The PC era
I began to date a girl (I later married her for reasons completely unrelated to this story). She was also a student and she funded her modest lifestyle by typing theses and related stuff: She was using a no-name PC/XT, a real 8086 running some early DOS variant and MS Word 2.0 to do the typing. It had two 5¼in floppy drives and a 20 Mb hard drive. The monitor was a 14in amber monochrome. Later, when I got interested into the innards of computers, I learned that the box used a Hercules monochrome graphics adapter. Attached was a NEC P7 extra-wide dot matrix printer.
As you can imagine, I was both impressed and scared - why was I completely ignorant of computers while my girlfriend earned her living with such a box? No doubt, I had to do something about it. I asked her and a few friends about their opinion what to buy. Then I visited a few stores just to find out that computer salespersons apparently didn't speak my language (the grammar sounded familiar, but I couldn't understand a word). Finally I found an irresistible bundle at a discount store that sounded just right. Of course it was on backorder, so I had to go home with just the printer.
The printer was a darn expensive NEC P7+ extra wide dot-matrix printer that looked impressive all by itself. Of course it was more fun after I got the rest of my computing equipment. It was a PC/AT compatible desktop (80286) with 640 kb memory, a 40 Mb hard drive (of which the installed DOS 3.3 used only 33 Mb without the dirty tricks that I learned only a while later), a 5¼ in and a highly advanced 3½in floppy drive, an EGA (enhanced graphics adapter) card that produced a few colors at a 640x360 resolution (afair), and a 14in color monitor.
This was of course the perfect time to be introduced to a dirty little secret of personal computing - you didn't have to buy the software. The software came to you instead. You just had to install the stuff and all was fine.
Early experiments in computer programming
I was always wondering how I could make use of my HP programming skills on one of these flashy PCs. It took me a while to find out that they usually contained a command called basic or gwbasic, both of which started an interactive BASIC interpreter. This reminded me of my informatics course at school, and much to the astonishment of my girlfriend I could hack a program that wrote "Hello World" on the screen repeatedly in no time.
In spite of these ground-breaking achievements I was basically a computer user, mainly doing word processing for handouts, flyers, and other stuff related to my studies. Things got more interesting only when I started doing lab work for my diploma thesis. I was working in a biochemical lab, and a guy from Spain visited as a guest researcher. He was a little into programming himself, so all we needed was something interesting to program. Benoit Mandelbrot came to our rescue when he published his work about the Mandelbrot set (a set of numbers with fractal properties, widely published back then). The algorithm was sufficiently simple for us to understand, so we set out to generate some of these Mandelbrot images. We started on a box that had no graphics capabilities, so we used the character display to draw 80x25 images. They were ugly, but fast to compute.
I tried the same thing at home, using my EGA card and gwbasic. I wanted to have full resolution, of course, and had no idea whatsoever that there was a difference between interpreted and compiled code. Anyway, a screen-filling image took 5 days to compute, but I was witty enough to let my program save the images to disk.
This was when I got a copy of QuickBasic from an undisclosed source, and the compiled code ran a lot faster, of course. So fast, it almost felt like cheating. In any case, Benoit Mandelbrot won a honorable mention right among my lab colleagues in my diploma thesis (my Professor never asked who this guy was).
My diploma thesis required quite a few graphs. I was able to do fancy word processing, chemical formulas and all, with a long-gone package called T3, but our lab had only one program to plot our data, and this incidentally worked only with a plotter, not with a printer. Why not write a plotting program from scratch that works with a printer? While this was a great idea, I soon had to realize that BASIC (at least as far as I understood it) wasn't quite up to it: Sending one line of output to the printer in graphics mode took about half a minute. This was clearly too much, even for a student.
Off I went to a local software store to get a copy of QuickC (no one had it, so I really had to buy it - imagine that). Although the C language was new to me, I soon got around quite well with it, and the plotting software was really usable, doing line charts and bar charts for my diploma thesis. I was even daring enough to implement printer drivers as DOS overlays, so my not-yet wife could use the software with her NEC-P7 (remember that I had the NEC-P7+, worlds apart).
The end of the DOS era
My growing needs in data processing during my Ph.D. thesis made me feel I'd need something like a spreadsheet. I went over to a colleague's lab, hoping to get a copy of a program he called "Excel". Much to my displeasure he told me it requires something called "Windows", which in turn requires more than the lousy 640k my computer had. That meant that I had fallen behind the progress of computing equipment sufficiently to mandate another round of visits at the local computer stores. It was about time to replace my old box anyway, as the hard drive had gone bad: every other time you tried to boot the hard drive wouldn't spin, so you had to seriously bang the box to convince it.
It was coincidentally in the same store where I bought my last box that I found an affordable tower (they always had affordable computers. They went bankrupt two years later). It was a 80486 50MHz, 8MB memory, a gigantic 170MB hard drive, and one of these huge 15in VGA monitors. It ran DOS 5.0, but I had bought a copy of Windows 3.1 as a cheap add-on. So all of a sudden I was using a graphical user interface, running Excel and other stuff with ease.
The guys in Redmond sent me an offer to upgrade my QuickC to the all-new VisualC++, which I happily did because it allowed to create real Windows programs. Going back to the roots, I wrote a nice C++ application to create Mandelbrot and Julia sets. The inevitable result of my programming efforts was that the hard drive ran out of space. With the help of a jumper-savvy friend I plugged in a brand-new 340MB drive, and all was fine again. The next fun project was to implement a trash bin for Windows 3.1, which was unfortunately obsoleted by the advent of Windows 95 (I never used it, though).
Who t.. f... needs email?
My computing equipment was sufficient to bring my Ph.D. thesis to a successful end. Our lab was about to dissolve, and in order to keep in touch a colleague suggested that I should sign up with some provider to get email access. I always had thought email is communication for the socially impaired, but this kinda convinced me (I'd never admit that the prejudice is correct and email is just perfect for me). So then I had a Compuserve account and could send and receive email messages. My mailbox wasn't exactly busy, but it still felt great to have it. A few months later Compuserve enabled a web gateway, so I could actually access the web from my very home. I didn't quite know what to look for, but clicking around was fun.
Before I moved on to a new position, a colleague kindly dropped off his old laptop just in case I'd need it. It was a NEC Versa 486SX, a 640x480 monochrome screen, a 1 GB hard drive, 12 MB memory running Windows 3.1. The display was horribly slow, but otherwise the box had all office software, could connect to the internet (with that 14.4k PCMCIA card), and send/receive faxes - all you need for travelling.
I took up a job at an aerospace medicine research facility. We used a highly modern network with boxes running Windows NT 3.51. Actually the network was only in the 5th floor, my office on the 4th floor was connected through the "sneaker net" only. Still I felt I had to use NT at home on my desktop as well, as much to my surprise it didn't crash three times a day. Again my hardware was a bottleneck. NT needed more memory than I had available. Another visit at the computer stores taught me that the memory for my old board was so expensive that I'd rather buy EDO RAM and get a new board along with it at the same price. A few bucks extra bought me a lightning-fast Pentium 100 CPU. Now with 32MB memory NT would install without a hitch, although the graphics adapter was a bit lousy too. So I got me one of these Elsa Winner cards with 1 MB memory, and higher resolutions were available to me. Soon NT4 popped up, and I wanted to upgrade real quick. Of course I had run out of disk space, so I got myself a SCSI adapter, a 2GB hard drive, and the CD drive required to install the new OS.
Now we almost got into the realm of the current era, because this box still exists today, albeit running a different OS.