Thoughts, rants, experiences, reviews and other things from the mind of Jason O’Conal

Nostalgic Computing

04 Aug 2013

I am writing this article while sitting at home trying to watch the cricket. Foxtel Play, a new service about which I was very excited about (basically, Foxtel IPTV) must have gone way over capacity, because all I’ve got for the last hour or so is a 503 error. Aargh! ABC Grandstand to the rescue.

I recently came across a piece of history, probably the only remaining digital footprint of my early days on the Internet, an old GPG key and this sent me down a very nostalgic path.

I was born in 1986. A lot of computing history had already happened – phone phreaking was already past its prime, the almost religious hacking that happened at MIT, Berkeley and other similar places was well in the past, Sierra Online had released King’s Quest two years earlier and was about to release Leisure Suit Larry, Australia even had its first Internet connection. But, even though I came somewhat late to the game, the computing revolution was still in its infancy and there were so many world-shattering changes still to come.

Amstrad CPC

I’m not sure when I first expressed an interest in computing, but the first interaction I had with a computer (as far as I remember) changed my life. I don’t remember the exact model, but I remember that it was an Amstrad CPC (like this one) demonstrated at school by our librarian. I was nine or ten years old and, instead of showing us some inane game, he showed us a simple computer program. Of course, I can’t remember exactly what the program wrote on the screen, but it was written in Amstrad’s BASIC and looked something like this:

10 a$="hello"  
20 PRINT a$  
30 GOTO 10

I worked so much harder in school because, once we’d finished our work, we were allowed to play on the computers. I spent countless hours playing Granny’s Garden, Math Blaster and Boulder Dash. Those were the days.

My very own computer – IBM PC

It wasn’t long before I was incessantly pestering my poor mother to get me a computer. But, of course we couldn’t afford one. There were, of course, plenty of consoles floating around (Sega Megadrives and the like), but nothing on which I could compose my own programs. A mate of mine had a Commodore 64, but I wasn’t able to get enough time on it to make much of a dent in understanding how to write software.

Eventually one of mum’s friends from church promised to give me an old computer (probably something like this). Well, it would come as no surprise that I was awaiting the arrival of this computer most impatiently. The chap finally came to drop round the computer, but he forgot the monitor! Well, you can imagine how disappointed I was.

Though it didn’t come with a monitor, my first computer did come with a printer (a daisy-wheel no less), which, along with the PrScr key and reams and reams of paper, I used to print out the contents of the ‘screen’. Who needs a monitor anyway?

I’ve gotten rather side-tracked thinking about my past. I haven’t even mentioned the time I spent with GW BASIC, XTree Gold, Wolfenstein 3D and Commander Keen. Or that time I installed Windows 95 from what seemed like a million 3.5" floppy discs. But I suppose they’re stories for another day.

Free Internet access

As I was setting up a GPG key the other day, I came across this. Such a blast from the past.

Global Freeway was a free ad-supported Internet Service Provider. It sounded too good to be true. (I had a computer at home, but the folks wouldn’t spring for Internet access, so I spent most of my time in the computer suites at school.) The only catch was that you had to get an install disc. I was running Windows 95 (I think) and I’m not even sure I had software to dial my MODEM (which was probably 9600 baud or something like that). Anyway, after giving away what little pocket money I had, I managed to bribe someone to let me borrow their copy of the install CD and away I went. I discovered USENET, IRC, ICQ, email, pirated software and TV programs. It was bloody fantastic. But, like all good things, Global Freeway eventually closed its doors and that was the end of that.

Then along came TPG Niterider. Between the hours of maybe midnight and 6 am, TPG would allow you unlimited free Internet access through their Niterider plan and, boy, did I make use of that. This one wasn’t ad-supported, but it was inconvenient. TPG have since stopped their Niterider service (apparently it was still operational in 2005), but they made a teenage boy very happy for several years.

Eventually, the folks sprang for our very own dial-up service. It’s funny to think how, over time, the Internet became more and more part of my life. The barrier shifted from location (school computer suites) to pollution (advertisements) to convenience (midnight to 6 am) to call waiting (dial up) to download quota (ADSL). But, throughout it all, computers, the Internet, the sheer genuis behind it all, the chance to learn, to innovate, drove me and countless others to stay the course and see it through to the world-changing network that’s just getting started.

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