I remember when I saw my first small computer. I can't say it was a personal computer because it wasn't. It had about 1/1000 the power of the first PC and cost more than a house at the time. It was a special prototype lab instrument in the Hewlett-Packard research labs. I was attending a science institute during high school when I saw this beautiful desktop sized computer. It was love at first sight and I dearly wanted one of my own.
Later on in graduate school. I drooled over the experimental group's hand crafted computers running the data acquisition software for the particle detectors. The price had dropped to the point where each little board on the detector cost less than $10,000.
When the advent of the CP/M based hobbyist machines finally brought the price of personal computers down to the level I could afford, it was close to decade after my first sighting. My very first "real" PC had a blazingly fast 2MHz Z80 processor, 32 KB of memory, used an old character-only terminal as the user interface, and had one (1!) of the old eight inch floppy disks for storage. I could compile a program with only 8 swaps of the floppy disk for temporary storage and various passes of the compiler. I was in hog heaven!
Over the next year and a couple of hundred visits to surplus and swap meets, I added 4 five inch floppy disks to replace the single eight inch disk. It made me the envy of all my friends since I could now compile a program without swapping the disks. Just start the compile and go to bed and it might be done by morning. I also added one of those new-fangled 1200 baud modems so I could call into the Bulletin Board Systems and the nascent Compuserv network. And I added another 32K of memory so that I had the full 64k addressable by the Z80. Still no hard drive since the technology for winchester disks was just starting to ramp up and even a 5MB drive cost more than $10,000 (and had a mean time between failures measured in months, not years).
Now that I have put you all to sleep as I drool over my first techno love, let me put the capabilities of this beautiful little machine in terms that may be more meaningful:
- The Z80 processor in the machine had less compute power than the chip in a toaster today
- 64k of memory is less than the amount of memory your toaster probably has in it today
- The five inch floppy disks held 96K each. Thus all four disks together held less than .5 MB. A typial notebook today has 200GB of hard disk - more than 400,000 times the capacity of my little machine.
What makes all the memories so remarkable is that today with literally thousands of times the memory and compute power, the only real change in computing is that all that power is devoted to the user interface. Things happen faster and are flashier, but are not fundamentally improved from the old days. It will be interesting to see what the changes are in the new few years and if they finally fundamentally change the underlying computing model.
I am reminded of a collegue from long ago who once said that the only change in computing from 1980 to 2000 was that we made the machines faster and larger so that ever less capable people could write programs. There is some real truth to that view. (And it isn't necessarily bad either.)