Uncategorized - 04 April 2011
Author: Jim Szymanski

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I was scanning Engadget today and noticed that yesterday was the Osborne 1’s 30th birthday. It brought back a flood of memories from my early computing experiences with this 24 pounder. As MD is a site about mobility, and the Osborne 1 was disputably the first portable/mobile computer in the World, I thought a piece on it would be appropriate.

Back in the late 70’s and 80’s I was living in Northern New Jersey and publishing a weekly (or bi-weekly, depending upon my available funds) youth hockey newspaper, serving the Mid-Atlantic region. The 16 to 20 page tabloid was a true labor of love. I used an IBM Selectric Typewriter for all the basic copy, painstakingly making sure every line of type was left/right justified, adding spaces between words. It was painful to say the least, but was the only available option short of another IBM machine (don’t remember it’s name) that actually did proportional spacing by cost many thousands of dollars. Headlines and ads were all done with presstype (no Publisher or Macintosh yet) and I used a waxer to lay everything out onto art boards.

A friend who worked for Hockey Central, a marketing and information service funded by the Philadelphia Flyers, told me about the Osborne 1 in mid 1981, and explained that with it we could use the optional 300 baud modem to transfer information. Prior to that I had to rely on snail mail, making things like statistical info pretty old by the time I published. After some research I decided I had to have one of these. The closest retailer for me was a Sears Business Center out in the middle of Long Island so I set out one Saturday morning, starting my path into computing. No discount on this “popular for it’s time” machine, setting me back $1795.00 But they did throw in an extra program, Personal Pearl, a database application that I definitely put through it’s paces. I also added the optional modem, along with a 10” CRT, cause that little (and fuzzy) screen was not going to cut it, even with my young eyes.

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Like any new tech I was all over it when I got home. Purchased a computer desk at the local Radio Shack (actually a 24 x 48 Formica table w/fixed legs) and hastily read through all the included manuals and documentation. Once I got through the basics, including one very short experience with C Basic (ugg) I was ready to figure out how I could print copy my newspaper with this new toy. Radio Shack had a behemoth daisy wheel printer (actually made by Ricoh) for $1,995 at their local store. This thing was a tank, bigger and much heavier than my wide carriage Selectric. When I decided to purchase it, the store manager tried to convince me to buy something new, and less expensive actually. It was a dot matrix printer priced at $1,795 and this guy even drove me to a larger Radio Shack at a local shopping mall to show it to me. Now that’s customer service. In the end though, the daisy wheel printer was much more crisp and darker on the less than bright white paper so that’s what I went with. The next challenge was trying to get this monster to talk to my Osborne 1.

The Osborne had a Centronics Parallel Printer port but the Radio Shack printer only provided info for connecting to a Tandy computer. After calling their tech support I finally got them to send me a pinout diagram of what the printer needed to communicate. Think I purchased a 36 pin ribbon cable to connect these two devices. One end of the cable had repositionable pins, which was a very good thing. Needless to say, plug and play was not around in 1981. I spent two full days and nights and hundreds of experiments till I finally got the nursery rhyme “Mary had a little lamb” to print successfully. I continue to use “Mary” for every digital ink device ( I owned many), pda, BT keyboard and whatever you can write or type with today, to measure my typing accuracy.

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Next up was the database program Personal Pearl. While my C basic experience was not fun at all, I took to database development like a duck to water. The Osborne 1 was a 64K machine with two 5.25” floppy drives. The left drive was for a program disk and the right drive was used to store data. Personal Pearl consisted of 7 separate disks; for creating, data entry, my database application, reports, sorting, etc. I created a database app to track team and individual player stats, including things like leading scorers and other goodies. Problem was, every time I created a new database I would get a “too large/complex” error and would have to remove some functionality so that it could load up within the 64K. With my new computing power, I developed a service to track standings and player stats for two youth leagues, totaling about 140 teams and almost 2,500 players. Pretty amazing actually for 1981-82. During the season I would typically receive 100+ scoresheets that I would need to enter into my database and then spit out results. Had about 10 disks to hold all the data so it was cumbersome flipping disks in and out for each division and database process.

