Happy 30th anniversary to my first computer

A c.1984 picture of a young guy, old guitar and "almost new" computer

The Osborne I and its external monitor; photo probably from 1984. Could I have been singing its second-birthday song?

Harry McCracken, who suffered through being my editor at three different magazines, has written a fascinating history of one of the first “boom, then bust” computer companies: The one I bought my first computer from. In fact, its going bust helped get me into the computer business.

See: Osborne! at Harry’s blog, Technologizer.

I added comments to the first page of the article, but I was (ironically) writing on a screen about half the size of my old Osborne — a Droid — and it left out all the paragraph breaks, making a rather hard-to-read essay. So here’s a copy. I was also using the Droid’s “speech to text” feature, so I’ll correct at least some of the typos here. (Ironically, after posting this version, I discovered I could go back and edit the blog comment at Technologizer, so I went back and inserted some paragraph breaks.)

I was one of about 40 faculty members and grad students who bought Osborne I computers at Wesleyan University in 1982 after the university put some faculty “ideal personal computer specs” out to bid. The case, keyboard and small screen looked a lot like a portable terminal people had been using at the Hartford Courant when I was a reporter there in the late 1970s to early ’80s. I think it had a cassette tape drive built in and was compatible with the newspaper’s ATEX system. Teleram? (After posting this to Harry’s page via the Droid, I searched for Teleram. Here’s a picture and a detailed story. )

At Wesleyan the software bundle was the primary selling point for the Osborne. I recall an Apple ][, if you added to floppy drives and all of that software, would have come in at easily double the price we paid for the Osborne I with dBaseII, SuperCalc, WordStar, mBasic, cBasic , the Original Adventure game MyChess and I forget what all else.

In December 1982 (or was it ’81?) when we took delivery, the bundle also included an external monitor which would double the 52 columns screen making 104 columns (great for spreadsheets), double density disk drives and a 300 baud modem… or maybe the modem was extra. I do remember that the computer center hacked together cables we could use to plug an Osborne directly into the DEC-20 mainframe as a terminal and do file transfers.

Doing document conversion between our mainframe editor and WordStar was another thing. I became a big fan of ASCII and the print-formatting program on the DEC system. I also went to work for the university A/V wizard, Bob White, who physically hacked the insides of 24-inch classroom TV monitors to work with an Osborne so that a professor could show spreadsheets in class. I recall his trick involved cutting some sheet metal and wrapping a cylinder around the back end of the picture tube. (Kids, don’t try this at home! Ymmv.)

I became editor of the Wesleyan Osborne Group newsletter, a “support system” for campus users when the company went bankrupt, and I shared the Osborne with other students to get a discount on a 1983 summer computer course with the amazing Russ Walter of “Secret Guide to Computers” fame… starting me on the way to a second master’s and my 1986-88 hypertext research.

Russ’s courses and the newsletter plus some other how to things I had written for the Wes computer center got me my first job in the computer industry 1984 at MultiMate–also due for a 30th anniv soon) ultimately leading to working for Harry McCracken at IDG. So it’s all thanks to Adam Osborne, as I said in my post at Technologizer.

One thing I didn’t get to mention was that when I finally set to work on my Ph.D., my first faculty adviser at UNC Chapel Hill was a research wizard named Frank Biocca, whose credentials in the world of computer technology began a dozen years earlier, when he worked in P.R. or advertising for Osborne Computers.

mild-mannered reporter who fell deeper into computers and the Web during three trips through graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s, then began teaching journalism, media studies and Web production, most recently as a faculty member at Radford University.

Posted in coincidence, Computers, History, Magazines, personal, Technology, wesleyan

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