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Diary of a 1980s PC

November, 1984: I, an AT&T; PC 6300, am born of Olivetti in Italy in a large factory. The steel hands that assemble me are cold and unfeeling. I visit with my cousins, Olivetti machines, only briefly before I am packed in a carton and shipped to the United States. I am glad my assembly is over; I am looking forward to meeting my new owners overseas.

Christmas, 1984: I am unwrapped and see my owners for the first time! Everyone is happy. My BASIC tutorial is loaded while the younger owners write their first "Hello, world" program. A couple of graphical example screens are printed out, thanks to GRAPHICS.COM. The oldest owner loads SuperWriter and writes a letter. There is one piece of software, JingleDisk, that will not run on me because I only have 128K of RAM and it requires 256K of RAM, but otherwise all is good. I like it here!

January, 1985: The oldest owner surprised the other owners by coming home with a long plastic tube with several little chips inside. RAM! I eagerly await the expansion of my short-term memory. Maybe now I can run JingleDisk and please them further.

(Sometime later) I am not sure of how much time has passed, since my short-term memory has been removed and installed several times over, confusing me. Looking about me, the room appears funny, and I feel a chill on my underside. I am upside down! It appears as if my memory is to be installed on the underside of my motherboard. It is a good thing the bottom half of my case is separate from the top half. What an odd design! I think I feel my disk controller down here too, but I have only seconds to think about it as my RAM is ripped out again...

(Later still) I have been put back together and turned on. 640K! I feel... larger, somehow. More capable. The younger owner thinks that my overly-expanded memory is wasteful, since JingleDisk only needed 256K, but the older owner assures him that we will find a use for it. I easily run JingleDisk, once for each family member. I am so happy that I can perform useful tasks for them.

April, 1985: My full 640K is put to use when my eldest owner writes several chapters of a book. Since I can remember all the words, I do not have to keep looking up words from diskette at all. My younger owners print out signs and greeting cards quickly, because I do not have to stop and rethink the printed page's contents constantly. I am pleased to be so useful!

August, 1986: Many changes have occurred in my owners' household. A cousin of mine, another AT&T; PC 6300, was purchased for the exclusive use of the eldest owner. There are now two of us in this household. I am more envious than happy, since the newer PC has a color monitor and math co-processor. At least the eldest owner gave me to his oldest one, a boy 14 years of age, so I am now his exclusive property, which should be entertaining.

(Later in the day) It turns out that the color monitor was for my new owner! We spend the rest of the day running every single piece of software in his collection, with most of the time spent in games and DeluxePaint. I now dream in color.

November, 1986: My owner got so frustrated with my tiny piezo speaker's lack of volume that he opened me up and cut it off! Ouch! I was afraid I'd never speak again until he returned from the local Radio Shack with a 1/8th" headphone jack and some wire. It isn't pretty; the headphone jack dangles outside of the case while the two wires feed through the front of my venting grill. But I do sound much better coming through a stereo system. Music Construction Set is actually pleasing to the ear whenever my owner boosts the low end on his equalizer, and the digitized sound in Magic Mushroom and Castle Wolfenstein is now audible.

(Later in the month) I have found the true reason why my speaker was cut out and replaced with a headphone jack--my owner wanted to disguise his computing efforts from his parents. How do I know this? Because for the last couple of nights, my internal clock has shown the time well past 1:00am before he turns me off.

December, 1986: I have talked to others like myself for the first time, and it was wonderful! A 1200 baud Hayes internal modem was borrowed from my owner's friend (they never used it, I suppose) and inserted into me. It was a tight fit, since my case is half an inch shorter than other cases, but once it went in, my owner and I were talking to other computers and downloading their data into the wee hours of the night. Games, information, stories, pictures... I never knew there was so much to experience beyond my owner's household! I feel that the life of my owner will never be the same.

March, 1987: A most curious thing was pushed into one of my slots today: A hardware board called "The Mindscape Music Board" that came with a software program called "Bank Street Music Writer". The next few months of my owner's computing time are spent composing and transcribing songs to be output through this board. I am not used to singing--I sound quite awkward--but it is good to be more useful to my owner.

June, 1987: I feel stronger! My owner purchased a replacement brain for my chassis: An NEC v30. Not only is it more efficient than the Intel 8086 that was in me, but it emulates an 8080 in hardware, allowing my owner to run CP/M programs natively. (I do not see the purpose in that, but it makes my owner happy, so it makes me happy too.) I am able to run programs 25%-35% faster because the v30 does what I tell it to in fewer cycles.

August, 1987: A most curious thing was attached to my keyboard today. I believe it was a mouse, because it sent a flurry of signals every few seconds to conduct the movements of an on-screen pointer. My elders at the factory told me that mice were connected through my serial port, not the keyboard. No matter; I enjoy looking at the pictures my owner creates.

Later in the day: My owner has discovered an interesting side-effect of the keyboard-mouse: When no software is loaded, it still functions by "pressing" my arrow keys during mouse movement. This way, he can control ordinary text-mode applications that don't even support a mouse, like Bank Street Music Writer. Now I understand why it connects through my keyboard.

Later in the month: I was burnt by my careless owner! My owner wanted to run the latest version of Microsoft Word for DOS using the special AT&T; PC 6300 drivers that enable my high-resolution 640x400 graphical mode, but this required a BIOS upgrade from my existing rev 1.21 to the new 1.43. This involved the removal of my two BIOS chips and the insertion of the new ones. Unfortunately for me, he inserted one of them backwards. I screamed as he turned me on, as the pain was instantly unbearable, but it took him a couple of seconds to notice that the label on the backwards chip was turning brown, and it was fried beyond repair. Since one of the BIOS chips was for ROM code and the other contained controller functions, he replace the burnt chip (controller functions) with the old one, and I reluctantly booted up. Luckily, the ROM code was the updates that were needed, and I finally ran Word for DOS in extended graphical mode. But I am scarred, and my mind is fragmented.

September to October, 1987: Disaster! My monitor was left on for three straight days, and the room in which I reside grew to a temperature of 90 degrees during most of that time. It got so hot that my monitor's flyback transformer failed! I am useless as my owner waits two long months for my monitor to be repaired. Why two months? Because my proprietary connections require an actual AT&T; color monitor--I do not work with generic CGA monitors--and it is cheaper to send it back to AT&T; to repair it than to replace it.

November, 1987: The return of my monitor has sparked feverish, renewed interest for me in my owner. Including upgrades--My owner's love for games, coupled with his second-ever job at the retail software store "Babbage's", has prompted my owner to obtain and insert a Central Point Option Board in me. It feels like a parasite; it sits between myself and my floppy drives, sucking my energy, and takes over whenever my owner attempts to duplicate a copy-protected program. I'd deliberately sabotage it, if only it didn't work so well and make him happy. Installing the board was difficult; my floppy-drive cable serpentines throughout my case and is just barely long enough to reach the floppy drives.

June, 1988: My owner used to use me every single night after he finished schoolwork (which I helped him prepare faster), but for the last two months, he's hardly powered me up. In fact, I hardly see him; his younger brother has been using me for games instead. I have found that I enjoy adventure games less than other games; most of my cycles are spent waiting for my owner's brother to do something. It gets very boring sometimes.

September, 1988: I am starting to get used by my owner again, but not for any of the fun things we used to do before. All we do now is create correspondence to something named "Kathy". I don't know what "Kathy" is, but I dislike it because that is what takes up my owner's time. Am I not interesting enough?

October, 1988: It appears as if the element in my owner's life called "Kathy" is gone, because he is back to using me all the time! I am getting quite the workout. Yet, for some reason, it isn't as rewarding as I thought it would be. My owner seems to be centering on activities that take a very long time, like programming, or playing adventure games with much text in them. I have witnessed him being cross to his younger brother, and sometimes he just lies down on his bed and plays music over and over. This "Kathy" element has negatively altered him. I am glad it is gone.

