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The Mac Turns 25: Our First Macs

The Macintosh turned 25 this week, and in honor of the event, we’re all taking a moment to dig back into the depths of time and share a few thoughts about our first Macs.

Adam & Tonya: Macintosh SE — Tonya and I bought our first Mac in the summer of 1988, which required a little finagling, since although we were students at Cornell University at the time, we weren’t enrolled in summer classes, thus making us ineligible for the student discount until the semester started. Undaunted, we convinced a friend to put her name on the paperwork, plunked down our money, and brought home a double-floppy Macintosh SE. We weren’t new to the Mac at that time, since both of us had worked in Cornell’s public computer rooms, but having a Mac in our apartment made it easier for Tonya to write papers and for me to work on my senior honors
thesis in a wildly pre-release version of the Storyspace hypertext editor (still being sold by Eastgate Systems). Apart from site-licensed programs like WriteNow, I remember buying QuicKeys and Suitcase right away to outfit our new Mac.

I had, somewhat earlier, built a hard drive for my Atari 1040ST (which had replaced my first computer, a Franklin ACE 1000, which was an Apple ][ clone) from a Seagate 30 MB mechanism, a SCSI controller board, and a massive case that could support up to five full-height drives. All I had to do to move that hard drive over to the SE was build a new cable to plug into the Mac’s SCSI port, but unfortunately I had no electronics gear to test my wiring. Once again undaunted, I ran wires from the cable through a battery-powered squirt gun to test continuity. My tests worked, the drive worked, and we were up and

We used the SE for a year or so, but after graduation, when the SE/30 upgrade came out, we jumped at the chance to move up, adding a video card and an Apple 13-inch RGB monitor to the mix and turning the humble SE into a veritable tower of power for its era. We still have that SE/30 in a bookshelf, reminding us of what the world of the Macintosh was like back in the early 1990s (see “The Mac Turns 25: Best Mac Ever?”, 2009-01-26).

Joe: Macintosh SE — During graduate school at the University of Texas at Arlington, I had a conversion experience of sorts: I got enough of a taste of Macs in the school’s computer lab that I realized I could never again own a PC. Although I’d found much to like about Macs, the deciding factor was, without a doubt, Nisus. I tried a demo version of this unusual multilingual word processor on a Mac Plus at school and with every cascading submenu I just drooled more. Nothing in the PC world could touch it, and since I was studying linguistics, the program’s superb support for non-Roman languages made the decision that much easier.

There was just one problem: As a starving student, I couldn’t afford the cheapest new Mac available at the time, which was early 1991. In fact, even a used SE/30 – a model discontinued the previous year – cost a couple thousand dollars more than I had. But knowing that I’d find some way to get a Mac as soon as possible, I went ahead and ordered a copy of Nisus before I graduated so that I could use my student discount – even though I had nothing to run it on.

If I’d been able to afford it, I would have bought a Mac Portable, which at the time seemed to me the sexiest computer imaginable. Instead, that summer I spent (as I recall) about $500 on a used Mac SE with a 20 MB hard drive, and another $100 or so to max out the RAM to 4 MB. That fall, I added a new StyleWriter printer for output and a Global Village ADB modem for connectivity.

During the time I owned the SE, I spent more than I’d originally paid for it replacing a busted logic board and a faulty hard drive. But it was still my beloved first Mac. I gave it to a family member a couple of years later when I made a major leap forward to my next Mac, a Centris 610.

Jeff: Macintosh Classic — I’m going to start a little further back in time, fully cognizant that I can’t seriously compete with some of my colleagues in the “first-computer used” category. The first computer I owned was a Commodore VIC-20, which was fairly soon replaced by the unbridled power of a Commodore 64. In high school I lobbied the newspaper’s journalism adviser to jump into the digital age with a set of C64s, but she’d (smartly) already decided on getting a Mac Plus, with a few Mac SEs arriving the following year.

