How I Got My First Computer,
and How I Got My First Computer Back

April 11th, 2006 by K4DSP

[RedWolf writes: “This story was written by K4DSP, who is an old and dear friend of mine (and a fellow computing and technology enthusiast). He sent it to me recently and I enjoyed the story so much that I thought I would share it with you.”]

1982 was an exciting time for computer enthusiasts. The personal computer market was still in its infancy, and there were literally dozens of different models available at all sorts of price points. As a poor college student studying engineering and computer science, I found nearly all of them out of my reach financially, but the one I really lusted after was the Apple 2. I constantly imagined all the great software I could write and all the games I could play if I only had one of these 1 MHz 8-bit screamers. Never mind the Ataris and Commodores and Sinclairs and the multitude of CP/M machines — the Apple II was the one for me.

There was one insurmountable obstacle between the Apple and me. At $1195 it was literally the equivalent of six months’ rent. It might as well have been a million dollars. So I looked for alternatives. I thought about building a computer. In the early 80s it wasn’t all that unusual for people to build their own computers from scratch, but it wasn’t like homebuilt computers today – you didn’t go to a computer store and buy a motherboard and CPU and case and power supply and hard drive and bolt it all together and pop in your Windows install CD. Building computers meant soldering and drilling and (sometimes) even writing your own software to make things work. When the Apple II came out in 1977 it was one of the first “store bought” computers that didn’t require any assembly. That’s one of the reasons I wanted one. As a full time student with a job and a wife I really didn’t have time to figure out how to build a computer from scratch.

So I resigned myself to buying something cheap, under the premise that any computer was better than no computer, and decided on a Sinclair ZX-81. At $99 it still wasn’t cheap and it wasn’t an Apple, but it was cheaper than an Apple, and it was a real computer (sort of). Best of all, I wouldn’t have to go without food or shelter to buy it. I was just about to order it when I received a phone call which threw all my computer plans into turmoil. It was my friend Keith, and he said, “Hey, we’re getting some Apple 2 motherboards made. Do you want to buy one? They’ll be fifty bucks each.” He rattled on about how I’d still have to buy all the chips and solder them in and build a power supply and find a keyboard and a half dozen other things, but I never heard any of that. All I heard was “Apple II” and “fifty bucks.” It was like winning the lottery. It turns out that somehow my friend had gotten his hands on the artwork (PC board lingo for “the manufacturing plans”) for the Apple II motherboard. I don’t know how he did it, and I didn’t ask, but he contracted a circuit board manufacturer in town to make a bunch of them. All we had to do was buy an Apple II reference manual (which included a parts list and schematic) and then buy all the integrated circuits and solder them in. There was also the small matter of the Apple II ROMs, which Keith said he “could help me with.” Like the Apple II artwork, I never did find out where he got the ROM copies. I didn’t ask.

Many things, including building a clone of an Apple II, are easier said than done. It took several weeks and some late nights, but I got the motherboard built and (again with the help of my friend) found a keyboard and the parts to build a power supply. I bought some scrap aluminum at the local salvage yard and built a case for it all, and pretty soon it started looking like a computer. My wife Bonnie was very supportive and patient, even though the kitchen table in our tiny apartment became the Computer Fabrication and Assembly Area for a while. It was a banner evening when I finally hooked it up to our little 12-inch Sears black and white TV and turned on the power. I was so nervous I was shaking. I had over $150 invested in this thing, and I had visions of smoke pouring out of the case when I turned it on. But I was rewarded with a “BEEP” from the speaker and the letters “APPLE ][” on the TV. I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep, and I stayed up the rest of the night typing in BASIC programs and running around the apartment waving my arms in a microprocessor-induced ecstasy whenever I got one of them to run. I named the computer “Ezekial,” and called it “Zeke” for short (I later found out that Jerry Pournelle, a columnist for BYTE magazine, had named one of his computers Ezekial as well. Odd.). I saved my programs onto cassette tapes because I had strained my budget just getting the computer built. A $250 floppy disk drive and controller board would have to wait.

I have fond memories of that summer. I spent many happy hours learning how to program in BASIC and in 6502 assembly language. I wrote a really cool program which translated characters typed on the keyboard into their Morse Code equivalents and played them through the speaker. I swapped programs with friends and even found some neat games, including the Scott Adams adventure series. And I proudly showed off my home-built Apple II clone to anyone who would come and see it. I was proud. Life was good. I had my very own computer. All mine.

As we grow up we often dispose of things we no longer need, and then later we regret it. So it was with me and Zeke. My wife graduated from college that summer and got a full-time job. For the first time in our marriage we had some money. She surprised me the following summer with a brand new Apple IIe, complete with floppy disk drives and a real monitor. It was lots nicer than my Apple II clone — it was the real thing, the genuine article. Now I had a Pascal compiler, and a Z80 card for running CP/M and all sorts of great new software. And Zeke, like Puff the Magic Dragon, slipped into his cave. I put him in the closet and promptly forgot him. When a friend of mine (Billy, who couldn’t afford to buy a “store bought” computer) offered to buy Zeke, I sold the computer to him. Not long after that, Billy and his wife moved away, and I never saw them after that.

