My First Computer: What the heck was it?

You have no idea how difficult it has been for me to figure out what my first computer was.

I’m thirty-three years old, and my parents both worked in IT from an early point. We had computers in our house further back than I can remember. My father would bring them home from the office: I have one clear memory of sitting on the floor of our living room with the Compaq Portable he’d lugged home — and I do mean lugged. Wikipedia tells me that thing weighted twenty-eight pounds. When I tell this story to people, I say it was the size of a suitcase, and it weighed as much as a suitcase filled with lead. But I couldn’t have been more than, what, seven? when it showed up, so I suspect it’s bigger and heavier in my memory than reality.

But I have another memory, this one of sitting at our dining room table, nine years old, typing in letters to the son of some family friends. Both families were about to go on a sailing trip together in the British Virgin Islands, so we were writing letters back and forth to get introduced beforehand. And that one, to me, is the First Computer We Owned. So the question becomes, what was it?

To answer this question, I e-mailed my parents. My mother called a couple of hours later to ask me something unrelated, and we got to chatting about this topic. She hypothesized that it might have been a TRS-80 from Radio Shack, more colloquially known as a “Trash-80.” It seems likely we had one of those around at some point, because she had done some work for a friend on one — she couldn’t remember the friend’s name — or maybe it was a Compaq? Or something else? I should ask my father; he would remember better than she would.

Later that afternoon, I call my father. Off he goes on a trip down Memory Lane, recalling the various computers he brought home from work, including that “luggable” I remembered from the living room floor. He knew the name of the friend my mother had done the work for, but also told me we didn’t own the Trash-80; that was borrowed. No, the first computer we owned was some kind of off-brand thing from a store on Midway Road. (The store, as I learn in the next stage of this process, was called SABET, which stood for “Save a Bundle Every Time.”) The computer had a name, but he couldn’t remember it. Probably it was a 286 processor.

Hang on a sec, sez I. Throughout my later childhood, I had hand-me-down computers: when something got too old and outdated for my father, it would go to my brother (until my brother got to the point where he was buying his own machines), and then when my brother got something better from my father, the previous computer would go to me. I remembered having a 386, and I remembered having a 286, but before that, I had an 8088.

No way, my father says. We never owned anything that obsolete. The 8088 processor, Wikipedia tells me, was introduced in 1979; I was talking about having this in my bedroom circa 1990, or even later. What he bought was probably a 286 — those launched in 1982, and were common from 1984 onward. But I should ask my brother; he would remember better than my father would.

(At this point, I’m starting to feel like I’m in a fairy tale. Or a Mario game. “I’m sorry; your processor is in another castle.”)

Late that night, I call my brother. Doing a blog post, etc etc, Dad says you might remember that computer. Sure, my brother says. What was it?, I ask. He makes that “shrug” noise you use when you’re talking on the phone and the other person can’t see you shrug. It didn’t have a name; it was, as my father had said, some off-brand thing put together in the store. Maybe they had a name for it, but it wasn’t something we ever used. I tell him Dad thought it began with an M. Maybe that stood for Mark something? Or it had Mark in it somewhere? My brother snorts. Maybe, but it wasn’t on the case or anything; he doesn’t remember any name.

He does, however, remember the specs.

And here, at last, I am vindicated. My brother says it was an 8088-2 processor! (As I had told my father: why on god’s green earth would I know that number if we never owned a computer of that type?) 8 Mhz, 640K RAM, 20 MB MFM hard drive — he still has one of the platters from that drive in his office, all 10 MB worth of it. (What he uses this for, I don’t ask. Conversation piece? Bookend? Paperweight? It certainly isn’t useful for anything else.) CGA graphics — I remember that, too, because I remember upgrading to EGA and VGA as I went through my hand-me-down computers — and two 5.25″ floppy drives.

Mind you, I’m pretty sure I crossed some wires in the course of my quest. I remember typing on a computer on the dining room table — but is that when I was writing those letters, in 1989? Or was I just playing around at some earlier point on the Trash-80, which did indeed live in that room for a time? My father thinks the Midway computer, the 8088, was in the office in the back hallway. And we’re not certain when we got that one; we may or may not have had it by the time of the letters. These details, alas, are lost to the mists of time.

I could have approached this from a different angle. My first computer, the first one that was mine and only mine and not somebody’s decrepit old relic, was the laptop my parents bought for me the summer before my freshman year of college. It was a Gateway; it ran Windows XP; it weighed eight pounds and had a 4GB hard drive — I remember that much because when I graduated from college, my brother gave me a hand-me-down iPod that had a 5GB hard drive. I put it on the desk next to my computer and stared at the two of them for a while, the big fat laptop and the little tiny iPod, and I remembered wondering a few short years before how the heck I was ever going to fill four gigabytes of hard drive space.

But I don’t remember the specs, not like my brother remembers that 8088. And I’m glad I decided to write this post about that machine, not my own first laptop. It was fun going down Memory Lane with my whole family. And while my brother was visiting BBSes and playing around with code on his computers, when they came to me, I used them to write. From the age of ten onward, when I made up stories, they went onto the screen rather than onto paper. That 8088 held the earliest efforts of Marie Brennan, fantasy writer, and I’m glad that somebody in my family remembers it.



About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


My First Computer: What the heck was it? — 6 Comments

  1. I still have tucked in the back of a closet a Gateway with XP and the 4Gigs of RAM. It died of fan failure and I haven’t gotten around to recycling it yet. Inherited from Big Brother Ed who ran head long into tech support and refused to try to adjust it with CDs he already had but couldn’t find them right under his nose.

    It was a good laptop for about 4 years, until it died. I still miss XP.

  2. When the power supply to my old Gateway went out — to the point where the machine wouldn’t even work when plugged in — I went to a local Gateway store and asked about replacing it, and they laughed at me. Not only did they not have any power supplies for it, but the machine had been built before standardization of connections, or so they told me, so nobody else would have any solution either.

    I have a laptop hard drive external enclosure now but haven’t got around to dismantling the Gateway to see if the hard drive would attach to the enclosure. Given the the machine’s pre-standards condition, I’m kind of assuming it won’t. But you never know.

    I guess if I haven’t needed anything off that machine in more than a decade, then probably I don’t need anything off that machine at all, but there are a few bits I might like to retrieve for historical purposes.


    • Heh — yeah, I don’t remember what the connectors were like, but things definitely weren’t standardized yet. Power supply is where I eventually had my problems, too; the battery wouldn’t take a charge anymore, so it had to be plugged in all the time, which really reduces the utility of a laptop. It was still alive when I got a desktop to replace it, though.

  3. What a fun post!

    My first computer was an ATARI 1040. And I remember using that kind of computer earlier because my father got them through some foundation at work. I loved working those Ataris, with a RAM disk – they didn’t have a hard drive back then, but we simulated one, basically.

    My first serious writing happened on a more modern PC, however. It might have been running XP, but I have a feeling it could have been Win NT, as well. Now I’m on Win 7, but I still have XP tucked away in a Virtual Machine. I can’t imagine not writing on a computer.

    Memory Lane indeed.