Hardware Experience

This post and others like it relate back to an introductory post that explains the point. This is an edited variant of something I wrote in 2007, in this case relating my experience/history with computers and other tech hardware. It is hard to do without overlapping at least implicitly with operating systems or other software, but the entire breakdown in these posts is relatively arbitrary anyway. It’d be too long as one post/list. At least, I think it would be.

The basic list:

System 36 Terminals
Data General Cyber System Terminals
Early TRS-80, Color Computer 2, Color Computer 3
Commodore 64
Tandy Pocket Computer
Original IBM PC through approximately current PCs and servers, including building, rebuilding and upgrading many 286 through Pentium level machines.
Various laptop/notebook computers.
Older Apple Macintosh
Terminal Server thin clients
Tranti 2100 PC-based restaurant POS System
To a much lesser extent, non-PC Tranti 29 and 105 systems
Many different printers, local or networked, various brands, types including daisywheel, dot matrix, thermal, ink jet, and laser.
Various Blackberry, cell phone and PDA devices.
Various scanners, copiers, faxes, and multifunction devices.
HP Digital Sender 9200
Various hubs, routers and switches.
Digital cameras and webcams.
Many monitors, monochrome through LCD.
TimeForce Qqest time clock
Tranti time clock
FedEx Ground wrist and handheld bar code scanners
NCR restaurant POS systems

Trying to think whether anything new should appear, besides that last item, that was not on the original list. I can’t think of anything. Much of it is by category, so it goes that a computer is a computer, and so forth. There may be things I forgot in the first place, and this excludes or glosses over details of internal hardware variants, and things like RAID arrays.

This also leaves out the nuance of what it sometimes took to make hardware work along the way. Especially in the early days, when getting CD drive or a sound card to work might mean cursing at it just so, or having the right lucky charm. It leaves out the sheer numbers of computers I’ve built, rebuilt or repaired. I often exhibit an almost intuitive sense of what ails a computer when it acts up, but that’s probably more about depth of experience as anything spooky or mysterious.

Elaborations and tangents about some list items:

Last thing first, the big new addition since four years ago is the bar code scanners. These are actually wireless WinCE computers with proprietary software, centered around scanning, but with other applications, especially on the handheld one I use most.

Cyber System was in use at Massachusetts state colleges at the time, along with newfangled DEC VAX machines at Bridgewater that I didn’t get to use. It was what I used for BASIC, which was too boring to bear because I’d already self-taught too much, for Pascal, and for COBOL.

System 36 was at The Renovator’s Supply, running mainly inventory software written in RPG (Report Program Generator), which was a hot coding skill to have at the time. I used to teach other people how to use it, and how to make it dance and sing. I got my first taste of e-mail on that system. That job was where I got my first, unofficial, experience doing PC support, and using PCs in a work environment when I helped in HR and compiled material safety data sheets. They upgraded to a 400 before I left. I had direct experience with a 400 in 2006, figuring out how to access my client’s old system and search for documents they unexpectedly needed. That was an instance of my almost intuitive communing with computers coming in handy.

The Pocket Computer was the first computer I owned. As opposed to the first computer I played with and learned my first bits of BASIC on, a friend’s TRS-80 in 1977. I got it for Christmas 1983. It had 1k of bubble memory and could be programmed in a terse variant of BASIC. For instance, the letter “i” used in place of “input.” I programmed it to take inputs and return present and future value interest factors.

I bought my first PC in 1988. It was an overpriced Packard-Bell 286, very solid, with 1 MB RAM, a 60 MB MFM hard drive (as opposed to IDE) in the days when 20 MB was still normal, and an EGA monitor. You booted it and got a message at the top center of the screen “Welcome to the Packard-Bell Computing World,” with a C:\> prompt below. DOS 3.3… those were the days.

In 1992, my “uncle” Henry taught me how to build computers and we upgraded the 283 to a 386. From there I never looked back. He picked up some software and batch file pointers from me, and we had a lot of fun messing around with stuff and going to computer shows.

My Mac experience is so limited it barely warrants mention. A friend I worked with on marketing materials and other projects involving design, writing and editing had a Mac and laser printer at home. I didn’t lay hands on the computer too much; mainly watched her use Aldus and Adobe products and “admired” the tiny black and white screen. She had far better Macs at work. We went there one weekend and the one I used promptly crashed, to my amusement.

Tranti Systems was my first support job. The 2100 was a new PC-based POS system for fast food restaurants. They were basically 286 PCs, 386 once parts for 286 became too expensive or hard to get, with a proprietary add-in card. They ran a modified version of MS-DOS, a file manager/utility program associated with that, called EZ-DOS, the POS software, and Lantastic. I learned about networking there, becoming expert with Lantastic. I did a lot of testing and breaking things, anticipating what would later be real world problems.

Mostly it was callback phone support and a ton of overtime carrying a pager, but I also did other things. That included a trip to North Carolina to do the training and help install systems in two Taco Bells. Oddly, I enjoyed the training, at the same time I was terrified speaking in front of groups of people. I also enjoyed customizing register keys, which involved a custom macro language built in for the purpose.

The company also made an electronic timeclock system, a natural extension of POS timeclock functionality. I created documentation for that product. Which involved using MultiMate word processing software on an ancient IBM PC. That was where I got most of my retro experience, with the oldest PC machines and versions of DOS prior to the 3.3 that might otherwise have remained my earliest. They also had I believe it was a Nixdorf mainframe, for which a few of the old PCs doubled as terminals.

I think that’s enough embellishment of the “hardware” part of this exercise. Next up will be operating systems.

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