[I’ve been on a nostalgia trip lately thinking about the computers that influenced me growing up. They were a perfect metaphor for our latch-key generation: “Here’s a device with limited instructions. Good luck!” I know they changed the way I think, and this week, I’ll be blogging about the early computers that influenced me.]
In this entry, I’ll cover two computers that had some influence on me, though it was brief.
Released: 1984 –1986
Specs: 64KB RAM, 6510 1.02 MHz CPU
My friend Norman introduced me to a lot of geeky and fannish things, but he was especially an early adopter of computers. It was like he’d been waiting his whole life to enjoy something so logical and structured and safe. He owned a Commodore SX-64.
The SX-64 was the “luggable” version of the Commodore 64, sporting a 23-pound weight to challenge your back and a five-inch screen to challenge your eyesight. That must have been fun for spreadsheet users; it was bad enough for gamers like Norman and me.
In the afternoons following school, I’d walk over to his house and we’d play either Autoduel or Lords of Conquest on the machine, setting it on its back with the screen facing upward so we could squint at it from above. Norman’s mother would offer us off-brand soda and oranges, and those visits were a great respite in the early days after my parents’ divorce.
Norman and his family were Japanese-American, and his folks had been interned in the camps out west during World War II. His mother Mary wrote a speech about her experiences for Toastmasters that she shared with me when she found out I wanted to be a writer, and it was very well-written.
I sometimes got the sense that they thought I was more likely to share that story than Norman was, though I never have because I feel only like it was loaned to me. Still, I was honored she thought of me in that way.
It was important to me at that time, too, to see other kinds of people leading other kinds of lives because my notion of “normal” was so skewed.
Not long before I went off to college, Norman sold the SX-64 to me because, small screen or not, it had a disk drive and my regular Commodore didn’t. I somehow had it in my head that I could write college papers on the thing, but I learned quickly it was too obsolete even with an external monitor.
I did play one of my favorite video games of all time on it, though: Wasteland. For a (relatively) primitive computer game, it had a great story with interesting characters. One time I was playing it during a difficult high school tumult of some kind, and when I rescued a character from the brink of death, he said, “Let’s go kick some ass!” I was taken aback by that, but it filled me with a strange sense of hope.
I guess it just hit me the right way at the right time.
Commodore Amiga 500
Released: 1987 –1991
Specs: 512KB RAM, 68000 7.16 MHz CPU
The reason Norman could sell me his SX-64 was that he upgraded to an Amiga 500. I used it only a few times, but it was an astounding machine with the first real GUI I’d ever seen, as well as the first 3.5” disk drive and mouse.
I remember looking at the mouse and thinking how counter-intuitive it was compared to a joystick, and I thought it would never catch on. Sixteen-year-old Will thought we’d be working in Photoshop with a joystick in 2021. Also, he thought he’d be the President of the United States, so he wasn’t a keen predictor of the future.
What was significant to me about the Amiga was that it was a computer that I could tell was already doomed. IBM clones were invading schools and companies, and the Amiga seemed like the last real hobbyist machine that was just odd enough to be enjoyed by a limited group of people. It would live a little longer as the source of many animated TV titles you remember from the late 80s and early 90s, helped by a device called the Video Toaster.
I guess the Amiga was my first introduction to the principle that being amazing isn’t always enough.