Close this search box.

My First Computer

I have never dipped a goose feather into an inkwell and scribbled words on paper, much less onto parchment or some other substitute for paper. Romantic as it may sound to do so just once in order to acquaint myself with the experience, it’s not something I would turn to if I had to engage in any sort of productive writing, as in, write for money.

What frightens me is that people not much younger than I have never been in the position where the most efficient way to compose a substantial quantity of formal written work is to resort to the use of a typewriter. Certainly my children were never confronted with that situation.

I still regard my first computer and its word-processing software with a form of awe.

The moment was a long time coming, and I was well into adulthood when it happened. As I forged through my apprentice phase, the stories and novel chapters I composed were in fact bashed out on a typewriter. And when I say bashed out, I mean it. My early manuscripts were done on by means of an ancient, 1920s-model Underwood. A likeness of it is captured by the illustration at the upper left — a drawing I created in order to have a multi-purpose business card. The typewriter represented my writer identity. The artwork was meant to leave a favorable impression with prospective clients for my freelance graphic-art business. Bash. Bash. Bash. I had to hit each key with considerable force or the relevant typebar wouldn’t slap the ink ribbon against the paper and platen well enough to leave a legible character. An added complication was that I had to type at a precise speed so that the retreating typebar didn’t get tangled with the incoming typebar.

When I really got into a writing session, by the end of it, my fingertips were sore.

In college, I still had that Underwood on my desk, but at work, I was able to use IBM Selectrics. At the newspaper where I did production work, my supervisor would sometimes have me sit down at her computerized typesetting station and do some inputting while she was occupied with other tasks. I still dream of those old IBM and Compugraphic keyboards. Soon I was exceeding a hundred words a minute with almost no errors.

Understand I am not bragging. That speed would not have been acceptable at a shop dedicated to typesetting, and a hundred words a minute was a distinct notch slower than my supervisor. I mention it to share the joy I felt. It was an “am I really doing this?” sort of epiphany, like a one-year-old realizing he can walk, like a six-year-old knowing he will never again need training wheels on his bicycle. Selectrics were the real deal. True, at that point the words I was dealing with had to do with local news or with advertising, but I could at least imagine using the same skills and same sort of equipment to come up with fiction worthy of publication.

Eventually I found the right words, and the result was my first short-story sale. It garnered a little over five hundred dollars. That was more than a month’s pay at my regular job, but I did not hesitate to spend nearly all of it in order to acquire a used IBM Selectric.

Sad to say, I didn’t keep the Underwood. Technically it belonged to my parents and I returned it to them once I had purchased the Selectric. I understand my thinking back then. It had once been the best tool available to me, but its day was done. What I did not anticipate was that it would soon be given to my very-young nephews to use as a toy. Their attentions damaged it beyond repair. I now deeply regret my choice.

The Selectric carried me through more stories and the early partial drafts of The Sorcery Within, which was to become my first published novel. In early 1983, Ace Books made an offer based on an outline and sample chapters. I toyed with the idea of using part of the advance on a computer. By then, personal computers had become available. But to a man of my limited means, the devices were still far too expensive. My novel advance was only $3500, which as editor Terri Windling described it in the offer letter, was “not enough to keep a mouse alive.” I needed that money for things like, um, rent, food, gasoline.

And so I kept plugging away. Every typo meant a dab of Liquid Paper and retyping. Every revision session meant marking up the existing draft with red pen, following by the retyping of every page with more than one or two small changes.

A new member of my science fiction club, Bob Fleming, asked why I didn’t use a computer. “Can’t afford it,” I said.

He had a solution. He was doing a lot of array-processor design for a computer maker named Cromemco. They had recently released a personal computer, even though their specialty was machines for businesses and government agencies. They called it the C-10. The company had given Bob one. Then they gave him an upgrade so that he and his wife-to-be, Cherie Kushner, could develop the spellchecking program to go with the word-processing program — software unique to the C-10. Their first one was now a spare. Bob offered it to me.

I said no.

No? Was I crazy? Not exactly. I was a young writer who had sold precisely one novelette, one foreign-language reprint of that novelette, and a novel that had yet to be published. I still needed to impress editors with such things as clean, handsome manuscripts. The Selectric, fitted with a carbon-film ribbon, allowed me to produce such manuscripts. Whereas the C-10 came with a dot matrix printer.

