Bytes and Pieces
(hennhaus: Hard Baud)

(Originally published December 26, 1996)

Bytes & Pieces

It’s the longest day of the year as I write this [actually, it was the shortest; sleep deprivation has its disadvantages. JR] — time enough to reflect on Christmases past. Yesterday I visited a computer store that was in absolute havoc; computer and monitor boxes were stacked throughout the premises — already sold, awaiting their purchasers’ arrival. For many, it’s going to be a digital Christmas. Boxing day at these homes will ring with the mutterings of the frazzled elect who’ve chosen to connect the new systems, install requisite software, and familiarlize themselves with manuals far more cryptic than Pictish glyphs. There will be wonder. There will be awe. There will be puzzlement. There may be cursing and gnashings of teeth, yet still I envy them, they who’ve been newly initiated into the computer age.

My first computer was called a ZX-81. It had one (count ’em) kilobyte of memory, a ‘membrane’ keyboard (a piece of plastic over bubble contacts) smaller than my hands and, if I remember correctly, a 32 character screen — said screen being my portable black and white television. I learned BASIC programming on the ZX, and saved my first programs on a cassette tape recorder. It wouldn’t be ’til I bought the 5 kilobyte VIC-20 (with colour graphics!) that I learned to program in assembler — or, more rightly, programming first on paper followed by typing in reams of hexadecimal numbers . . . and saving them to yet another cassette recorder.

The computers under this week’s trees are as similar to the ZX-81 as a Ford Model ‘T’ equates to, say, a ’97 Thunderbird; there are primitive internal similarities, but the two are as alike as a telegraph key is to an FM broadcasting transmitter. Today’s home computers don’t measure internal user memory in anything as pithy as kilobytes; 16 megabytes tends to be standard (and, as ever, not enough), and files are saved to hard drives over a gigabyte in storage capacity. Monitors display millions of colours in photographic resolutions; CD-ROMs and high-speed modems are often included in package deals; microprocessor speeds are up to 200 megs . . . gad.

My envy doesn’t stem from the differences in the modern from the ancient; at this point, I’m a year or two behind the technology my father’s been keeping up with — to my continuing gratification as he’s continued to upgrade, his ‘old’ technology often becomes mine at Christmastime. My piecemeal computer contains peripherals from 1990 through ’96, and I love every bit of it. But I’m familiar with every bit of it.

What I do envy, then, is the feeling one experiences when one sits down at one’s own first computer: the aforementioned wonder and awe. For me, it was not unlike the feeling of Christmas. When I was a child, the experience of the holidays held me enthralled with the rituals, the decoration, the music and the gifts; it was magic. Sadly, the magic dissipated as I aged and became discouraged with Christmas’ commercialization.

Ultimately, the computer is simply a tool. For a time, though, no matter what you’ll use it for, it’s magic.

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Copyright © 1996, 2006 by John Rudzinski. Note the date the column was originally published; any links contained therein are probably outdated.

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Related Media and Reading:

iWoz: From Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It Modern Marvels - The Creation of the Computer (History Channel) A History of Modern Computing: Second Edition (History of Computing)