My Very First Computer

Excuse me while I slip into my ol' fogy outfit! Gee! where are my teefh! Mmmmph! There thats better.

Back in 1978, I was at work and the latest Heathkit catalog came in showing Heath's new line of computers. Being a Television Broadcast Engineer I was interested in things of that sort and decided I wanted a computer. There were other computers available. Apple, Radio Shack and the pioneering kit Altairs and Imsais. I felt the Heath products were a better choice for someone who knew nothing about computers and wanted to learn how they worked. Radio Shack took offense if you wanted to open their machines.

Heath was providing two systems at that time. The H-8 and the H-11. The H-8 was based on Intel's 8080A microprocessor and the H-11 was based on DEC's LSI-11. The decision was simple the H-8 was less expensive. A lot less expensive.

I placed my order for the H-8 Computer, three 8K Memory Boards and the H-8-5 Serial/Cassette Interface card. A terminal was necessary. I chose to use the Heathkit H-9 Video Terminal. As all of this came in kit form it was an optimistic order.

I completed the kits and had my first computer with 24K of RAM, a twelve line display terminal and audio cassette tape drive. Software consisted of Benton Harbor Basic, an assembler and a line editor that I eventually came to like.

A subscription to Byte gave me plenty of programs to type into the machine. A lot of Wumpus hunting seemed to go on back then. I was never really sure what a wumpus was.

An ad appeared in one of the Bytes for MicroNet. You could subscribe to MicroNet and gain access to a mainframe computer. You could store files, use Fortran, Basic, Focal, Pascal and Bliss-10. And your programs would run on the mainframe! And there were forums, where you could communicate with other people.

By this time my H-8 had expanded to include the massive 100K hard-sectored floppy disk drives. All I had to do was add a modem and I could be online!

Modem selection was fairly easy. 1200 baud was way beyond my budget and besides Micronet charged $12.00 and hour plus a $2.00 communication surcharge. If you used 300 baud the Micronet rate was $6.00 per hour. I purchased a 300 baud "acoustic coupler" style modem. A LEX-11 I believe.

I sent off my application for MicroNet and soon discovered the awful truth. Micronet could get expensive. My first, and only, monthly bill greater than $300 dollars was a surprise.

MicroNet was a "non-primetime" service. The mainframe was busy with real work during the day. At 6:00PM Micronet would fire up and give the mainframe something to do at night. I suspect the number of people sending in checks in the hundred dollar range gave H & R Block the idea to change MicroNet into CompuServe.

A minor tempest in the Heathkit world occurred when CompuServe entered a marketing arrangement with Radio Shack. This meant that we elite Heathkit owners had to walk into (shudder) Radio Shack to sign up with CompuServe. That didn't last long though. The only vestige of system loyalty left today is the PC/MAC war and that is fading.

I still have my H-8 and CompuServe account. I signed up for Prodigy as soon as it became available in my area. Prodigy's web pages now make it possible to bore people globally with this story.

Bill Elkins
June 30, 1995


Okay it is now 2006. A whole 'nuther century. I still have my H-8 but it hasn't been "up and running" in quite a few years. Gave up the Compuserve account when the service became almost useless for non-PC/MACs.  Dumped Prodigy when they became just another ISP. Had one of those. Did not need two.

In late 2005 Comcast finally brought high speed access to my neighborhood. Now I have accesss speeds 10,000 times faster than my acoustic coupler. Good thing too. The old LEX-11 might not be able to keep up with the email offering to add inches, take away inches, make me rich if I send money to Nigeria and other interesting opportunities.

Bill Elkins
March 4, 2006