With everything working, I would coach a few games over the weekend, take pictures while at the rinks (not of my team) or at other nearby arenas. I developed and made enlargements of all my own high speed b&w film. Would write a couple feature stories and type in some columns from regulars like “I. Seemore” and then on Sunday night, my buddy Andy would get online with OTerm and send me updated stats for the Philadelphia area high school and youth leagues, along with a couple features. I would stay up most of Sunday and Monday night typing and pasting my art boards together. Then on the way to work Tuesday morning I would drop off the copy at a local news printer. Pick up 10,000 bundled copies of my new edition on my way home that night (after burning plates, it took about 20 minutes to run my paper on a 120ft long press). Then it was time to label/post copies for my 300+ subscribers and box up most of the rest in bundles from 20 to 200. On Wednesday afternoon, the UPS truck would back up my driveway and we would transfer about 125 packages into the truck. Everybody would get The Hockey review by the weekend and it was time to start all over again.

One night while I was taking my Osborne with me to a league meeting I bumped it against a door jam. One of the floppy drives started giving me trouble after that so I brought it in for service (found a distributor much closer to home). While they were replacing the drive I purchased a second Osborne 1 for $899, which was a great deal. Little did I know that two weeks later the company would file for Bankruptcy protection. Never moved the first Osborne from the desk after that but #2 logged a lot of miles. I would take it to team tryouts and clinics to register players. If you were pre-registered all I needed was your name to check in. Your application was already preloaded in the database. Also kept info of previous registrations so I could often find you in the database. Within a couple minutes of the start of the skate, coaches would get a printout of every player on the ice with name, age, height, weight, position, previous team, town and whatever else Personal Pearl would let me include. Match up the ID with the number on a player’s back or helmet and they knew all about your. Oh, and I couldn’t lug that heavyweight printer around so I picked up a Brother daisy wheel typewriter that had a parallel adapter. Very innovative for it’s time.

Osborne’s and daisy wheels went up in the attic when I got my first PC and HP Laserjet in 1992. Some guy overheard me talking about the Radio Shack printer while purchasing my first Toshiba laptop  in 1995 at a Staples up in Massachusetts, where I was setting up a new facility for my employer. He offered me $150 and I met him there the next week with the printer. Sold both Osborne’s on eBay last year. One still worked perfectly, even after nearly 20 years in my hot/cold/dry attic, and sold it to some company in Maryland. The second machine had a finicky floppy drive and a broken pin on the keyboard connector but found a guy who was building his own tech museum in his attic and didn’t care. he actually worked as an IT Tech at the WTC, but was not there that day. Glad I found good homes for everything rather than the landfill.

For a 64K machine that Osborne offered quite a bit. Interesting, that while flipping discs in and out all day was time consuming, I was perfectly comfortable with Wordstar, Supercalc and Personal Pearl. No worries about viruses, software updates, or licensing. Definitely a simpler time. Boy how times have changed. So happy birthday Osborne 1. Glad I got to know you.









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(4) Readers Comments

  1. Oh! Man! What a trip down memory lane. I used an Osborne in 1982-83 to write the gossip column for my college paper. I think I used Worstar until the early 1990′s when the corporate IT guy forced me to use…WordPerfect…telling me it was the wp of the future. Ha!

    Thanks for this!

  2. I worked all summer to save to buy mine for my last semester of college. I used it all through graduate school! I wrote my own Greek fonts for my Okidata microline printer for my chemistry classes and then used WordStar to send the control codes to write the papers.

    Back then, I was the only one I knew who had a computer, and I thought I had died and gone to Heaven. It was worth every penny. I only wish I could have saved up the extra $1000 for the 1Megabyte hard drive!

    I used the machine and SuperCalc until the late 80′s to balance my checkbook.

    Still have it in storage. Just can’t let it go.

  3. C’mon Jimski, we know you still use the Osborne.

  4. good!