Thinking From the Box

My First PC

- 2001.10.26

There's been a computer in the house since 1983. The first one was a Commodore 64. It had a tape drive. I remember playing video games on it.

Next was a 286. I typed a few papers on it. (I liked the typewriter much better). Then came a 486 with Windows 3.1. I actually liked this computer. It was easier to use. I typed papers on it and played a lot of Taipei and Tetris. In 1992 took a computer class at the local Junior College, and all of a sudden all those strings of letters and slashes at the c:\> made sense.

Technically speaking, my first computer was this large mysterious tower that I took with me to college in 1994. It had a 486/40, a CD-ROM drive, and a 340 meg hard drive. It ran Windows 3.1 over DOS 6.22. I actually managed to install a SoundBlaster card with step-by-step coaching over the phone from my dad. I typed papers on it.

I got the first PC I really consider my own in late 1995. It had a 486DX4/100 processor in it, 16 megs of RAM, a quad speed CD-ROM, this new kind of drive called a Zip Drive, a 28.8 modem, and am 808 MB hard drive.

My first attempt at upgrading was a miserable failure. My dad sent me 32 MB of RAM for Christmas and told me it was easy to install - I just had snap it in. He forgot to mention that I needed to insert the RAM at a 45 degree angle and then snap up. To make a long story short, I bruised my hands and put a hairline crack in the motherboard; upon rebooting I fried the CPU and modem. After a week in the shop and $200, the box came back with a Cyrix P-120, a 33.6 modem, and 48 MB of RAM.

Various other snafus, mostly due to the fact that I was using Win 95a (can we say buggy POS?) had me sending the box off to computer shops, but crikey, that got expensive - especially on my $5.50/hour part-time wages.

Then one day in the remainder bin of a book store, I saw Upgrading and Fixing PCs for Dummies. Good thing I bought it. About a month later my computer began making an ominous humming noise. With the help of the book, I determined that my power supply was dying. I read the book, procured the right kind of power supply, unplugged the computer, and slid back the case cover. About 15 minutes in, I realized I was going to have to take it almost completely apart to get every last tentacle of the power supply unplugged.

I broke down and sobbed for about 20 minutes. What was I going to do? I simply didn't have the money to send it to a shop. My dad lived four hours away. My fiancé knew even less about computers than I did. And I really needed to start writing a term paper.

Drying my tears, I set to work, consulting the book every step of the way, labeling every part, and taking copious notes. I managed to get it all back together without a hitch - okay, I forgot to put the floppy ribbon back on, but a quick phone call to a friend got that sorted out. By the end of the day, glowing with pride, I started my term paper.

That box was mine now. I knew what was in it. I knew how it all fit together. I could take it apart and put it back together like it was Tinker toys or an Erector set. It was no longer a scary and powerful beige mystery box parked on the corner of my desk; it was my computer, "Brimstone Love."

I upgraded Brimstone several times: 2 gig hard drive, 32x CD-ROM, 56k modem, SCSI card, Jaz drive, and scanner. I began rooting around in Win95 to see what I could do. (Oh hello, right mouse button! So that's what you're for!) I even survived a catastrophic hard drive failure, and with help from my guru got back up and running in a day.

Brimstone was my computer. I knew how he worked, and if he got sick, I could fix him. Computers were no longer mysterious boxes inspiring atavistic terror? They could even be (gasp!) extensions of oneself.

I owe my knowledge of and enthusiasm for computers to my adventures with Brimstone and college student poverty. LEPC

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