In the wake of last week’s tornado/power outage/minor flood, we had some cleanup work to do in our basement. We came across a lot of old software and computer paperwork that we decided to go through to see if we could get rid of any of it. We were amazed at how much things have changed through the years.
The picture above shows six user manuals we received when we got our first Windows computer in 1995. Often you’d receive manuals for the CPU unit, operating system, monitor, sound and/or video card, and modem, and if you got a printer there was a separate user’s guide that came with it. Typically, you’d also receive a set of diskettes for the operating system, plus several other diskettes of drivers and utilities. The package we bought back in 1995 also included a couple dozen programs on CD. This may not even be all of the manuals that came with it – I recall there being a Quick Start guide with it, and a huge folded piece that showed how to hook everything together. If you buy a new desktop computer today, you’re lucky to get a postcard-size schematic to help connect things – everything is online now.
The earliest home computers used 5.25-inch floppy disks to store programs and data. My daughter had never see one of the these before we came across several of them during our clean-up. Back when these were in use, hard drives had small capacity and high prices. In the days before Windows, you had to put a ‘boot disk’ that had DOS (Disk Operating System) copied onto it into your disk drive when you wanted to start your computer. To run a program, you had to put the program disk into the drive and enter the program’s start command at the DOS prompt. If you wanted to save your work, you put a formatted data diskette into the drive. Many of the early PC’s only had one disk drive in them, so you had to swap disks in and out regularly. A typical disk held only 360kb to 1.2mb of data, so file sizes were severely limited.
The introduction of the 3.5-inch flopped helped things a little. They had a little higher capacity (1.44mb), and were much sturdier. Hard drives were an even bigger improvement. They allowed permanent storage for the operating system, and made larger files easier to work with. The introduction of Windows and increasing use of the Internet also revolutionized computing during the early 90s. For some reason, the idea of learning to use the internet from an obsolete floppy disk really struck me as funny when I came across the 3.5″ disk pictured above.
In the old days, you always got a User’s Guide when you bought software. This is what I miss most – I liked to read everything about my new software before I used it. The guide pictured above has 125 pages to it. If there’s been a mass extinction in technical publishing, the movement from printed guides to on-line access is probably to blame. Back then, when you bought new software you usually received the software itself on CD or floppy disk (sometimes both), plus one or more user guides (depending on the complexity of what the software did), plus a registration postcard and a flyer about other software titles from the manufacturer. Today, you might get a CD and a quick start guide if you’re lucky – if you download the software online then you don’t even get that. With apps, there often aren’t detailed instructions available even on-line.
Going through all of the old computer stuff we have, we found several old CDs for games my kids used to play for hours when they were younger. Many of them won’t play anymore due to incompatibility with modern operating systems, graphic adapters or sound cards. It took a while, but I finally found a way to get our 1995 Putt Putt Saves the Zoo CD to play on our computer. My daughter played it right away, taking all of us on a trip down memory lane – at least memories never go obsolete.