The Lifechanger

IBM SLC2/66 motherboard, similar to the one that powered my first computer

The lifechanger, quite obviously, was my first computer: a  hand-built based on a 486SLC2/66 motherboard I obtained from a computer shop in Siloam Springs, Arkansas in December 1993. But a case could be made for my father-in-law’s Packard-Bell 386 he obtained a couple of months earlier.

I spent ten or twenty hours playing around on that dinosaur, locking it up regularly, power-cycling it to get it back, and dumping files all over its root directory like a total newb. But once that 10-20 hour span of playing was done, I came to a determination: I needed my own PC.

Geoworks Ensemble desktop

Thus, I spent 1700 dollars I didn’t really have and popped for my very own system, which featured a 13″ monitor, a 260 MB hard drive, a (color!) dot matrix printer, 5.25 and 3.5 floppy drives, 4 MB of precious RAM, and MS-DOS 6.2. It also came with Windows 3.1, and a vastly superior desktop environment called Geoworks Ensemble. I spent my first six months running Geo almost exclusively, patiently waiting for the rest of the world to catch on.

Obviously, they didn’t. Somehow, the buggy, unreliable, unintuitive Windows won out.

I started out playing games, but within three weeks I had the case open looking inside. The dealer loaded a couple of multimedia programs on there, one was about the human body, the other was about what made computers tick. I used the second one to learn about what was inside my box, as well as about obscurities like Bernoulli drives. I had soon removed and replaced my memory, peeked inside floppy drives, and plotted expansions into those empty ISA slots.

About a month after buying the PC, and hosing it at least once (be careful how you edit config.sys), I bought a second-hand 2400 baud modem for 20 bucks and popped it in. Incredibly, it worked the first time, and I soon found myself chatting over the phone lines with a pal in town. He taught me that all-caps was shouting, so that valuable lesson was learned early on. Bentonville had around 20 BBS’s in the area, and I found one good enough to pay for, the Chicken Coop (around five bucks a month for unlimited two-hour-max connections). They had a great stock of shareware and images, internal mail, and chatting.

AOL’s Geoworks client

Around April, I purchased a double-speed CD ROM reader from the guy who sold me the system, and he installed it for me. Another new world opened, as games and multimedia became available.

I also tried various online services, including GEnie, CompuServe, and AOL. AOL was the easiest to use, and they also had a native GeoWorks client. By summer, I’d added a second phone line. I’d also broken in my word processor by penning some humorous short stories, and discovered that there were eager publishers to be found on AOL who would reward you with exposure (and nothing else). It was a bit of a rush to see my name in print. And by the fall of 1994, I’d actually gotten paid! I got $50  for the tale of my wife and her mom starting a wallpaper business.

AOL, in all its 90’s glory

I eventually doubled the memory of that machine. With eight megs, it was a 16 bit powerhouse. But in early 1995, I slowed it to a crawl with Windows 95. The SLC2 motherboard just wasn’t up to the monstrous demand for resources that was Windows 95. A bit later that year, I bought a used Pentium 90 system, and my first PC was sold to my father-in-law for a fraction of what I paid for it.

But what magic that machine brought to my life. I went from computer-illiterate to getting loads of calls for tech support in six months. I saw my writing appear in print publications all over the US and in one magazine in Australia. I drew and scanned cartoons that appeared in one large local and one national publication. And I became determined to someday give up my electrician tools and make a living with the help of a machine that turned ones and zeros into intelligence.

What a funky, fun year that first one was.

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