What piece of obsolete technology is gathering dust in your attic or closet?
Let’s go back in time to an earlier age in computing. Not to the prehistoric era, mind you: I would then have to tell stories about the Sinclair ZX Spectrum which was the first computer that my brothers and I used, back in 1984. This will be the subject of another post. Let’s just go back only 22 years, to the year 1990.
At that time, our household was graced with the presence of a PC – it was called ‘IBM compatible’ then, and MS-DOS was its Operating System. That was before Windows took the PC world by storm. Of course, the Internet was still largely a defense project, and Apple – without Steve Jobs (RIP) – was still selling iterations of its famous Macintosh. By the way, this denomination – ‘Macintosh’ – is largely responsible for the fact that, today, you would say ‘I have a Mac’. Nobody says ‘I have an Apple’!
That year, I am a 3rd year Engineering student. Some courses allow the use of programmable calculators in the exams, and many students got what was affectionately called ‘a PB’ – a small computer, which was a bit more advanced. Programmable calculators were used by scientists and Engineers, and by students of science and Engineering, naturally. Such machines were made by CASIO, Hewlett-Packard (now called ‘HP’) and Texas Instruments (or TI). If that last name makes you go ‘huh?’, you are too young! By the way, HP and Texas instruments still make calculators, but CASIO is the heavyweight today.
Small computers – a bit larger than a scientific calculator – were used in exams, and specially in projects. I attended two transportation Engineering courses that year, and the grade was based on a couple of projects for each course. My classmates and I got the idea to buy ‘PBs’ from teachers and senior students. So off to the CASIO dealer in Bliss Street: my dear dad got me a shiny new machine, the PB-1000 ‘Personal Computer’.
At first glance, what made the PB-1000 special was that it opened much like today’s laptop, and that it had a touch screen divided in 16 ‘touch areas’ – unlike its simpler peers. The use of this screen made running programs and searching for files easier, but what did make the PBs different than programmable calculators were two killer features.
- The first of these features is the ability to run the BASIC language. It was the first language that anyone wanting to program would learn: I took my only ‘official’ BASIC course in my 1st year as an Engineering student, 2 years after learning it along with my siblings on the ZX Spectrum. Much like any programmable calculator or PB, the PB-1000 could run most of the formulas that we take for granted in Excel today, but PBs have full keyboards and the BASIC language. My classmates and I created small BASIC programs that would calculate the areas of irregular polygons and vertical curves, for instance, in order to make the completion of our transportation projects smoother.
- The second feature that makes the PB more versatile than a programmable calculator was the presence of a RS-232C interface: that was the place where you could connect a cable and run a printer or use a 3.5” floppy disk (remember them?) for offline storage. Recall that a floppy disk’s capacity was 1.44 MB – the PB-1000 had a memory of 8 kilobytes, by contrast.
Consider this: if you have, say, an 8 GB USB drive in your pocket, it could house a million of the PB’s memory. The memory was expandable to 40 kilobytes, for more storage capacity. Despite the fact that such a tiny memory would appear to limit the use of the PB-1000, it ran well, was quick enough and the presence of BASIC was an enormous advantage. And amazingly, 22 years later, it still runs! I just needed to supply three AA batteries, and voilà! It’s 1990 again. This is a testament to the high quality of the PBs.
Today, I have a financial calculator than runs circles around that old PB, and any BASIC program could be replaced by a simple set of formulas in Excel. No tech nostalgia here! It is, however, refreshing to see just how far we have come in just two decades.
Do you still have an old computer or calculator in your attic? Does it still run? Sound off in the comment box!