Although I took that Commodore 64 to college, it was by then just a word processor from which I could print papers; the Mac had become the be-all, end-all computer for me. Working on the high school paper taught me how to do layout (and swap floppies) in PageMaker 1.0, write in Microsoft Word, and play a mean game of Solitaire. As a college freshman, I was the only staffer who knew how to use the newspaper’s new Macs. But I had no money to buy my own; on deadline, I’d often beg a friend in the freshman girl’s dorm to let me write my articles on her Mac SE.

Finally, as a sophomore, I took advantage of the student discount to buy a Macintosh Classic, along with a case to carry it in (of course!), which I’d frequently sling over my shoulder and then bike to the newspaper office for weekly late-night production deadlines. I would have loved to own one of the new PowerBooks (eventually I bought a used PowerBook 100, one of my favorite machines), but the price was prohibitive.

Matt: Macintosh LC — As a programmer, I’d been working with computers since 1968, but as a Classics professor in the early 1980s, my immediate problem was typing Ancient Greek, or, more precisely, typing both English and Greek in the same document. I had an IBM Selectric typewriter with interchangeable typeballs, and later an Olivetti electronic typewriter that used interchangeable typewheels and had a tiny “memory” so that it was almost a miniature word processor. But the real solution was a personal computer: I got an Apple ][c clone called a Laser 128. This, together with an ImageWriter and a wonderful (now defunct) program called Gutenberg, gave me a full-featured word processor with the ability to alternate English and Greek letters at will.

While teaching at Cornell University in the late 1980s, I met Adam, who taught me to use the Macs in the computer labs; I remember us performing some clever tricks with Microsoft Word and QuicKeys (and swapping a lot of floppy disks). But the Mac still felt like a toy to me, and I didn’t actually want one.

Then, in 1990, I arrived at Swarthmore College and found that, like every professor, I was given an office Mac. It was one of those early squat all-in-one machines with a tiny monochrome screen – probably either a Plus or an SE. Naturally, since it was right there on my desk and hooked into something called the “Internet,” I started playing with it constantly. (Oh, the INITs! Oh, the bombs!)

But what turned me into a Mac person wasn’t the machine so much as the killer apps I got for it. Nisus, a fantastic word processor with amazing search-and-replace and macro features, along with LaserGreek, a gorgeous Ancient Greek font, allowed me to do all my multilingual scholarly writing. And HyperCard 2 made the Mac interface itself programmable, letting me create an Ancient Greek language lab for my students. By the end of that school year, I was a Mac convert, the proud owner of a brand new pizza-box Macintosh LC which,
together with a StyleWriter printer, remained my workhorse machine for many years.

Glenn: Macintosh Plus — The first computer I programmed on was a Commodore PET, and the first PC I owned was an Ohio Scientific Challenger 1P. I taught myself machine-code programming on the C1P, and copyrighted a tape-based software loading program I wrote. My folks bought me the $333 computer, and then saw little of me outside my room for months.

The 1P stood for one port, which was an unpopulated RS-232C port into which you could stick some components, solder them to an optional connector, and run a 110-baud modem. An easter egg in the boot firmware let you enter the character “L” and be told that the built-in 8K BASIC was written by Micro Soft and Bill Gates. (Who the hell was Bill Gates?)

Like the Apple ][, the PET and C1P all used the famous 6502 microprocessor. By the time I went to college, I’d upgraded to a Commodore 64, which used a similar processor.

I started using a 512K Mac during my last year in high school, where I was the school newspaper’s typesetter. We had some aging phototypesetting gear that allowed me to set one justified line at a time onto a thin photosensitive paper that could be developed and waxed to be cut and put down on boards for layout.

My marvelous journalism teacher let me take the newspaper’s first Mac home over winter holidays in 1985 so that I could learn PageMaker 1.0, and come back ready to typeset and teach others. I was completely blown away. This experience likely led to my decision to major in art with a concentration in graphic design when I started college the following fall.

