A Look at the Hotness from 30 Years Ago
I bolted up from bed, instantly shaking off the sleep the way only a six-year-old could. My room was already bathed in morning sunlight. It was Christmas vacation, and I had overslept. In fact, I would have overslept for far longer if the voices hadn’t roused me -- familiar but seldom-heard voices that had drifted off from way over the other side of our house and through my bedroom door. I got to my feet and ran off excitedly.
The arrival of my uncle and aunt from the States was always a cause for minor celebration. Stuff from overseas was not as easily obtainable back in 1989, and even a Hershey’s bar drew ooohs and aaahs from kids like us who had yet to discover the meaning of the words “freedom” and “excess”.
I burst into the dining room with a gigantic grin on my face and chocolate bars in my brain. Christmas with exotic toys and sweet, sweet chocolate! And maybe Cowabunga! or whatever catchphrase was cool at the time. Then I skidded to a halt.
An unfamiliar sight greeted me. Even as I tried to fight it, I felt my grin slowly but steadily melt away into an unfiltered display of flabbergast. A collection of white gleaming boxes lay on the dining table, almost traversing its entire length. Each had its own distinct shape, and each had different bits sticking out of it, but it was all very futuristic and out of place on our venerable wooden dining table -- very alien-looking in our dining room with the drapes and the nice landscapes hanging from the walls.
“That--that’s a computer,” I said wide-eyed, my voice barely over a whisper.
My uncle was standing before the keyboard, rapidly playing his fingers on the keys and enjoying the sharp click-clack that they made. It wasn’t on or even plugged in, but that moment would forever burn itself into my memory.
Our first computer.
Okay, so it wasn’t my first experience with a computer, and it certainly wasn’t the most powerful thing to hit the market by the time it found itself in our home. The giant mound of machinery in question was a Xerox 820-II, and at the time, it was already obsolete. It originally came out in 1982! I had no idea what the hell it was for. My cousin’s 286 could run Wordstar and Pool of Radiance, so what was the point of this thing?
Although I didn’t understand it, I was awestruck all the same. This was The Future, right in our very own home. We finally had a computer!
Not many pictures with that Xerox 820 survived, but here is a picture of me having a staring match with the machine’s monitor, which certainly earns the accolade of being tiny and ginormous at the same time.
See that thing on the lower left? The black bits on the front were the floppy disk drives. The disks it accepted were 8” floppy disks. Eight inches. See, there’s a reason why they called those 5 ¼” floppy disks mini floppy disks! Each 8” floppy held less than 500k of data. Where was the processor, you ask? It was in the monitor.
The monitor was of course a black and white affair, and all I remember about the display was how everything seemed to be made up of ASCII characters. I’ve since discovered that games actually existed on the Xerox 820! Let’s take a look:
So games weren’t terribly exciting on this thing. That’s ok. That’s fine. We never had games on it. We had lots of business software for the thing, sure, and they came in huge cardboard boxes full of those 8-inch floppies. Heavy cardboard. With pastel stripes printed on the labels that just screamed HIGH TECH. Pastel stripes. With curves. Against a black background.
The manuals for this software were equally awe-inspiring. These were thick, spiral-bound affairs with padded leatherette covers and tabs to separate each section. Thick paper. Thick covers. Everything about them screamed “premium” and “quality” in a way not unlike the feeling you get while opening, say, an Apple product today. Except browner and a lot less snarkier. Take a look at some of the ones I found:
Then there was the printer. I considered the printer to be the most sci-fi of the lot.
The Xerox 820’s printer used a technology called daisy wheel printing, which is basically a fancy 70s-sounding term for a really cool piece of tech -- a metal wheel with many, many tiny spokes that each resembled a typewriter’s type bar. I suppose the wheel spun around to the appropriate letter and hit the ribbon on the paper much like how a typewriter would have done it. It was really, really cool. This meant that the printer was limited to whatever glyphs were available on the daisy wheel, but also that the output was basically as sharp as any typewriter or movable type press could produce: the text was crystal clear.
And! And this next bit blew my mind. The goddamn printer came with multiple daisy wheels. We had three. It was like having three typewriters! Or three fonts! I think we had a serif, a sans-serif, and a really ugly italic font. I really liked that italic font.
You can bet that I got really acquainted with that italic font, too. When my mom wasn’t writing her documents in the computer’s word processor, I was busy fiddling with my favorite program for the Xerox -- the graph maker. I used to make bar graphs and line graphs and pie graphs like nobody’s business. I can’t even remember what kind of “data” I plugged into those fields, but I lost hours and hours fiddling with the graph maker. That was my entertainment with the Xerox 820. You know what? I never lost my love of making graphs and charting data, either.
I miss the damn thing. I miss our Xerox 820. I can’t claim to have had strange dreams about it, but on occasion, while buying new parts or hardware or gadgets, my memory flashes back to that image of my uncle fiddling with the keys on the thing’s gigantic keyboard. Me skidding to a halt. Me, processing the fact that our house was about to become One of Those Houses that had a computer in them. Me, trying to contain my inexplicable excitement towards the pile of obsolete tech on our dining table.
It was a good feeling.