My First Computer: Osborne I

Malheur Maar - Photo by Vonda N. McIntyreMy First Computer

by Vonda N. McIntyre

I’ve already written a bit about the Osborne I, a tan-case machine with a four-digit serial number, my first personal computer, without which I would never have been able to finish The Entropy Effect by its very tight deadline.  It was a “luggable” machine, about the size and weight of a portable sewing machine. I did lug it around sometimes when I travelled, and it got lugged to downtown Seattle by one of my housemates, who was in charge of directory assistance computers for Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana back when the phone company was still The Phone Company. She let her clerks play with it, and once they’d seen Supercalc, they progressed quickly to “You’ll take it from my cold dead hands.” They soon had an Osborne of their own, once upper management understood that it would pay for itself in a few weeks.

This early machine ran on CP/M. It had 64K of RAM and two single-sided single-density 5.25” floppy drives. No hard drive. The program — for me, usually WordStar — ran off one drive; WordStar saved the data on the other. A single floppy disk, which cost about $5, could hold a whole chapter, 30 pages, if you were careful. If you tried to save more than it could handle, including backup, you were likely to lose everything. Needless to say, I printed out my work at the end of every day. Sometimes in the middle of the day, or night, as the case might be. The paperless office was not quite here yet.

At the time, editors wanted manuscripts in standard manuscript form. I still like my printed manuscripts to look like they came off an IBM Selectric typewriter, typed one side of the page and double-spaced in Courier 10-pitch. But the horrible truth is that I seldom print anything anymore, and email the manuscript to the editor in whatever form she prefers.

But at the time, one had to have a decent printer. We bought a daisy-wheel printer because editors found dot-matrix printers, which were much cheaper, to create unacceptable results. I can’t blame them for feeling that way, as dot-matrix type was very difficult to read.

The problem with the daisy wheel printer was that it was set up to print proportional type instead of ten characters to the inch, and requests for help in changing to monospace type were met with astonishment, ridicule, and “Why would you want it to do that?” It took a couple of hours on the phone with a very patient customer service rep (three time zones away — he stayed well past quitting time) to fix it.

Petroglyphs - photo by Vonda N. McIntyreI lugged the Osborne to the Malheur Field Station for a writing workshop, Write Here, where we baked in the desert and explored lava tubes and looked (don’t touch!) at petroglyphs and birdwatched at Malheur Lake and Knox Pond. Though Malheur Lake was experiencing one of its periodic mysterious rises, and lapped right up to the edge of the road, the area was very dry and very hot. The Osborne beetled along courageously in 100F heat, mimicking the machine on the Osborne magazine that the company sent to buyers. The Osborne on the cover was in Afghanistan — a long time ago, a different war, and while the conditions were much harsher there, the SE Oregon desert in August was quite a challenge to the little machine as I used it to create our class magazine (Inveterate Doers of This Sort of Thing — a Coyote reference), to write a story (“Malheur Maar”), and to write one of my few attempts at poetry.

“Diamond Craters” was a poem only an sf-loving geologist (or a geology-loving sf reader) could love. I sent it out a couple of times, to puzzled rejections, and finally street-mailed a copy to the author of Roadside Geology of Washington. There’s a Roadside Geology of Oregon, but the Washington State edition was the one that lived in my car. I told the author how much I enjoyed his book, and that I hoped he would enjoy my poem. He wrote back to say that he liked it very much, could not understand why The New Yorker hadn’t bought it, and had hung it on his wall.

Needless to say I was thrilled.

More that a decade later I did place the poem, in the Newsletter of the Alabama Geological Society, which was edited by an sf-writing geologist.

Diamond Craters

The lava-bomb eater
Nibbles delicately at the red basalt,
Crunches through the skin to the center,
And savors the obsidian core.
Those black ones taste good,
Melting to runny glass,
But the shakers dissolve deliciously
When the ancient sediments
And fossil bones
Touch the tongue.

 

By that decade, I had moved on from the Osborne. Next came an MP/M machine with 8” floppies and a virtual hard drive, whose cables had been threaded through the heating ducts of the house with the help of a radio-controlled toy tank. It now lives in the Seattle computer museum. After that a series of hand-built desktop DOS machines; CP/M had been left a couple of strata below. Then a bunch of laptops. And a PDA, my beloved Palm Pilot, though I will never forgive the company for changing its name from US Robotics. Then a series of smartphones. It astounds me that whenever I get a new phone, it has more memory, more storage, more power than every computer I’ve owned except the most recent machine.

Combined.

The Osborne was never quite the same after I took it to the desert.

On the other hand, that was 1981, and a few years ago when I booted it up, it still worked.

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About Vonda N. McIntyre

Vonda N. McIntyre writes science fiction. Her most recent ebook is the short story "Little Sisters," a companion piece to her Nebula-nominated story "Little Faces." She is the author of The Moon and the Sun (Nebula), Dreamsnake (Nebula, Hugo, Locus Award), and the Sherlock Holmes Scientific Romance "The Adventure of the Field Theorems." Her backlist is available at the BVC Ebook Store. For signed hardcovers of her SF novels, visit her website’s Basement Full of Books. The Moon and the Sun has been filmed as a major motion picture, "The King's Daughter," starring Kaya Scodelario, Pierce Brosnan, and William Hurt. Vonda visited the filming at the chateau de Versailles, and wrote several blog posts about the experience.
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3 Responses to My First Computer: Osborne I

  1. Ph yllis Irene Radford says:

    Yesterday I bought a new HP Pavilion with a 15+” screen, weighing only 5.4 lbs. It has a 500 GB hard drive. Brought back memories of my son working 12 hour days at the fireworks stand for 10 days to save up enough money to buy 1 MG of memory for the Apple II GS.

    Kids these days don’t know what they missed. And maybe they shouldn’t.

    PS I too love my palm pilot. I lived by that device for years.

  2. Phyl, congrats on the new machine. It sounds shiny!

    The concept of a megabyte of memory, or even disk storage, was inconceivable back in the early 1980s. (The machine I’m posting from has 4Gb memory and a 500Gb hard drive, and it’s almost three years old. And I keep almost everything so you’d think the hard drive would be filling up, but noooo.)

    I went to a convention when I’d had the Osborne for a year or so — might even have migrated to the MPM machine by then — and personal computers for writers were just taking off. So they were the talk of any writers’ gathering that weekend, and I had a bit of a head start on hardware/software questions at that point.

    Finally, along about Sunday afternoon, I couldn’t stand it any more and I said, “Hey, folks, couldn’t we talk about something else for a little bit? Art? Writing? How about them Seahawks?” (I hasten to add that I’m not a fan of organized sports so if they had started talking about the Seahawks, I’d’ve been… at sea.)

    “Absolutely!” said one of my colleagues. “We should talk about writing. But, one more question, when your printer…”

    V.

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