Saturday, March 29, 2008

Made With Macintosh

On March 12, I acquired my latest Macintosh, the new iMac, with a ginormous screen that I feel I am sitting too close to. Quite a far cry from my first Mac, which was the first Mac, the original, adjectiveless, numeralless plain ol' Macintosh computer, which looked like this:

It is hard to imagine now how thrilling that little Mac, with its monochrome nine-inch screen and its Imagewriter tractor-feed dot printer was back in 1984. To put it in context: I was working for a magazine-publishing company that had recently installed a very expensive computerized editing system, giving us all big green-screen terminals on which to compose or edit manuscripts. We had to insert various codes in order to use the correct typefaces, point sizes, column widths, etc., for our publications. Likewise, we needed codes before and after words we wanted italicized, boldfaced, SMALL-CAPPED, etc....and if we forgot the end code, well, then, everything was bold/italic/small caps up until the next time we inserted a code. If we put something in bold, the plain green lettering on the terminal monitor showed up somewhat brighter, giving us some kind of visual clue, at least; but there were no such clues for italic, small caps, etc.--or for the wrong typeface. Characters appeared onscreen sans descenders, so a g looked a lot like an s, and a lowercase p looked a lot like an uppercase P, since they both sat on the baseline. Not idea...but a heckuva lot better than the typewriters and paper we had used up till then!

Personal computers, such as they were, were much the same--green on dark-green, or amber on dark-amber, or white on such thing as a Graphical User Interface--with all sorts of command codes and break codes and who knows what else. And the dot printers of the day were nothing to dream about, certainly not for someone interested in producing professional-quality manuscripts.

And then came the Macintosh. If you wanted something underlined, you underlined it. Bold? You made it bold. Change the font? Hey, shows up right here on the black, on a pleasantly bluish background. And when it came time to print, the serviceable Imagewriter (my recollection is that the W became uppercase with the later introduction of the ImageWriter II) printed pretty much what you saw on the screen!


Coincidentally, at about the time the Mac came on the market I had just sold my first novel, The Nebraska Quotient, upon the conclusion of which I vowed I would never write another book on a typewriter. There was a small Apple Computer store just around the corner from my wife's workplace in St. Paul, Minnesota, and so I left to pick her up a bit early one day in order to look at the Mac in person. They were so new, and so much in demand, that the man had only a single demo model in the shop. No matter, my mind was made up. The proprietor tried to convince me that the Mac was a fad and that for "real" computing I needed one of the Apple II computers that would soon be gathering dust on his shelves (did he really believe the Apple II to be a superior machine? Or was he trying to unload them before the Mac overtook them? We'll never know...but even then I had my suspicions!), but I was unconvinced. WYSIWYG was a term that had not yet reached my ears, but I know it when I saw it, and I saw it, and I wanted it.

It so happened that a friend of mine was still in college and thus able to score the coveted Mac package with a student discount, and so I placed the order via his good offices, and waited. Indeed, I had begun my second book on a typewriter when finally the Mac arrived one October afternoon in 1984. I taught myself to use the enclosed MacWrite software by retyping the two or three chapters of Moving Targets that I had already pounded out on the Smith-Corona. The Mac boasted 128 kilobytes of RAM, no hard drive--to my knowledge, they didn't yet exist--and a built-in microfloppy drive that read and wrote 400 kilobyte disks. MacWrite had a memory-use issue that slowed everything to a crawl after about 14 pages, but that was okay: I soon learned to break chapters up into smaller chunks, stretching them out across a couple of floppy disks. To avoid the risk of damaging the printer heads on the Imagewriter, Apple recommended letting it cool down after an hour or so of use, which meant--dot printers not being noted for speediness--that it took two solid days to print a book-length manuscript. This involved a certain amount of "babysitting the printer," since you never knew when the tractor-feed paper was going to go off-track, and it was pretty frustrating to wander into the office to see how things were progressing only to discover that the Imagewriter had been overprinting the same line for the past half-hour. Since you could do nothing else on the Mac while printing was in process, I quickly learned to drag the rocking chair into the office and kill time with a book whilst "babysitting."

