The Tech That Made Us

These days, technology develops almost too quickly to keep track of. Every year, Apple releases a new iPhone that can do things that even a few years ago would have sounded straight out of a science fiction novel (and sometimes more in a Blade Runner than an Avatar way). Mark Zuckerberg wants us all to live in the metaverse (can’t he just get a Second Life account?); Elon Musk wants to evacuate the ultra-rich to Mars. We’ve become so used to walking around with supercomputers in our pockets that it can be easy to forget just how futuristic today’s tech would seem from the vantage point of even the early 2000s, let alone the middle part of the 20th century, when computers emerged in our cultural consciousness.

It was with these thoughts and nostalgia from my early days playing Oregon Trail on my family’s black-and-white Macintosh computer (purchased using my oldest sister’s student discount at Cornell) lingering in mind that I decided to ask our readers to harken back to the tech days of old and send me stories of the first computer they—you!—remember using. And boy, did you answer the call. I got far too many stories to fit here, but I enjoyed reading every last one of them. I heard about the Lisa, the Commodore 128, floppy disk drives, Pong and Atari, upgrading your memory from 4 KB to 16 KB, car phones with antennae, and so much more about how technology has changed our lives. I will reproduce just a few of them here, with a hearty "thank you" to everyone who contributed and gratitude to these early tech devices that paved the way for us to be where we are today. I hope you’ll enjoy this trip down memory lane just as much as I have.

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Editor’s note: Stories have been edited for clarity and space.

A common thread among your stories was how much time your early computers saved you (regardless of how long they took to boot up). Our first story even illustrates how they might have saved you money, despite their hefty price tags!

"It’s fun to think back on the very first Apple computer I used back in the mid '80s—a boxy thing with its dot matrix printer and floppy disks! The money to purchase it came from my grandmother, and it was a lifesaver in completing a PhD dissertation. I typed my entire dissertation on this computer—saving several hundred dollars which I would have paid a typist."

- Marg P.

My mother ran a typing service in the '70s, so I guess she can thank Apple for running her out of business! Oh, and Osborne computers:

"I bought an Osborne computer in 1980 after reading a book by Peter Williams (I think that was the author) on word processing. I had just finished my first book Coping with Kids, which I wrote in longhand on yellow legal pads. I paid a typist to make the manuscript readable and went through many edits. I never looked back. I wrote eight more books and went from the Osborne to an IBM to Microsoft and now to my iMac. I remember backing up the Osborne. It took about 30 or 40 of those diskettes in use back then. A big job to run a backup. It’s like comparing riding a bicycle to riding in a Rolls Royce!"

- Linda A.

You found many creative uses for your early tech gadgets. To find creative uses for your modern tech gadgets, be sure to sign up for our Tip of the Day newsletter. A reader named Nancy even managed to finagle fried-chicken dinners for her and all her roommates just by demonstrating how to play Pong on a computer! One of my favorite stories in this category is Linn’s (though admittedly the Compaq iPaq is a bit more of the new school than most other devices in this article):

"I had a Compaq iPaq. I was asked to sing the national anthem for a minor league baseball game. I had a colleague with a digital piano with a disk drive. She recorded the song for me. I found a way to convert it from the disk format to a format that would work on my iPaq. The day of the game, I put the iPaq in my pocket and ran the headphone wires up inside my shirt. I walked out on the field, hit play, and sang ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ perfectly on pitch."

- Linn K.

Nowadays, all you would need is a subscription to Apple Music! Some of you even sent pictures of your beloved computer setups of yesteryear, like this one from Rick:

"The first computer I owned was a Commodore 128. Dot matrix printer, computer, CRT monitor, and two 5.25-inch floppy disk drives."

- Rick C.

"Our first computer was the Apple II. It only had upper case. To add a program, you took the top off and put a board in a slot. Then you had to type in everything. We got the computer because our son and his friends liked to play computer games like Pac-Man. We wanted him to know how to use the technology, and I learned some too. I remember Lisa, the first Macintosh, and the introduction of the internet. Sadly the pace of technology is much faster than my ability to keep up."

- Margaret H.

Today, rather than opening up your device to add programs, you can easily download apps to your iPhone in seconds. Lots of your stories included adventures in punched-card computing. Like Sandra, who got her start working with computers fresh out of grammar school:

"In the ‘60s, I had an IBM 1401, and it was massive. I fed it cards, which had holes punched in them. These were then collated before inputting them into the PC. I did the daily balance at the end of the day. It was my first job straight from grammar school, and I loved it."

