Today, the Macintosh turns thirty. I’ve been a user for 23 of those years.
I can’t say that the Mac was my first computer or that it made it possible for me to be a writer. My very first novel and a whole slew of (terrible) poems and short stories were written on a venerable old Atari 800XL computer (later upgraded to the Atari 130XE). It was typical of the personal computers of the day — user-unfriendly, unintuitive, complicated, and limited.
But it got me through high school and my first couple of years of college. I began a second novel on it, got stalled, started a third.
And then the Atari1 went to that great scrap-heap in the sky, sometime very early in my junior year at Yale. Still needing to crank out papers, I hied me to the Calhoun College computer lab, located conveniently in the ‘houn’s attic, which lacked any sort of ventilation. It was like a sweat lodge up there, and it’s a friggin’ miracle that the computers worked at all, given the heat and humidity.
This would be in — I’m guessing — early 1991. Yale was a Mac campus and its computer labs reflected this. I had no idea what I was getting into, having never used a Mac before. Fortunately, there were printed instructions posted in the lab.
I say “fortunately,” but they were hardly necessary. The Mac’s legendary ease-of-use reputation was well-earned.
I sat down at one of these:
The Macintosh SE! Oh, man — my eyes were opened. I was just pounding out a quick little three-page paper for a class, but it was like a whole new world to me. I knew, then and there, that I would not suffer the Calhoun attic for this little slice of heaven. Oh, no — I had to have one of my own.
And I did. In short order, I cashed in some savings bonds my grandmother had given me years ago and made the trek to the campus computer store. And I bought a student bundle that included this:
My Mac Classic also came with the MacWrite II word processing program and a StyleWriter printer.2 One of my first actions as a Mac owner, I’m ashamed to say, was to pirate a copy of Microsoft Word from a friend.3
I became obsessed with my new machine. I did my schoolwork, yeah, but I also leapt head-first into new stories, poems, and a novel. Now I had fonts! I could use bold and italics and underlining without having to insert memorized codes! I could adjust margins on-the-fly! And I could design flyers and even a t-shirt for the college intramural team. With ease.
I didn’t realize it, but I was spending every free moment with that Mac, figuring out its guts, learning how it worked. I would dash up to the lab in the attic with a stack of floppy disks and use the college internet connection (we didn’t have them in the rooms yet) to log onto the University of Michigan’s Mac shareware archive. I’d fill up disks with cool programs, then go downstairs to try them out. I ran up and down those stairs so many times that it became a joke amongst my suitemates how much time I was spending with the Mac…and how many calories I was burning.
I haven’t looked back since. I’ve gone through that Classic to a Performa 450 (remember the Performas?), then a Performa 460, a UMAX clone (remember the clones?), a G4 tower, an iBook, and two different iMacs (including the one I’m typing this on). With the exception of a few years when I worked in an office, I’ve never used anything but a Mac. And since that ancient Atari computer, I’ve never owned anything but a Mac.
I wish I could say that the Mac empowered me to write…but it didn’t. I was writing long before I ever touched my first Jobs-blessed mouse. I can say, though, that the Mac made writing less of a chore for me. It made it easier to push the mechanics of the process out of the way and move on to the actual work at hand.
We probably take that for granted today, given the incredible ease-of-use, power, and ubiquity of computers. Especially if you were born any time after the introduction of the Mac — in that case, you’ve never lived in a world where you had to confront a command line or memorize formatting codes and cross your fingers that the output would match what you had in your mind. Lucky you.
But it’s probably appropriate for all of us to take just a few seconds today to be grateful that we don’t live in that world any more.
Just a few seconds.
Because then, really, we should all get back to work.
- More accurately, its disk drive, without which the thing was useless.↩
- After years of crummy dot-matrix printing on the Atari, that StyleWriter was mind-blowing!↩
- I was so new to computers and so clueless that it didn’t even occur to me that I was stealing anything. My friend offered and I figured “Why not?” I still feel pretty bad about it.↩