By today's standards, primitive. By the standards of the day, The Jetsons!

A year or two later, Apple introduced the Macintosh Plus, the so-called Fat Mac, pretty much the same machine but with with 512K of RAM and a double-sided floppy-disk drive. I bought a kit from a mail-order house (this was pre-online retailing, mind), cracked open the Mac's clamshell drive (which required special tools, for the Mac was not designed to ever be opened by the user), popped in the green board with extra RAM, popped out the old floppy drive, slid in the new one, put everything back together...and held my breath when I plugged it back into the wall and booted it up.

Not much later I would add a LaCie hard drive and a LaserWriter II, and worked happily with that configuration on into the early 1990s--I'm thinking 1991, but maybe 1992--when I invested in a Mac IIsi:
One of my everlasting regrets is that, when I bought the IIsi, I traded off the original Mac in return for some extra RAM. I wish I had saved it and turned it into an aquarium or something. Alas.

The IIsi was a nice machine, certainly faster than the Mac, and with the added bonus of color, but it was hardly a standout computer. Indeed, I don't remember that much about it. So I assume it was neither especially fabulous nor especially terrible. I worked with the IIsi until about 1996, when I invested in one of the Mac clones, from the time of that short, ill-starred experiment that Apple Computer undertook. Mine was a PowerComputing PowerCenter Pro IINT, which looked like this one:

The PowerCenter Pro was a lovely computer, and I eventually replaced it only because I had bumped my head against the upgrade ceiling...Mac OS 9 was as good as the PowerCenter got. But it was a fun, speedy, and trouble-free computer for a lot of years, and I was sorry when Apple discontinued its clone program, for that seemed to be the end of PowerComputing. I still have the PowerCenter Pro, on a card table in a corner of my office. As far as I know it still works...tough to judge, though, since the last time I powered it up the monitor refused to cooperate. Might have to fuss with it some one of these days.

The next Mac was a used Blue and White G3, code-named Yosemite, which I bought via eBay perhaps five years ago.

It too was a useful and enjoyable--and pretty!--computer, right up until January of this year when it started running...dreadfully...slow. My attempts to fix it were unsuccessful, and I sometimes wonder if I made it worse. (Hard to see how; I suspect that it was simply failing--perhaps a hard-drive issue--and would have conked out no matter what I did/didn't do.) One fine day last month the silly thing quit booting at all--I'd get the start-up "spinning gear" for, literally, hours on end, and then--perhaps--my desktop pattern, followed by hours of the spinning beachball, followed--perhaps!--by a log-in screen, followed by more beach ball. That is, up until the time it started to refuse my log in. Which is about when I decided it was time to go shopping again.

Odd thing about the G3 purchase: It came as a package, CPU, monitor, keyboard...and no mouse. Why no mouse? I mean, no big deal--I went to Best Buy and bought a USB mouse--but I wish I had asked the seller what the story was with the mouse. Did it fail and he just decided not to replace it when he sold the G3? Or did he have a mouse that he really, really liked and didn't want to sell? Whatever, I guess.

Earlier this month I went online to the Apple Store and ordered up the latest iMac:

This a simply a grand computer, fast, quiet (hell: silent), simple, and a pleasure to work with. I could have stepped down to the next smallest monitor, but what the heck. I do have to reorganize my office to accommodate it--I currently have to peer around the edge of my desk lamp in order to see the extreme left side of the screen--but it seems worth it. Of course, my old scanner, my old LaserWriter II (still works, though hasn't been used in a year or more), my old Zip Drive, my old CD burner (which I don't need, thanks to the iMac's built-in CD/DVD burner), and that old, old LaCie hard drive are now completely obsolete. No idea what to do with them, so I suppose they'll head up to the attic to be dealt with "another day." That's progress, I guess.

Upon learning of my recent purchase, a family member commented, "So you decided to get another Macintosh, huh?"

What a question!

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