Let’s not even get into the particulars of dot matrix. Suffice it to say, making an editor a read dot-matrix printout was not likely to earn me another fiction sale.

But Bob was a determined son-of-a-gun. He also had considerably more financial wherewithal than I. So when I said no for the second time, he came back with a revised proposal. This time I accepted.

Because he had bought me a daisywheel printer.

That sucker was loud. It was slow. It printed slower than I could type! But all I had to do was get the words right on the screen, and the printer wouldn’t add any typos. It would generate manuscripts essentially as clean as any I could produce using the Selectric. To have that, I could deal with some noise and sluggishness.

The serendipity of it was, the noisiness of daisywheel printers generated quite a nice chunk of income for me. One of my graphic-art clients that year was Gates Acoustinet. Their entire business was building insulated hoods to go over daisywheel printers to muffle the racket and allow workers in typical office settings to do about their jobs without being deafened. I drew example after example of hoods customized for various types of printers and varying amounts of workspace, and these illustrations graced Gates Acoustinet price lists and catalogs.

Bob and Cherie kept on providing me with hand-me-downs for another fifteen years or so. You’ve heard of patrons of the arts? Well, that describes the two of them. However, once IBM stomped into into the home-PC market, Cromemco bowed out, as did so many other early home-computer manufacturers. I won’t bore you with descriptions of those other computers. In terms of nostalgia, I don’t care about them. They were just features of my office. But the C-10 still holds a special place in my heart.

It had its limitations. Among those is that it was a heavy desktop model with a small CRT screen. Green monochrome letters. Two disc drives holding 5¼-inch floppies. One disc held the boot-up instructions, the word processing software, and just enough space to hold a document of 8,000 words or less. It had no hard drive. If I wanted to keep what I had written, I had to save it to the other floppy disc, which was capable of holding about 40,000 words.

Some of my stories and a few of my novel chapters exceeded 8,000 words. In that case, I had to make separate files, each holding a fraction of the text.

The word processor was minimal. Not much more than a text editor. (The spellchecker, though, was the best I’ve ever used. Bob and Cherie were the designers. Creating spellcheckers was one of the ways the couple earned the money that allowed them to purchase the house they bought right next to George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch.) But the difference between creating one good electronic file of a chapter versus retyping draft after draft? That was golden.

I won’t forget. The younger generation may not be able to relate. I understand that. So be it. But while I breathe, I won’t forget.


2 thoughts on “My First Computer”

  1. Howard Brazee

    I was surprised when someone from a younger generation than mine chose to do inventory at MileHiCon using her phone when there was a computer with a keyboard available.

    I do have one regret in learning to type. I knew that I made lots of mistakes with my old manual typewriter in high school, so when I graduated, I took a typing course in the local community college. Some friends asked me if I wanted to share expenses as they went to Woodstock and I turned them down, I needed that course.

  2. I hated my electric typewriter that I took to college. It was too slow for my mind. I’d be writing three term papers in my head while trying to pound out the one that was due tomorrow. Of course I got them mixed up.

    My first computer was a Commadore Vic 20. My Little Baby Boy (LBB) was about 8 and we shared it. No hard drive. 5 1/4 floppy disc. I got about 5 pages in a file.

    Quickly graduated to a Commadore 65.

    Then my LBB started building computers. Now he works for intel on the Apple team. I remember the day he bought his first full meg of memory. Excited whoops and cheers. He stayed up all night installing it and playing with it.

    At one point in my LBB’s career he’d loan me laptops that he’d tested prototypes for heat problems. After 2 1/2 years it shrivled and died. He had no replacement. So I asked what I should buy. The newest upgrade of the computer that just died. Why? it died. But first it survived LBB and then remained working for 2 years.

    Years later I’d outgrown the limited hard drive of a laptop that had slowed to boot up speed of near 0. I visited LLB and his family for BayCon. They took me computer shopping. I’d play with keyboards then turn loose the 2 grandsons aged 4 & 10. They decided for me which one I should buy. It served me well for close to 10 years, the longest any computer has lasted me.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *