My first personal computer: the Apple II

In 1977 I decided to buy a computer. Microsoft and Apple were newly founded, the IBM PC was years away and there were no killer apps. It took over a year, but I had to have one and it changed my life.
Written by Robin Harris, Contributor

I'd read about computers in junior high in the early 60s. I even played with an analog computer at school. But computers were too expensive and rare for anything more in the 1960s.

Fast forward to the last semester of college. I did a computer mapping project, the program a stack of IBM punchcards. Although the punchcards – and batch computing – were a hassle I immediately saw computers as a boon to lazy people. I knew computing was a winner.

A few months after graduation, in September 1977, Scientific American devoted an issue to microelectronics with articles by Robert Noyce, Ivan Sutherland, Carver Mead and Alan Kay, among others, including one on Microelectronic Memories by Berkeley professor David A. Hodges. I read it cover to cover at least a half-dozen times and began my search for a personal computer.

And the ads! Heathkit. Apple. TI. The HP-01 calculator watch for $650!

Those were the days! Tech debates raged. The hobbyist favorite was the Z80 microprocessor on a motherboard with an S100 bus. Long gone firms like Processor Technology, Ohio Scientific, Cromemco and more were vying for hobbyist dollars.

But then the early consumer computers came out, the TRS 80, the Commodore Pet, the Exidy Sorcerer and the Apple II. At first I stuck to Z80 computers and decided to buy the Exidy – but failed when it wasn't in stock at the local Byte shop. Lucky me!

It was the next day that I realized the processor didn't matter, that applications ruled. The TRS 80 looked like a kludge, the Commodore Pet was had a weird keyboard and the Apple II seem to have all the fun stuff – color graphics, games, expansion slots and built-in BASIC – along with applications and a vibrant community.

I blew my first bonus on a 16k Apple II - at a price of over $4500 in today's dollars. I couldn't afford the $600 floppy so I got a Panasonic cassette for mass storage. Nor could I afford the expensive 12 inch color monitors so I re-purposed a 12 inch B&W TV. The 40 column text was ugly and the graphics were pathetic, but bringing it home was one of the most exciting days of my life.

I was the only person I knew with a computer. I wrote some BASIC and 6502 assembler to play Life, making a digital fireplace flickering in the corner.

Alas, I could not keep the Apple II. VisiCalc was not in common use and grad school required a TI 59 calculator instead - also advertised in that issue of Scientific American. I was ahead of my time.

The Storage Bits take
Friends were invariably disappointed when I popped the top off and there was nothing but a little PC board in the bottom of the case. But I loved my first computer.

Later on, as I played with TOPS-10, VAX/VMS, Windows 3.1 and Mac OS I realized how primitive the Apple II was. But at the time I felt as if I was exploring the edges of a vast new continent.

The flashes of the computer's bright future that I glimpsed have stayed with me. While computers have advanced far beyond what I could have imagined in 1977, nothing has matched the wonder I felt with my first personal computer.

Comments welcome, of course. Do today's slickly packaged phones, tablets and PCs give the same sense of wonder?

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