memory lane (Picture: album cover, songs by Jeff Gardner)

A matter of size

A stroll down memory lane

Little, everyday activities have a way of jarring your mind, sending you back in time. My laptop underwent its monthly software/hardware checkup this week. It identifies any necessary upgrades and makes them available to me at the click of a mouse. (This is one of the things HP actually does well). As it happened, I needed two software upgrades that involved massive downloads. The Logitech webcam software was 76Mb, and the InterVideo WinDVD player was another 30Mb. With a cable broadband connection, the download took just a couple of minutes. But as I thought about the size of those two downloads, I remembered what personal computing was like back in the old days.

The first personal computer than I ever owned, personally in 1985, was a Zenith Data Systems with not just one but two floppy disk drives and what I considered a color monitor (black and amber instead of the usual black and white). Two drives were a significant step up from one drive, for it meant that I could put a software program in one drive and a diskette to save my work in the other without having to constantly switch disks back and forth. There was no internal hard drive, of course. Eventually I did upgrade my system by installing a really, really big hard drive—20Mb. Whoo-ee!

5.25-in. floppy 5.25-inch floppy diskette

Since almost everything comes on a CD these days, it's easy to forget that once upon a time, the entire operating system (MS-DOS) and major programs (like Lotus 1-2-3) fit on a single floppy disk. And I'm talking about a real floppy diskette, the 5¼-inch size that was really floppy and could hold a whopping 160Kb (or 360Kb if the diskette was double-sided).

When the high-density ones came along, able to store 1.2Mb of data, we thought we had the world by the tail. For perspective, that's less than the size of a single picture from my current camera. It's a measure of how much computing technology has changed that 5¼-in. diskettes are no longer sold by any of the major vendors. In fact, you will be hard-pressed to find even a picture of a 5¼-in. floppy! No computer on the store shelves has a 5¼-in. drive, and many don't even have a 3½-in. drive nowadays.

modem Modem - telephone handset fit into round openings

And that quick, convenient download? When I was in graduate school (late 1970s, early 1980s) I enjoyed the luxury of having a terminal at home — not a PC, a dumb terminal — that communicated with the university mainframe through a modem at the blazing speed of 300 baud. That's roughly 30 characters per second. At that rate, you certainly didn't want to run the risk of losing your work by failing to save the file every few minutes, a lesson I learned the hard way when an entire un-saved chapter of my dissertation was wiped out when the system operator flashed a distinctly untimely message: "computer going down in 10 seconds."

Ah yes, I remember it well. But not fondly.