- Sandra K.

"I was in college and can remember wiring boards for sorting and collating machines. I moved on to running an IBM System/360 Model 20 computer where I had to feed 5081 punch cards with programs punched in them. We got one chance to get an error-free compile. Times have sure changed."

- Steve K.

For some of you, your first foray into the tech world changed the course of your lives:

"I used to work at Blue Cross Blue Shield back in the day, answering phones and explaining to people why their medical claims had been rejected. No fun at all. Then the company bought a new computer system, and they offered a free course in programming to anyone interested. Wow! I found my new love! The language they taught us was BASIC, and the whole idea of being able to tell a computer what to do was mind-blowing. I did well in the course, and a fellow who oversaw the IT group offered me a job. So, I spent my working life as a programmer. I worked in the U.S. and also spent a lot of time in Ireland, where I was on a team putting a new IT system into the Irish Post Office. I’m now retired and living in the South of France. I have a house full of old computers and not-so-old computers, and I practically have my iPad grafted to my arm."

- Ellie C.

Many of you have been Apple devotees since long before the iPhone was even a twinkle in Steve Jobs’s eye:

“One of my two tech devices was an Apple II Plus. I was working in an electronics components manufacturing company. My boss had been using the sole Apple II machine bought for the engineers and was entertaining buying more computers to provide more timely and accurate manufacturing quantitative information than our rather unresponsive company MIS department could. He asked me to try out the Apple II Plus and give him my assessment and recommendation. I was instantly smitten. The Apple hosted a word processor that allowed me to bypass a secretary and Wite-Out. Wite-Out was used to cover up single-letter typos. So instead of a Wite-Out-spattered page, anything I printed from Word Perfect was presentable, even on a dot matrix printer.”

- Len Z.

"My first computer was a Macintosh 128K purchased in Germany for well over the listed price in the USA. We’ve been Mac advocates ever since!"

- Richard W.

"I bought an IBM PC and my wife bought an Apple Macintosh (1984). We both sat in our home offices the same night with our new purchases, but, after sharing our joy and letting each other see what they were both like, she went to bed, and I stayed up working with the new Mac. By the time the sun came up I had decided to turn my PC in and get a Mac myself. I’ve never looked back. I even bought stock when it was less than $30 a share and have done that on a regular basis since. Needless to say, the portfolio is worth lots today, and we both still love Apple. We were there when Steve introduced the iPhone."

- Bob C.

I couldn’t resist closing with some memories from James Prevo, a man who clearly earned his stripes in the world of early tech:

"My first mobile phone was a Motorola DPC 550 in 1995. My wife and I had identical phones with car kits which included an antenna and a 3-watt booster. Few people had mobile phones back then. My first email-enabled mobile phone was circa 2003. On my first business trip, I was reading and responding to email in airport terminals and remarking that this was going to change everything."

- James P.

One of the things that struck me as I read all these stories (dopy smile on my face and all), was how many of the emails included the signature "sent from my iPhone." Dozens of missives about punched-card computers, dot matrix printers, 8-bit graphics, "portable" devices that weighed more than a toddler, all sent electronically, in a split second, across hundreds or thousands of miles from wildly powerful devices that fit (more or less) in the palm of a hand. Thirty years ago, to write an article like this, I would have had to start planning months in advance, print a call for submissions in the previous issue of the magazine, direct you to send self-addressed stamped envelopes if you wanted your stories returned to you, and type them all up myself. Today, it’s as easy as taking an off-the-cuff idea from my editor (shout out to Amy!) and emailing you a quick line in my weekly editor’s message.

There are meaningful discussions to be had about the ways technology can consume our lives, but I’m grateful for the incredible power it has to connect us and bring us closer, too. Without all the antique tech you shared your loving memories of, there would be no MacBooks, no iPhones, and I probably never would have been able to hear so many fascinating stories from so many fascinating people.

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Author Details

Elisabeth Garry's picture

Author Details

Elisabeth Garry

Elisabeth Garry is an Associate Editor for iPhone Life. Formerly of Gartner and Software Advice, they have six years of experience writing about technology for everyday users, specializing in iPhones, HomePods, and Apple TV. As a former college writing instructor, they are passionate about effective, accessible communication, which is perhaps why they love helping readers master the strongest communication tools they have available: their iPhones. They have a degree in Russian Literature and Language from Reed College.

When they’re not writing for iPhone Life, they’re reading about maritime disasters, writing fiction, rock climbing, or walking their adorable dog, Moosh.