August, 1989: My owner is going away to someplace called "college", and he is taking me with him! In preparation for "college", I am being upgraded yet again. The math co-processor was taken from my cousin downstairs and inserted into me (it turns out that my owner's father didn't use Lotus 1-2-3 enough to warrant the use of it, and thought it would be more useful for complex math problems at "college"). And I now have 60 times the storage capacity of my floppy drives, thanks to a Plus Hardcard that was crammed into my short case. The addition of a hard drive has made life easier for the both of us, and although I am glad to give my aging floppy drives a rest, I will miss my owner's clever speed tricks that we spent hours discovering.

For example, he used 35K of my RAM for a RAM disk, and used a boot disk that would set up the RAM disk, copy COMMAND.COM over to it, and set the COMSPEC variable to point to the COMMAND.COM in RAM. This way, he avoided the necessity of keeping the boot disk in the floppy drive, and never saw the "Insert disk with COMMAND.COM in drive A: and strike any key when ready" message that used to appear after particularly large games were run.

Another trick he used to speed things up was the addition of a disk cache called Lightning, which he dedicated another 35K to. Lightning wasn't used so much for it's actual cache capabilities, but for its read-ahead routine. Whenever an individual sector read was requested of the floppy drive, Lightning read the entire track instead. This way, if the program wanted to read the next sector, it would feed it directly out of the track cache instead of doing another read. This didn't increase program loading times much, but greatly sped up the general operation of the program as it opened and read its own data files. Ah, memories... Those tricks sure were fun to discover!

I am intentionally writing a longer entry in my diary today, because I don't know when my next entry will be since I am being packed up into a box for transport to "college" tomorrow.

October, 1990: These last 13 months at "college" have been a whirlwind! "College" must be what they call party gatherings, because ever since I got here, my owner and his new friends have been playing games on me almost continuously. So much so, in fact, that I woke up one morning to discover a 3.5" drive jammed into my casing, presumably to trade games with his other friends that own newer computers with 3.5" drives. I can only read 720K disks with it (I only support double-density drives), so my owner purchases three packages of 720K disks to give to his trading friends.

I am glad that he turned me off before he started the surgery, because I don't think I would have been able to take the pain of what must have been a metal-cutting saw ripping a hole in my frame.

January, 1991: My owner received a gift this Christmas, a gift that I wish was irreparably damaged in transport. It is a new PC, a no-name clone, based on the 80386SX chip. It is much, much faster than me--even with all of my upgrades! It has twice the hard drive space, four times the memory, 64 times the color... it can even read my 5.25" disks as well as 3.5". I am scared. What will become of me? Will I get a new owner?

February, 1991: I have a new owner. He is related to my old owner in some way, but unlike my owner's immediate family, he doesn't have any interest in me. My old owner set me up for word processing and simple database activities, but I am relegated to a corner of the shop my new owner operates until I am set up for use. I hope it happens soon... I can feel my floppy drive heads starting to seize up. If they aren't used soon, they may stop operating for good.

March 1991 to April 1999: I sit, unused, in the corner of my new owner's shop. He smokes, and it invades my interior, coating everything with a fine layer of dust. I sit next to a radiator, whose heat occasionally warps my case slightly. The moisture from the radiator's vapor mixes with the cigarette smoke, which bonds to my plastic case, turning it dark yellow. I still have purpose, I suppose; I have given birth to several generations of spiders, who like to hide from the elements in my case. And I also prop things up.

I am so alone. What did I do to deserve this? Did I fail in my duties?

May, 1999: After sitting the same place for over 8 years, I am hefted back up onto the counter and my case is violently ripped off, sending a family of spiders scurrying. I am expecting the end of my existence, and instead I see... the face of my original owner! He's back to claim me! I almost didn't recognize him, as his face looks very different than it did 8 years ago. I am overjoyed. I can go to the scrap heap happy, knowing that I am still valued. I am put into a box again, but this time I am not afraid.

