Living Out Loud

My First Computer


In December of 1993, I found myself single for the first time in my adult life. I'd just gone through several life changes, getting out of an unhappy marriage, leaving a stressful job and moving. While waiting to rent an apartment, I spent a week staying at my uncle's house. He was the only person I knew who had a computer and it wasn't much. I think it was a 386 running DOS 5 with maybe a 40MB hard drive. One thing it did have was a 2400bps modem and a connection to Prodigy, one of the early online services. I was fascinated by it. I'd never used a computer before other than a hand held device in the Army that we used to call artillery missions, a use case my job at Westinghouse didn't call for.

I talked to a friend who encouraged me to get my own PC. Knowing absolutely nothing, I went to Circuit City and used a credit card to get an IBM 486/33 SX with 4MB or RAM and a 140MB hard drive. It did not have a sound card or a CD-ROM drive, although it had both a 3.5 inch and 5.25 inch floppy drives. It had a 2400 bps modem. I made sure of that.  It had Windows 3.1. The monitor was 14 inches and ran 640x480. It cost about $1800 dollars. That's equivalent to $3,195 in 2024.

I had no one to teach me how to use the computer or even how to hook it up. I just had to figure it out. I bought a copy of Windows 3.1 for Dummies and would sit in front of the keyboard with the book on my lap and explore things like the file manager and program groups. I started writing documents using Notepad, the only native text entry app the OS offered. Of course I got a Prodigy and then an AOL account just as soon as I could. Those allowed me to talk to other people but there still wasn't a news division or anything like local weather reports. That came later. I got the telephone number to local bulletin boards (BBS) and would dial into them. The first time I downloaded a ZIP file I didn't know how to open it. I changed the file extension to EXE and double-clicked because I knew EXE meant it might do something. It didn't. I ran with that initial 4MB of RAM for quite awhile until I bought an additional 4MB for $200. It cam with a VHS tape to show you how to install it.

I found the whole thing fascinating. I borrowed software from whoever I could get it from, installing Word Perfect that came in at a whopping 12MB of precious room on my HD. I bought computer magazines and talked tech with whoever I could find that had an interest. I learned how to edit my autoexec.bat and config.sys files to maximize performance. I bought one of the first bubble jet printers carried by the stores in my hometown. Twenty months later, when Windows 95 was released, I was ready. By the end of 1995 I'd moved from the manufacturing floor of my factory into the quality department, using Corel Draw and an early Kodak digital camera to create technical documents. I worked part time in the IT shop and learned the basics of networking. I eventually left technical writing and editing behind and have worked full time in IT ever since.

At home, the computer sat on a table in the living room. My elementary aged kids were allowed to use it but there wasn't much in the way of kids software available, even online. We didn't eat or drink at the  keyboard and everyone was real damn careful walking around area. I eventually replaced the 486 with a Pentium Packard Bell that I bought at Sears. I sold the original machine for $300. Of all the  computers I've owned in the past 30 years, it was the most important, even more than my beloved Macs. Sitting at that mechanical keyboard, alone but for a book learning everything I could and trying not to crash it, I built the foundation of an entire self-taught career. It's the best money I ever spent.