Márton Münz's Website

In loving memory of my first computer

Apr 8, 2023 - Tech | 15 min read

I am writing this blog post on my Apple laptop, a 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1 chip, 8 GB RAM and 512 GB SSD hard drive. It’s a fantastic computer. I use it for everything: work and entertainment, keeping in touch with my family and friends, studying, writing, reading the news, shopping online.

As a computational biologist, I also use this laptop for data analysis and programming, launching Slurm jobs on a remote computer cluster, and managing servers in the AWS cloud.

This laptop also stores thousands of photos and videos of me and my wife, memories of distant holidays, some of our favourite songs, bookmarked links I want to revisit one day, my freelancer invoices, and my completed tax forms. Recently, I bought an external monitor and a mechanical keyboard. I love the clicking sound when I’m typing.

It’s safe to say, my life, as a program, is running on this laptop.

I know people who can think of their computers merely as practical tools and do not form any sentimental attachments to these devices. I’m not one of them. I tend to get emotional when it comes to thinking about my computer, I see it as my companion, a friend, or worse, a member of my family.

Usually I even give it a name. I called the computer I used for writing my PhD thesis “Leo”, after Lionel Messi, the Argentinian soccer player, because I wanted to remind myself that my very first Macbook Pro was a genius, capable of extraordinary achievements. I then gave my next laptop the name “Freddie”, after the lead vocalist of Queen, another genius for his talent in both performance and songwriting. What is this if not a textbook example of anthropomorphism?

Nowadays, with the arrival of AI chatbots, natural language interfaces and synthetic voices, my relationship with my computer is getting even more complicated.

So what happens when someone, like me, must say goodbye to their computer? Is it like losing a friend? A loss to be mourned?

You may have to say farewell to a computer for various reasons. Either because there is a hardware failure, and the guy in the Mac service convinces you that it’s not worth the money replacing the faulty element, better to buy a whole brand new equipment. Or perhaps you need a new computer with more powerful specifications in order to be able to upgrade your operating system. Over time, computer hardware may become outdated, new technologies are developed, older systems can no longer support the latest applications. You may also accidentally spill your glass of Coca Cola on the keyboard, and your laptop gets severely damaged.

Either way, you have to form new emotional bonds with a new computer after unboxing it on your desk, and with deep sorrow you must forget the old one.

But you never forget your first computer. It forever remains in your heart. Mine was an IBM PC XT Model 286.

Personal Computer, getting personal

Picture a kid, 10 years old, blissfully running around the house, not being able to contain his excitement. He is about to get his first computer as a birthday present. Moreover, his dad said it was not going to be a Commodore 64 as originally planned. No, it’s gonna be a shiny new IBM PC.

The kid was me, the year was 1991. I was immensely happy, even though I had no idea what a computer was.

Then slowly but surely we became friends. I learned to play games on it. First, the game called “Snake”. With the arrow keys (up, down, left, and right) I had to keep a snake from colliding with obstacles or itself, and the challenge got harder as the snake lengthened. Then I mastered the game “Five in a Row”. Later (on slightly better computers) other games too: “Lemmings”, “Civilization”, “Sokoban”, and my favorite, “Prince of Persia”. I was driving cars, kicking balls, playing cards, fighting with swords, running, jumping, flying. I was not afraid of anything. I had, and liked having three lives.

My best friend, Köki, came over regularly, and one time he shouted so loud during a soccer game against the computer, that our neighbours alerted the police.

After a while I learned to use the MS-DOS command line. I entered directories, copied files, formatted Floppy disks. Then I became an expert in using Norton Commander. A few years later I even wrote my first computer program, a Dice Poker, in the Turbo Pascal language - a programming language that is today considered extinct. I was especially proud of the part that generated a random number between 1 and 6.

The computer has also become a respected member of our family. At 12, I was tasked to teach my dad, a journalist, to start using the word processor instead of his worn out typewriter. Since I didn’t speak any English, I thought “Edit” in the top menu bar was referring to a woman, so I decided to skip explaining him that part.

“Out of memory” errors

You can feel a very strong nostalgia towards your first computer. It was the coolest thing ever, despite having only 640 KB RAM, 12500 times less memory than my current laptop has. It had only a 40 MB hard drive, so it would have hardly been able to store a single raw 15 Megapixel photo file. It used 5 1/4 inch floppy disks with a capacity of only 360 kilobytes that were able to store 1.4 million times less data than my current SSD. It had only a monochrome VGA monitor in contrast with the Apple Retina Display of my current laptop supporting millions of colours. And, of course, it lacked an Internet connection. Not to mention it weighed 30 times more.