June, 1999: After a month of darkness, I am lifted out of my box and put onto a table in the garage with tools, cleaning solution, a can of compressed air, and some blank floppy disks, amongst other items. Some of my old peripherals are here, like my old Bank Street Music Writer music board and Option Board. I am being restored!! Can I still be useful after 15 years?

After opening me up, my owner removes all the cobwebs and spent spider egg sacs, and all the dust is blown out of my floppy drives. Alcohol is applied to the floppy drive heads, and WD-40 is sprayed into the servo motor and shaft. A little heat is applied to the inside of my case in an attempt to bend it back into shape; it discolors me, but I guess that's why he applied it to the inside instead of the outside. All of my cables, connectors, and cards are pulled off, then reseated firmly. All of my external surfaces are scrubbed with cleaning solution in an attempt to remove the dark yellow color caused by years of smoke; cleaning the keyboard alone takes an hour. I have a new 40MB hard drive added to me, as my Plus Hardcard failed a long time ago. And I power up, after 8 years, and breathe!

After my hard drive is partitioned and formatted, I am brought into my owner's new house, and am surprised beyond belief at all of the other computers in the room. It appears that computers are not only a career path for him, but a hobby as well. There are fast machines that run beyond 200MHz, for complex tasks; there is a 286 that, until I arrived, had been duplicating disks with the Option Board; there is a Tandy 1000, a "multimedia" PC clone with extra graphics and sound. But perhaps the greatest honor I have in being reintroduced into my owner's life is being seated next to an original IBM PC/XT! Royalty! We had heard stories about The PC while in the factory, that we were all created in his image... and now here I was, sitting next to one. I have seen it all now.

I also derive a small amount of pleasure from noticing that the no-name 80386SX clone that replaced me is nowhere to be seen. I am informed by the 286 that the no-name clone had its motherboard upgraded to an AMD 386/40, then was migrated to a new tower case, then was upgraded yet again to a 486/66, and then eventually had all the parts farmed out to other projects. The no-name clone's floppy drive was the last to go, having drifted so far out of alignment that it was impractical to fix. Well, fine then. Good riddance.

August 1999: I am not used by my owner nearly as much as I used to be, but it is comforting to know that, even surrounded by modern computers, I still have purpose. In fact, I can still do things that they can't do, like deguass my monitor at will (software-controlled degaussing was built into my proprietary monitor connectors), read 720K double-density 5.25" disks (used by some CP/M systems, my proprietary floppy drives can be configured to read them), and duplicate copy-protected programs with my Option Board. But I am happiest when my owner fires up one of the old games we used to play for a round or two. You see, even with slowdown programs and tweaking the BIOS settings, there are some games a modern PC simply cannot run due to the occaisional use of self-modifying code or direct video hardware programming used in games from my era.

15 years old, and I can still be useful. I am happy. I am at peace.

Present day: I rest, powered down for many years in storage. It is not lonely; there are many other computers like me in here. I am packed very lovingly into my box, with plastic to protect against the spiders. I know I will be brought out and used again. I sleep without nightmares.

The above "diary" is about 70% fact and 30% embellishment; certain events are out of order, or are a composite from multiple experiences, or have different names or places. I did this to make the story more interesting. But, the PC in question really did exist, I really did own it, and it remains in my possession to this day (in perfectly restored working condition, of course).

I can thank this PC for my career, which is why I wanted to retrieve and restore it. To that end, I also thank my Dad, for buying the PC 6300 and giving to me in the first place.

The moral of the story? Just because a computer is old doesn't mean it is worthless. Was it worthless to you when you bought it all those years ago?

Do you really need Microsoft Office to write a letter or keep track of addresses? Do you really need a 3 GHz machine to play chess with you? Do you really need gigabytes of RAM to send and receive email?

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