A lot has happened in the 24 years since I built Zeke. I graduated from college and raised a family. I have had more computers than I can count, and as I sit typing this I can see two Linux servers, a Windows machine, and two Macs, and that’s just here in the basement. There is more CPU horsepower in my scroll-wheel mouse than Zeke had in his whole being, and my USB flash drive holds over a thousand times more data than one of Zeke’s floppy drives. Life is good. But in recent years I’ve often found myself wondering whatever happened to Zeke, and wishing that I could get him back. I hoped that Zeke was somewhere in his cave, and not relegated to the landfill, as many old computers have been.

And then one day I got an email from Billy. I’m not sure how he got my email address. It seems his son Jonathan was planning to attend the university here in town (the same one I graduated from and the one my kids currently attend) and he was wondering if I could help him get settled in. I sent a reply telling him I’d be glad to, and at the end I asked him if he still had Zeke, the computer he bought from me in 1983. He replied that, yes, he thought it was in the attic, and he’d look for it.

Well, Billy was even better than his word. Not only did he still have Zeke, but he brought it down from the attic and loaded it into Jonathan’s car, and Jonathan brought it to me when he came to college. When I brought it into the house and started unpacking it, I found myself nearly as excited as the night I fired it up for the first time. Just for a moment, I was back at the kitchen table in our old apartment in 1982, trying to get the courage to turn the computer on for the first time. When I hooked it to an old TV and turned it on, I was again rewarded with a “BEEP” from the speaker and the letters “APPLE ][“ on the screen. Zeke had found his way home, and was none the worse for wear. And in case anyone ever asks again, Zeke is not for sale.

[Got a neat computer story of your own? Send it in!]



17 Responses to “How I Got My First Computer,
and How I Got My First Computer Back”

  1. MegaKitsune Says:

    Now THAT is hardcore. I bow to you, sir. ^_^

  2. Xerone Says:

    That is an awesome story. Congratulations on your reunion. ^.^

  3. FernandoLx Says:

    Amazing story! 🙂 It made my day! 🙂

  4. Jakanden Says:

    Great story mate =)

  5. K4DSP Says:

    Thanks for the kind words, and I’m glad you enjoyed the story. It’s good to have Zeke back!

  6. Wing83 Says:

    K4DSP – I remember those lean days when you loved to go to Radio Shack and “play” with the Apple II. Quite a story! Are you sure you won’t sell Zeke???

  7. Pdljmpr Says:

    Great story!!! Brings back a lot of memories. I always wonder where my Compaq “Portable” with Z20 chip and 20 mb drive is today. Wish I would have kept it. That was a really big investment back then but really exciting as I added the Z20 chip then the 20 mb drive and then an RGB color monitor. Would you mind if I share your story in our PC user group newsletter? Thanx for sharing.

  8. JlH Says:

    Great story – got tears in my eyes picturing Zeke travelling back in the car to his native grounds.

    “As we grow up we often dispose of things we no longer need, and then later we regret it.”

    So true, so true.

  9. Gw£n53 Says:

    Great story. Made my Good Friday. I still miss my Amstrad that I sold ten years ago to an old guy. Maybe I’ll see it in a flea market one day!
    It was my first computer and a real comfort to me during hard times.

  10. thand Says:

    Great story! I remember watching you almost 30 years ago doing some serious computing on the computers in Radio Shack! You’ve come a long way, Bubba!

  11. The World of Jakanden » Linkage for April 12th Says:

    […] Articles Sad Story of ‘Boy in the Bubble’ Games that were Too Wild for the West Top 10 Tuesday: Modern Vaporware Silent Hill Movie Interview How I Got My First Computer, and How I Got My First Computer Back Would You Like A Franchise With That? (Games, Comics, and Movies From A Hollywood Perspective) […]

  12. WillMc Says:

    I miss my commodore 64 now more than ever. And the Lt Kernal “Hard Drive” that I had connected to it.

  13. Jason Says:

    I miss my dad’s old Apple SE/30 ;-( . OK, I have to go cry now. And find a place where I can get another one, for not so much money.

  14. karol4prez Says:

    thats a good story. i love computers and thats the kind of stuff i like to hear

  15. Mat$kaT Says:

    MUST CONTROL TEAR DUCTS—MANLINESS LEVEL DECREASING!

    Great story, I am truly touched….

  16. JustRob Says:

    Seriously. I find this story a year after it’s last comment and I’ve got tears in my eyes.

  17. Alexander Says:

    This makes me yern to see my favorite pieces of hardware again… A stack of reliable printers, my first desktop, my second desktop… good times.

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