Memories of MS-DOS 5, Windows 3.0, and GNU-Linux

In early 1992 I saw Windows 3.0 for the first time. I had asked to use the laser printer of the IT department at West Oxfordshire College to print out a poem by Marilyn Monroe for an art project I was working on (yes, I studied art at college as well as computer science). The computer science lecturer I had come to know over previous two years ushered me excitedly into a supply room to show off the thing he and the other engineering lecturers had been playing with on the quiet.
Sitting on an untidy desk with it’s innards exposed was a large beige metal box – an IBM PC clone. Illuminating the room on it’s hulking monitor was a brightly coloured screen with a number of icons listed across the bottom. One of them opened a word processor called “Write”, which I used to type my poem.

Within weeks I would be leaving college forever to begin my journey in the world of “work”, but I would soon find myself wandering back to find my lecturer for some advice. We were about to buy a PC at home – our first PC – and after reading everything we could get our hands on via the trade press, had an endless list of questions. Until this point, away from the network of 286s at college, I had been using an Atari ST at home – and had completed my computer science coursework on a hardware PC emulator called a “SuperCharger” that plugged into the Atari. I spent an entire summer’s earnings on it. It was meagre, but it allowed me to run MS-DOS 3.3, and Borland Turbo Pascal 4 – the language I had learned at college.

A few days after that visit to my old lecturer, myself and my father stood in Evesham Micros putting an order down on a 486DX 33. At the time, it was one step down from the fastest PC money could buy. It had a seemingly limitless 200Mb hard drive, a colossal 4Mb RAM, a seemingly ridiculously powerful “Diamond Stealth” graphics card, a rather grandly titled “Soundblaster Pro” soundcard, and came pre-loaded with not only MS-DOS 5, but also Windows 3.1.

It’s difficult to describe in today’s terms the magnitude of what we had bought. It cost nearly three thousand pounds (5k dollars). The same amount as a small car. It was one of the first generation of computer’s to be sold with a CD-ROM drive – a strange contraption involving a caddy that you put CDs in before inserting into the computer.

Back in those days computers and software still came with books. The book for MS-DOS 5 ran to about 400 pages, and almost unbelievably, I read it all. I spent nights and weekends teaching myself the intricacies of interrupts, addresses, memory managers, and the black art of placing device drivers into “high memory”. I became a kind of nerd god among everybody I knew that owned a PC – I was “the guy that can get the games to work”, and lost count of the number of evenings I spent at acquaintances houses writing AUTOEXEC and CONFIG files for them.

As ever, when people asked “how the hell did you do that?” when the game they had bought two weeks previosly appeared on the monitor, I would reply “I read the book”.

A year or so after buying the PC, the internet finally became a consumer service – first through the likes of Compuserve and AOL, and then through the first “Internet Service Providers”. I remember buying my first modem, and listening intently to the metallic screeching noises it made while handshaking with another computer at the end of the telephone line. I learned about discussion forums, bulletin boards, chat rooms, and file downloads.

Suddenly my world got a LOT bigger. Through the beige box in the back room at home I could communicate with people all over the world about any subject imaginable (and quite a few you might never imagine).

I can still remember the upgrade to Compuserve that added a mysterious application called “NCSA Mosaic”. It was slow, and clunky, but connected you to something called the “World Wide Web”. One of the first pages you were encouraged to visit was a hand curated directory of cool “web sites” to visit, called “Yahoo”. It was fascinating, but incredibly slow, primitive, and fragile that it remained a curiosity for the next year or two. Who could possibly have guessed the future back then?

I also remember bumping into an old friend from college on the bus a year or two later, and talking to him about the CD-ROM on the cover of the magazine I had just bought. The magazine had a photo of an American guy with long hair, and a student from Helsinki on the cover. They had built this thing called “GNU-Linux”, and apparently it was going to change everything.

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