My First Computer – Columbia VP Portable

My First Computer
by Linda Nagata

Gather round children, and let me tell you a frightening truth: I got through four years of college without a personal computer.

Everyone did in those days, but within a year of graduating, the personal computer revolution had taken off. This was 1983. I was getting married. The husband-to-be wondered if I wanted an engagement ring. I considered it for about a second-and-a-half and said, “Get me a computer instead.” Because by this time I’d decided I was going to be a writer.

So we decided on a Columbia VP Portable, mostly, as I recall, because it was significantly cheaper than the “IBM Clone” desktops of the time. “Portable” is a slight exaggeration on the part of the manufacturer. It’s really a crushingly heavy 35-pounds, not something you’d want to carry with you while commuting on a bus, but it served my purposes.

I learned to write on that computer, and the only thing I used it for was writing, so don’t ask me about DOS. The software I used was WordPerfect, and I have only one complaint about it: now and then when I would load a file, only the first few paragraphs would be retrieved. Unaware of this because the screen was so small, I’d happily start revising from the top of the document, hitting control-S every now and then, only to discover later that the end of the file was missing… and that I’d already overwritten the initial file. (I believe I began to understand the purpose of backup files shortly after this.) At any rate, I was so emotionally scarred by the experience of losing my work that to this day I will often jump to the end of a newly loaded file just to make sure it’s really there.

Many generations of computers have passed through our household since 1983, but the only one I’ve kept long past its time is the first one, the “engagement computer,” not so much because I’m sentimental, but because it’s a curiosity that doesn’t take up a lot of room. I also still have a few 5.25-inch floppy discs, just to complete the collection. Before writing this post, I pulled the old Columbia out to take a few photos. Many years had passed since I’d last turned it on, but I decided to try. Hesitating for just a moment, I turned to the husband (same one): “What if it catches fire?”

It didn’t–and at thirty years of age, it still ran. I didn’t try to actually boot it, a disc needs to be inserted to accomplish that, but the screen lit up, and although there were bright green lines running diagonally across it, the cursor blinked. For a confused moment I couldn’t recall the proper procedure for shutting it down–and then remembered to use the on/off switch.

Ah, but time marches on, and as I sit here typing this post on my one-year-old Mac with its 3.1 GHz Intel Core i5 processor and its 27″-inch screen, I can honestly say that I don’t miss the old Columbia.

Not in the least.

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My First Computer – Columbia VP Portable — 2 Comments

  1. My first computer that I did any writing on was a Commodore 64. WordWriter 3 only allowed a maximum length of 9 pp., so it took me quite a while to make my chapters longer when I graduated to a PC with Windows 3.0 (people kept telling me how much faster DOS was, but I was happy, it was much much faster than the Commodore, though it took me a while to find a version of Rags to Riches I could play on it). I still remember the year when I got a 28.8 modem for Christmas from my husband, so I could play Red Dragon on a local BBS much faster.

  2. Oh, I remember those floppy disks. The size of a salad plate. My first computer that I owned was a PC clone, but I had worked on friends’ PCs (and on an Apple II at one job, and on God-help-us-Wang-word processors at another) before that. And then a room mate got a 1st generation Mac, and despite the teency memory and the Macintosh floppy shuffle, I never looked back. Well, okay, I looked back when necessary, but really.