I took my Commodore 64 to school to write papers, like Jeff. But I was yearning for a Mac once the Macintosh Plus had been out for months with a whopping 1 MB of RAM. My grandparents on my father’s side offered to buy me a Mac sophomore year, which I believe cost about $1,200 with the student discount.

My roommate, Ethan Robey, and I agreed to split the cost of a fancy dot-matrix printer. But we somehow managed to order the wrong item. After weeks of waiting, an ImageWriter II in the wide-carriage, pin-fed paper version arrived! We couldn’t return it, and we’d spent much more than we needed to. Ah, well. The upside is that it could handle normal and pin-fed continuous paper, of which a large supply was available for the, uh…”borrowing.” It wasn’t being used much by that point.

Now, this Macintosh Plus wasn’t a passing fancy: I spent many a year swapping sets of 800K floppies with that puppy. Sometime during my senior year (1989-1990), I got a case-cracking kit so I could upgrade RAM myself. The campus computer store wanted some truly insane amount of money to upgrade from 1 to 4 MB – $750, perhaps?

The kit was a very long hex wrench, to remove two tiny and hard-to-get-at screws at the top of the case; a spring-loaded clip that you would insert into the seam of the Mac and gradually ease open; and a grounding strap to avoid zapping internal components.

That spring, I was able to barely afford a 60 MB Ehman external hard drive, the only affordable drive at that time, and my floppy-swapping days were over.

Like Jeff, I used to haul this Mac around in a special case. It would fit only in the middle seat of an airplane. I grew up in Oregon and went to college in Connecticut. I sat in a lot of middle seats.

I wound up getting about 4 years of use out of that Mac, finally selling it to a friend. He moved to Brooklyn where, when he was out of the house he shared with a number of other people, a pipe burst in the basement, pouring water all over the Mac. Roommates unplugged the computer (which was off), dried it out, and it kept working for a while after that.

My next machine was enormously more advanced: a Macintosh IIcx. And, in 1991, I took a job at the Kodak Center for Creative Imaging, where I was responsible for 100 Macintosh IIfxs – curse you, Jean-Louis Gassee! – and had a Macintosh Portable of my very own.

Rich: Mac mini — Since I’m truly frightened Adam will physically eject me from the TidBITS staff once I reveal my first Mac, I’m going to distract you by talking about the first Apple products I used, as opposed to owned.

Similar to Glenn, I started programming in elementary school on a Commodore PET, where I’d show off by switching it to binary mode to demonstrate binary addition (both the beginning and end of my education in binary). Fairly early on my best friend’s parents bought an Apple ][ for his family, and the two of us quickly monopolized it for a mix of games and programming. I can’t count the hours we spent playing Wizardry and designing education software we planned on selling back to our school, thereby allowing us to retire before the eighth grade. During these same years we also toyed with programming BASIC on an Atari 2600 using a small hand controller (no, you couldn’t even save your programs).

The first computer I owned was a Commodore 64, and my friend and I would shift between his home and mine depending on whether we were in the mood for Apple or Commodore. In 1984 our school obtained two original Macs, and I remember reveling in correcting people who referred to the plastic-encased floppy disks as “hard drives” (ensuring I would later never get a date in my home town).

I shipped off to the University of Colorado with the Commodore 128 that I’d promised my parents would get me through all four years (which would eventually became eight years, and require a few additional computers along the way). While in school I used a variety of Macs for layout and publishing, but used mostly PCs for class work. Much of this wasn’t by choice – I’d spend hours drooling over the various Macs and eventually NeXT systems at our local student bookstore. By the time I could finally afford one, I had started my career in IT, with a side business of building PCs, and Macs faded to my past.

But then a strange thing happened. Steve Jobs returned to Apple and the company produced a string of beautiful machines with a new, Unix-based operating system. I was intrigued, and finally invested in a first generation Mac mini for research purposes. Despite being woefully underpowered compared to my home and work PCs, it quickly became my primary system when I wasn’t traveling.

