One way or another, computers have been an important and near-omnipresent part of my life. These days it’s difficult to imagine life without the tiny computers we carry in our pockets, but long before smartphones became ubiquitous I had an opportunity that not many my age had: my own computer.
When I was about 10 or 11, the company my dad worked for was getting rid of some computers, and they were willing to let him take one home for me to have! Our family computer was an Intel 386/25, but this computer was an AMD 386/33! Despite being (very marginally) more powerful, though, it was somewhat less well-equipped…it only had monochrome graphics with a very old-school black and amber monitor and no sound card.
Thus began a process which would last me for nearly all of my formative years: scrounging computer parts and slowly, methodically, upgrading my computer.
Garage sales, office liquidation sales, flea markets…my dad and I would trawl all these venues hoping to find a good deal on some slightly better hardware. Then I would carefully read the manual (if it had one) and try my best to make it work with what I already had.
Once, I bought a game for my computer: Sim City 2000 (I think it was a special offer through some school thing that sold nominally-educational software for a discount). Unfortunately, I didn’t read the requirements carefully enough and it required 8MB of RAM, while I only had 4MB. My dad agreed to split the cost of an extra 4MB, which as I recall was about $100 (I was going to do a price comparison between the 4MB we bought back then and 4GB, 1000x more, now…but it’s difficult to buy just 4GB. You can buy 8GB, literally 2000x more RAM, for less than forty bucks). I think that used up my Christmas money that year.
I kept incrementally upgrading this computer until my Sophomore year of high school. As a reward for good grades, my parents bought me a new computer! Not a computer scrounged from a junk heap somewhere, but an actual brand-new computer!
Comparing the new computer with the Frankenstein’s monster I’d been using before would be pointless, because they weren’t really even in the same category. It would be like comparing a 20-year-old barely-running Ford Escort with a new Jaguar F-Type. Technically you can call both of them a car, but that’s about where the similarities end.
This was the computer on which I began seriously teaching myself how to program. Previously, so much of my effort had been focused on wringing maximum performance out of the hardware that I didn’t have as much time left to focus on creating my own software. Even though I was very much into computer games, and I did certainly use this computer to play many a game, I’m grateful that my parents could see past the “it’s just a toy” and provide me with a tool to learn what would become my career.
There’s a few more chapters to this story, but I think here’s where I’ll stop for now.