That old machine, my first friend, was incredibly stupid compared to my current one.

So why do I find myself longing for the feel of that old keyboard, and the annoying, beeping sound of the internal speaker? If we wanted, Köki and I could play a hyper-realistic version of soccer together this afternoon, streaming real time via high speed Internet connection, even though we now live 2000 km apart. Yet, instead, I find myself googling retro computer emulators, i.e. software that mimic the functionality of my old IBM PC 286.

Apparently, I am not the only one. Many such software tools exist. For instance, one can download DOSBox that emulates the MS-DOS operating system, allowing them to run old DOS-based games and applications. As its developers put it on the website: “You can re-live the good old days with the help of DOSBox.”

And, of course, there is an online retro version of Snake, that looks exactly as it looked on my first, monochrome monitor.

I have even downloaded the original User Manual of my IBM PC 286 from a website. The very same tutorial that was included in the box my dad gave me on my 10th birthday. Complex figures, detailed descriptions. In it, there’s a sentence on the first page that I still find poetic.

It reads: “You are the most important element of a properly working IBM computer system. You bring the elements of hardware and software together. “

Not running out of memories

Where are you now, my first computer? I don’t believe in reincarnation. You must be on some junkyard along with many other discarded machines, or shredded into small pieces, and melted into a large mass of aluminum. I won’t see you again, can’t have you on my desk anymore.

Maybe one day I will see your clone in one of the world’s many computer museums. From the Heinz Nixdorf MuseumsForum in Paderborn, Germany to the Retro Computer Museum in Leicester, England and The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, USA, there are several institutions dedicated to the memory of computers. Since we spend our lives in front of screens, computers are now part of our cultural heritage.

There even is a word for it

Why do we have computer museums, retro computer emulators, and an increasing fascination for extinct programming languages?

These are all manifestations of a phenomenon known as tech nostalgia (or in one word: “technostalgia”), which is defined by Wiktionary as “fond reminiscence of, or longing for, outdated technology”.

Longing for technology that we once thought was cool.

My playlist

As I look through the old IBM User Manual, I open a new tab in my web browser to start one of my YouTube playlists in the background. First up is Kraftwerk, the German electronic band formed in Düsseldorf in 1970. Songs from their eighth studio album, “Computer World”. Unique, futuristic tone.

The first song on my playlist has simple lyrics, only one line:

"It's more fun to compute"
"It's more fun to compute"
"It's more fun to compute"
"It's more fun to compute"

The second track, “Computer Love”, makes me emotional again. It reminds me I even met my wife through a computer, in a chat room, somewhere on the Information Superhighway. The lyrics read:

"I call this number, I call this number
For a data date, for a data date
I don't know what to do, I don't know what to do
I need a rendezvous, I need a rendezvous"

In the third song, “Pocket Calculator”, I hear Kraftwerk’s futuristic vocal:

"I am adding
And subtracting
I'm controlling
And composing
I'm the operator with my pocket calculator
I'm the operator with my pocket calculator"

Next comes the song “Home Computer”:

"I program my home computer
Beam myself into the future"

Can we simulate a soul?

Indeed, let’s beam ourselves back to the future (i.e. recent past). Fourteen years after our online rendezvous in that virtual chat room, my wife and I went to see a concert by the Icelandic musician, Jóhann Jóhannsson. He played his new studio album, Orphée, and it was brilliant. We were heartbroken to hear the tragic news of him passing away only 10 days later. I have added Jóhannsson, too, to my computer-inspired playlist. A few songs from his fourth full-length studio album, titled “IBM 1401, A User’s Manual”.

In “IBM 1401, A User’s Manual”, Jóhannsson used sounds produced by the IBM 1401 computer, the first high-volume, stored-program, core-memory, transistorized mainframe computer. As sections in a user manual, the tracks on his album were named after different elements of the machine, such as the Processor, the Punch Card Reader and the Magnetic Tape Unit.

“Some theorists claim humans can simulate anything with a computer, even a soul… and with IBM 1401 - A User’s Manual, Jóhannsson comes chillingly close” - wrote Sal Cinquemani, co-founder and co-editor of Slant Magazine.

Back to the year 2023, I continue to be very excited about computers. It is the year when the general public (hundreds of millions of people) met AI for the first time. Many think machines are getting frighteningly close to mimicking human intelligence. Some fear computers becoming autonomous.

Scary indeed. I want to believe what I read at the age of 10 on the first page of the user manual of my first IBM PC: we, humans are still the key element in a properly functioning computer system. We are the ones who plug it together.

And, hopefully, we will be able to unplug it when it’s time.