Memories of the 486

One day, late in the autumn of 1991, my Dad floated the idea with me of selling the Atari ST, and buying a PC to replace it. We hadn’t been using the Atari for it’s original purpose – music production – for years, and it was obvious from the various magazines we occasionally bought where the future was headed. The Atari ST, and it’s long-time rival, the Commodore Amiga, were fast becoming obsolete.

The weeks that followed saw us purchase magazine after magazine – learning an entirely new lexicon of words – EGA, VGA, Ethernet, PCMCIA, and so on. We learned the difference between the 386 and 486 processors, and what a 486DX had that a 486SX did not. We didn’t know what difference it would make to us personally, but we could probably bore somebody really well if they asked us.

I even returned to my old lecturer at college, finding him in his office. I had never visited his office before, and caught him half-way through eating a cheese sandwich. He scooted his chair to one side, and invited me to sit down. I unfurled a copy of Personal Computer World on his desk, open at a vast list of specifications for computers available from one of the major manufacturers. Over the course of the next half an hour he explained what a maths co-processor actually does, what difference cache memory makes, and why having 4 gigabytes of RAM was a pretty good idea – all the while shaking his head that computers were now being sold with that much memory on-board.

Before saying goodbye, he rose out of his chair, smiled, and said “follow me – I want to show you something”.

We wandered back to the computer science classroom where I had spent so many hours over the last two years, but instead of heading to the classroom area, opened a door, and walked into the small server room next door. Among a mass of cables on one of the desks sat a new beige PC case, with a monitor, keyboard, and mouse attached. He wiggled the mouse, and the screen burst into life – showing a patterned background, and a prettier version of the interface we had known on the Atari ST.

It was Windows 3.0.

Sure, I had read about Microsoft Windows, and everybody knew it was coming – but actually seeing it running on a computer was a bit of a moment. After a few clicks of the mouse, “Word for Windows” opened, and he began typing letters in a smooth, serif font. I was blown away.

“That’s not the best bit – watch this.”

He leaned across the desk and retrieved a strange t-shaped device with light pouring from it’s under-side, and a cable hanging from it’s rear. After a quick look around the desk, he grabbed a coke can, and dragged the device around it’s edge. The outside of the coke can slowly appeared on the screen – it was a hand-held scanner. Again, I had read about them, but never seen on – and again, I was blown away.

“Good luck with buying your PC”, he said, as we parted ways. I must have had a smile like a coat-hanger.

The next weekend I went with my Dad to Evesham – to visit the very same computer store we had visited years before to buy the Atari ST. By now Evesham Micros had evolved into a well known maker of PCs with huge full colour adverts in all the well known computer magazines (the big blue advert). They had also moved premises – to an industrial unit outside the town. I remember walking into their showroom, and seeing a number of huge computers, quietly humming at desks for people to look at.

When I say “huge”, I really do mean “huge”. The “tower” computer cases you tend to see tucked under desks in offices are only really “half-tower” cases – back in 1989 the first 486DX 50s were typically sold in full-tower cases – they would only just fit underneath a standard height desk. I imagine the room inside was designed to accommodate multiple hard drives, multiple floppy drives, and multiple optical drives – CDROMs had arrived too. There was probably a significant element of “size matters” going on too.

We waited in reception while the computer we ordered – that had been built for us – was brought through from the store room. It was one notch down from the fastest computer available at the time – a 486DX 33. The 33 reflected it’s internal clock speed in megahertz – the rate at which it could get stuff done. To give some perspective on the rate of progress at the time, within five years the first Pentium chips had hit 1 Gigahertz – thirty times faster.

The computer we bought cost an eye watering 3000. The same price as a new low-end family car at the time. It system unit was housed in a plain beige box with a couple of slots on the front, and came with a monitor, keyboard, and mouse. While looking around the showroom in the shop, I spent the little money I had on a copy of the video game “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”, and a copy of “Flight Simulator 4” – the direct successor to the same game I had spent so many hours playing on the Atari ST.

When we got home, I had a considerable mountain to climb in terms of knowledge. Unlike today’s PCs that come pre-installed and pre-configured, back then they did not. To run Windows 3.1, you needed to already be have DOS installed, and if you wanted to play games, a world of hurt lay ahead of you.

You might say I was the right kind of person, in the right place, at the right time. The software that came with the computer – MS-DOS 5, and Windows 3.1 – came with sizeable books. The DOS book ran to hundreds of pages, and looked quite impressive on the shelf. I read both of them, and over the course of perhaps a week or two, learned all about hard drives, partitioning, memory management, drivers, interrupts, address space, and lots of other things. In order to play games, I learned about expanded memory, extended memory, high memory, and the various tricks required to use them efficiently. When you switch on a Windows PC or Mac these days, you have no idea how much as been done for you by the operating system – it wasn’t always that way.

For several years I became a version of my old school friend. I was the guy that could turn up at somebody’s house, and solve their computer woes. I could get games to work. People would sit in awe as I wrote configuration files for their computers by hand. When they asked where on earth I had learned how to do it all, I always replied with the same answer – I read the books that came with the computer.

They were actually REALLY good books. I’m not joking either.

Once upon a time, Microsoft Press were famous for the quality of their books. I remember seeing the set of printed books for the Windows Software Development Kit for sale at the Computer Shopper show that year – our second visit. The stack of books was two feet long, and could be bought in shrink-wrapped bulk. It was a bit like buying a set of encyclopedias.

Our computer came with a free copy of “Microsoft Bookshelf” – a compact disk that ran within Windows 3.1. It contained an encyclopedia, a dictionary, a thesaurus, and a book of quotes. It seemed magic – being able to search for pretty much any subject, and find articles to read, pictures to peruse, and sound clips to listen to at a moment’s notice. Some entries – such as the Apollo project – let you listen to speeches, and watch video clips of the event. This was quite a time before the internet became widely used, remember. The World Wide Web was still an idea Tim Berners Lee was toying with, and connecting computers to the internet at all was still perhaps two or three years away.

I can still remember proudly showing a friend of the family Microsoft Bookshelf, and inviting them to search for anthing. They slowly typed “TURD” into the search box.

Each component inside the computer had an impressive sounding name – a “Diamond Stealth” graphics card, a “Soundblaster” sound card, and “American Megatrends” BIOS. It’s perhaps worth remembering that PCs started out very much as kits of components – not sealed units bought and sold as consumable items. A PC would be bought with the intention of upgrading it over time – replacing elements of it’s innards to tailor it for specific tasks – or just to make it go faster.

Although I could never warrant the cost of office software for the PC in those early days, I didn’t have to. One or other of the magazines available in the high street newsagents had CDs on the cover, which invariably had free copies of Microsoft Office competitors software on the cover. For years I used “Lotus Smartsuite”, purely because it was free. I also reasoned with myself that it was somehow better than Microsoft Office – and back then it probably was. As has always been the way though, Microsoft slowly but surely improved their own software, and swept all before them. When was the last time you saw a copy of Lotus Smartsuite, or Wordperfect Office in the wild? Not for many years, I’ll wager.

The funny thing? Lotus Smartsuite really was better than Microsoft Office back in the early 1990s. And Borland Delphi was so much better than Microsoft Visual Basic that it wasn’t funny. Neither Borland, or Lotus exist any more.

The 486 served the family (ok, me) for about five years. It was upgraded over time – doubling it’s memory, and DOS 5 became DOS 6 – but really, it was kind of stunning that it did so well. Looking back, I suppose there was a subtle sift in the early 1990s – away from what your computer could do, towards what other computers could do.

The internet had arrived.

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