Then the Intel transition was announced, and I pre-ordered one of the first MacBook Pros off the assembly line. I virtualized my work computer, totally against policy, and have been all Mac ever since. In the process I’ve racked up two MacBook Pros, a MacBook for my wife (after banning PCs from the house), five iPods, two iPhones, multiple AirPort Express and Extreme units, and a one very loud Xserve sitting in my closet. I’ve also converted my entire side of the family, and am working on my in-laws.

Hopefully my exuberance makes up for my tardiness.

Mark: Macintosh 512K — I’m a little surprised to discover mine was the earliest Mac purchase of this august group, but after several years of light programming experimentation on a Prime minicomputer at my mom’s office, Commodore PETs, TRS-80s, and Apple ][s at school, and an Atari 400 at home, I bought Apple’s second Macintosh model – the Macintosh 512K – soon after I got to Cornell to use in my Computer Science programming classes. (It was even Friday the 13th, which turned out to be pretty lucky for me.)

That first Mac, with its 9-inch black-and-white screen, saw me through about three years of college, enjoying upgrades first to a Macintosh 512Ke (enjoying new ROMs and support for 800K floppy drives instead of the original 400K) and then finally to a Macintosh Plus, with an entire megabyte of RAM! I wasn’t a Computer Science major for long, but my Mac was great for writing papers and developing software for a professor who hired me to write the Mac version of his DOS application.

Along with my Mac, I had an ImageWriter printer and one of the coolest peripherals imaginable, a Thunderscan scanner attachment from Thunderware that replaced the ImageWriter’s ribbon cartridge and used the printer’s roller and ribbon mechanisms to move photos or other documents through the printer to scan them.

It wasn’t until my next job forced me to set up and support lots of shiny new Macintosh II computers with 13-inch color monitors that my 1 MB of memory and monochrome 9-inch screen started to seem inadequate. I eventually bought my own Mac II with color display and twin floppy drives. The next year, I even added a 30 MB SuperMac Dataframe hard drive!

That Mac II lasted me several years, thanks to RAM and PMMU upgrades. It was joined by a PowerBook 100, and eventually gave way to a SuperMac C600 clone desktop. Along the way, I’ve also had a Quadra 950, Power Mac G4, and a parade of PowerBook and MacBook laptops.

Doug: 20-inch Intel-based iMac — Given that I’m roughly the same age as the Mac itself at 25, my trip down memory lane will be considerably shorter than the preceding expeditions down memory’s Mariana Trench.

Having been raised on Apple through 12 years of public school, distant memories of their computers waft through my brain: Playing Number Munchers and Oregon Trail on what must have been some descendant of the Apple ][ in elementary school; making HyperCard animations with a Macintosh Classic II in middle school; and surfing the Web on an iMac G3 in high school. While Apple was a constant presence in my school life, we had a PC at home – the writing on its console read only, “Standard Computer,” a name I still find hilarious for its cartoonishly generic character. It wasn’t until college that I began to have a conscious
affinity for Macs.

Studying art at Cornell University, I found myself working as a lab monitor at the art building’s Mac lab. The space was decked out with about 20 Power Mac G5s paired with 22-inch Cinema Displays, and I just loved being in there. Whether I was on shift, hanging out between classes, or editing videos for my senior thesis, countless hours of my collegiate career were spent in that lab with those machines. So, in many ways, I consider that setup to be my first Mac.

Eventually though, I did get my hands on one I could truly call my own. Upon graduating from college and moving to New York City, I trotted out to the newly opened 5th Avenue Apple Store to tinker around with the new machines and fell in love with the 20-inch Intel Core Duo iMac. Days later, I ordered one from Apple’s Web site. Only three years old, it still serves me well every day of the week.

[Images linked from many sources, including All About Apple, Low End Mac, Early Office Museum, Greater Pittsburgh Vintage Computer Museum, Old Computers, and Wikimedia Commons.]

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