My technology time line


Charlie seems to have kicked off what might become a geek meme over at

I’ll break from my usual tradition of not mentioning brand names. Many of the brands I encountered are now consigned to the history books, others are still going strong. I don’t imply any endorsement, choices were mostly down to what made best (economic) sense at the time.

  1. Cassette recorder: age 4. The first electronic item I ever owned. It was a no brand front loading portable, mono only. I still have a tape I made of some bedtime stories – ‘I’m huff the hedgehog and I want my dinner and if I don’t get it soon I’ll get finner and finner’ – those were the days before speech therapy.
  2. Pocket calculator: age 7. A basic Texet LED model that chewed through 9v batteries at a shocking rate. I later modded it to work off a mains adaptor.
  3. Electronics kit: age 8. A Tandy (Radio Shack) 50in1. This was probably the real turning point for me, making up circuits for things like transistor radios and burglar alarms. I have still never managed to get a crystal radio to work (my most recent attempt being a few weeks ago). Thanks dad.
  4. Scientific calculator: age 9. A Casio fx-81. Playing with this got me into trig and other types of maths that they weren’t teaching me yet at school, which all proved to be a good grounding for engineering.
  5. Music centre: age 10. I wanted an Amstrad tower, as they were all the range, but got a cheaper unit. It still served me well for making mix tapes until I started collecting discarded HiFi separates a few years later.
  6. Computer: age 14. A Commodore Plus/4. It hadn’t been a great commercial success as the follow up to the C64, which meant that I got it with a huge package of software for £99 from Poundstretcher. It did however have a better BASIC interpreter than its predecessor. I coded my first programs to be published on this machine. This wasn’t the first home computer, dad got a ZX-81 when they came out, and we later got a Dragon32, but this was the first that was mine alone.
  7. Colour TV/monitor: age 14. This was kind of necessary to use the Plus/4 in my bedroom. I got an ex demo Philips set that had RGB and composite video inputs that worked with just about all of the 8 bit home machines (though I had to make my own video leads as it had obscure connectors). It’s still working today.
  8. Modem: age 15. Ever since seeing ‘Wargames’ I’d wanted a modem, and a deal on the Compunet modem put one in my reach (though the service fees and phone bill became a problem). It did 1200/75, which I also used for tinkering with Prestel and other videotex services and 300/300, which was the going rate for most BBSs at the time. The C64 that I needed to use this thing was extensively modded and hacked over the years.
  9. 16 bit computer: age 16. Another Commodore, this time the Amiga 500. This got me playing with A/D converters and making up MIDI interfaces for my brother and his friends. I came up with a design that switched a transistor for an op amp saving component costs and making fabrication easier (everything got soldered to the pins of the chip, which was then glued into the case – no PCB required). This machine was the one that made me learn C.
  10. PC: age 18. An Amstrad PPC-640. I bought this mostly for the integrated V.22bis modem, but it proved useful for many other purposes including PASCAL programming at University and my earliest forays into internet services.
  11. ISP: age 21. I needed a way to get online beyond the University network (which had JANET connectivity) so I got a CIX account in order to use there recently launched internet gateway. I still use it today, though I’ve been through many pure ISPs since.
  12. Palmtop: age 24. Life after university came with many moves, and little space for stuff, so I got a Sharp PC3100 to use on the hoof along with a ‘pocket’ 14.4k modem.
  13. Homebrew PC: age 25. Over the years I had built many PCs for other people, but this was the first for myself. I had a 486-DX2-66 that needed a home, and started out with 1MB RAM, though this quickly became 4MB. I have never bought a complete desktop PC unit for myself.
  14. DVD player: age 27. This was actually a kit for my PC with a DVD-ROM drive and an MPEG-II decoder card (as CPUs at the time didn’t have the grunt to run the codec in real time). I had to make a huge S-Video lead to watch stuff on the TV whilst it played upstairs in the study, and for some odd reason the chrominance and luminance on the decoder outputs were reversed forcing me to put crossover connectors into the cable.
  15. Mobile phone: age 28. I held out for some time on getting one of these, but when buying my first house it became something of a necessity. Prepaid one year contracts (at rates that we still haven’t really returned to) helped sweeten the pill.
  16. PDA: age 31. An early Sony Clie. The best feature may have been a multi system remote application that I once used to turn off a very annoyingly loud TV in a pub. Everybody glanced around for a second and got back to their drinks and conversations.
  17. Smartphone: age 32. When I realised that the Treo 600 gave me something that could be a phone and PDA in less pocket space then I was sold. I’ve not gone back to a regular phone since, though I still use the GSM mobile I had before as a host for foreign PAYG SIM cards when I’m travelling.
  18. MP3 player: age 32. Attempts to put music onto MMC cards on (smart)phones had proven a bit lame so I bought a 2G iPod. The crucial thing was that I owned about 11GB of music at the time, which fitted comfortably onto its 20GB hard disk. I still use it in my car (which I did not buy from new).
  19. PVR: age 32. Unlike Charlie I do watch TV, but I don’t like to run my life to the schedules, and I don’t watch adverts. I bought a Pace Twin as soon as they came out, and almost immediately invalidated my warranty by upgrading it to 60GB so that it would record 30hrs. I was an Alpha tester for the TwinRip app that lets me copy stuff onto my PC.
  20. Streaming media player: age 32. I had been tinkering with video on my PC for ages, and a network attached appliance that allowed me to watch stuff on the TV was pretty irresistible. The original machine is still going, though its DVD player is long dead, and it’s sat on top of its younger HD capable sibling. I still wonder at the lunacy over ‘rights’ that means there isn’t a product that successfully brings together the functions of the last two items (and no, I don’t count ‘media’ PCs).

Wow – it’s 6 years since there was a cool new product category that I felt the need to get into. Maybe the netbook I ordered yesterday will change things. I also wonder if I should have included more services, like webmail and social networking?

4 Responses to “My technology time line”

  1. 1 Tim Swan

    A little brother’s perspective:

    I have had the joy of following mostly the same timeline, but two years earlier than my brother, being two years younger each and every year so far. Having access to computers at school at the tender age of 7, and playing with my brother’s various hardware items until the point where he flipped and demanded that I got my own, gave me a fantastic entry to the world of technology.

    Our paths may have diverged around the Amiga, but if it hadn’t been for some of the items of technology that we “shared” I very much doubt we’d be the people we are today. Thanks for the MIDI interface ;)

    I am suprised at the absence of cameras in your list, Chris – were all those AP mags forgotten so easily?

  2. 2 Chris Swan

    I thought about weaving in the cameras, but reckoned they were irrelevant. I’ve always loved taking pictures, and I’ve taken great pictures with rubbish cameras and rubbish pictures with great cameras. I’d certainly count photography as one of my enduring hobbies, but a camera has never changed my life, otherwise I’d be a photojournalist or something like that.

  3. 3 Richard

    >I am suprised at the absence of cameras in your list, Chris – were all those AP mags forgotten so easily?

    No one forgets their teenage copies of Amateur Pornographer. They were easier to reach in the newsagents as well.

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