesis because it was way cool that you could play as a Raptor and go around killing dudes. I remember we played a lot of Hero’s Quest, because we were super into Hero’s Quest at this time. I remember that they all got stoned, though I did not because I wasn’t really into that, though it’s likely I ended up “secondhand stoned” if that’s even a thing. Whatever the case, I remember that at one point someone got a bit upset at me because they were using a Bob Dylan CD I had brought for “rosin” which I still don’t know what that is, but I noticed my CD was dirty so I cleaned it off.

And the next day, we all went to the mall for a few hours, because that’s what you did when malls were still popular. After some careful thought and consideration, I decided to spend some of my allowance money on this cool looking game, Doom, or at least, the shareware Doom. It was basically like Wolfenstein 3D, except better, and I loved playing Wolfenstein. Then later, when I went to play it, I discovered the concept of “minimum computer requirements”. Because Doom needed a 386 PC. In the store I had decided that “Eh, it’ll work anyway.” Then it did not. Maybe if I were more computer savvy at the time I could have managed to make it work somehow, but in the end I think I just gave it to a friend who did have a better computer, or at least, let him install and use it.

Speaking of buying computer games. Though I had played plenty of computer games, it was around this time (possibly before actually) that I bought, with my own money, my first computer game. I had bought some console and handheld games, but this would be my first personal purchase of a PC game, with a game called War Eagles. War Eagles was a World War 1 plane dogfight simulator. No take-offs or landings, just fly in a biplane around shooting machine guns at biplanes.

This time period was also my first experience with Windows and a computer with a Hard Drive. I am pretty sure it was 20 or 40mb. That’s MEGA with an M, not GIGA with a G. Just enough to install a few games, so they didn’t need to be run off of floppy drives. I don’t know the details, but I remember my dad installed some program called Stacker that would increase the drive space. But I still had to go through hoops occasionally of installing and uninstalling games. I believe the largest single game I had around this time was one of the Interplay Star Trek games, which had several install disks.

Windows would have been 3.0 and maybe later 3.11 for Workgroups. It was neat but you still had to dump back out to DOS to run a lot of games. The main thing I remember about Windows was playing around in Paint drawing things.

I also got my first experience with computer hardware and upgrades around this time frame. I can’t imagine why, I must have asked for it at the time, because at least one of my friends had a better computer, but for Christmas one year I got a SoundBlaster soundcard. So everything would sound cool with actual speakers. It also came with this super neat (for the time) talking parrot program.

This time period also had some exposure to Apple computers and the Apple IIe (which was quite data at the time). We started having computer classes in Middle School, which had these in the classroom. Most of this time was spent playing educational games, like Number Munchers and Word Munchers. We also had a typing speed program and I remember finding a bug in it where you could basically hold a key, I forget which, maybe like + or = or something, and it would count the letter as correct, so you could just, hold in that key and get something ridiculous like 200 words per minute.

Eventually, after we moved to Indiana sometime, when my parents upgraded the home PC to a Pentium (spoilers for next week), this machine became my first “in my room personal pc”. It also at some point gained an external dial-up modem. I’ll get more into all that next week though, because dialing in on this computer would be secondary to using the other PC.