My father bought his first computer on 18 Jan 1980. I know because I still have the sales receipt. I have all the sales receipts. He bought books and parts for his burgeoning hobby for the next several years and became reasonably adept at using and, after a fashion, programming his Apple ][ plus. He was, what, a few weeks shy of 54 when this all started. An early adopter, but not bound for a new career.
Almost, though. He learned to program in the late 1960s. He had earned his PhD in organic chemistry in 1954 and was an analytical chemist for Chevron Research at their facility in Richmond, CA, operating the mass spectrometer in a ground-floor lab. When Chevron acquired a computer he got permission to use it after hours and learn to write programs. His job was very computation intensive, and he soon proved the advantage of submitting some of his results for analysis in FORTRAN. So when he got his Apple ][, it wasn’t such a leap to play with it.
In 1985 he retired and in 1986 got a Heathkit PC and built his first DOS computer. Somehow he obtained permission from his old bosses to adapt his old programs to the PC environment and market them to other researchers. In hindsight that’s quite remarkable. Companies don’t normally give away their intellectual property. But his was an extremely niche market. He knew or was at least able to converse intelligently with all the other mass spectroscopists in the petroleum industry, and I guess management in his little corner of Chevron decided to just let him have at it. Soon he had himself a neat little global business selling software. He never made a dime, though. His product was a tough sell in budget-constrained research labs, but he knew it was useful, so he essentially gave it away. It had a price, but the support he offered and the time it took more than ate up any profits.
His Apple ][ languished through all this and in 1987 he gave it to me. A few months later my fiance talked me into going in with her on a PC-AT — it was my idea to toss in extra for the 80287 math coprocessor — and the Apple ][ yet again found itself under-employed. I packed it all away into the box our new computer’s monitor came in, and there it has been ever since.
Twenty-nine years later I am trying to get rid of the damn thing. There is definitely a place in my deeply compartmented brain where I want to play with this old computer, and I have found there are many enthusiasts out there who spend a lot of time making their Apple ][‘s do things. But I don’t have enough interest to make time for that and I need to make space and get obviously useless shit like this out of my way. I’m not at all unsentimental, but it has to go.
And so I am thinking out loud about it. This machine represents another one of those alternate paths that in old age we recognize as a real path not taken. In the early 1980s I might have seen the power and the potential (or at least the fun) and dived into programming and architecture and built myself an enriching career. But at that time I was into cars and guns and wishing I wasn’t shy and while I wound up studying electronics I never really caught the computer bug. Not even in later years when I got a Master’s in it and worked for Intel. Computers? Programming? Meh.
Yet there’s something oddly compelling about this stack of manuals on programming the relatively simple MSC6502 the Apple was built around. If it weren’t for cars and guns and music and girls and writing weird fiction and all the other unrecognized costly distractions of a brain wired as ADHD I might have enjoyed doing stuff with that. If I could go back in time it might be worth diving in and inventing something — a music card, say — that positions me to retire early and then really enjoy all those other things. But no. Life doesn’t run that way.
So I’m cataloguing all this shit and will sell it. Not without regret, as with all the other things. But what would you? I need to make space for the life I actually live.