I bought my first computer when I was 13 with my Bar Mitzvah money. I told my parents I was going to use it for homework, but the truth was that I was hopelessly addicted to video games and PCs (or IBM Compatables as we called them in those days) were way ahead of console game systems. The game that really inspired me was Sierra’s King’s Quest. I played it at my friend Jeremy Levine’s house and loved the fact that it was a puzzle game in a fantasy world. Like Zork but with graphics. The worlds were vast and non-linear.
When I bought my computer, the store I bought it from (Clinton Computer on Rockville Pike) loaded up a very handy utility called Norton Sidekick. While you were in DOS, if you hit CTRL and ALT simultaneously, a menu popped up with a calculator, text editor, ASCII code table and other insanely useful tools. The guys at the store showed me how to look at text files with the editor.
When I got home, I was very excited and started to explore the files on the 20MB hard drive (a novelty at the time). Anytime I saw file that had jibberish pop up in the text editor, I just deleted the file. What do I need that file for, I can’t even read it! Clearly I didn’t understand what machine code was.
One of the files I deleted was command.com. That executable was the resident part of the OS that loaded on boot. Of course when I deleted it, nothing happened since it was in memory– the OS was still running. Back in those days, you turned your computer off when you were done using it. It’s why surge protectors had the big red buttons on them to turn off the CPU, monitor, external modem, etc. all off at once.
The next day when I turned my computer back on, I got the dreaded “Non-system disk or disk error”. I had no clue what that was. I was sure that the computer was faulty.
We hauled the computer back to the store. This was a significant operation given how heavy the CPU and the CRT were and that I was a scrawny 13 year old. At the store, they pointed out that I had essentially deleted the operating system. it would be as if I deleted Windows entirely and then tried to start the computer. The guys at the store fixed it (with the ole reliable DOS command SYS). I also asked them to help make sure I could run a couple of games I had copied from a friend. I realized several years later that these guys were pretty cool to do that since they also sold software and I was asking them to aid and abet a software pirate.
That night, I stayed up late and read the DOS manual cover to cover. It’s potentially the most nerdy thing I did in that phase of my life. Those were the days that operating systems had manuals. I remember being frightened of FDISK and delighted by all the switches on DIR. I thought I was the coolest when I changed the default command prompt. I probably had a more confident strut the next day at school. I’d love to tell you that there were plot twists in the DOS manual but alas it was pretty dry. I remember also learning about Bill Gates then. I thought he had invented DOS (he licensed it) and so my admiration for him started then.
So I learned at a young age that you have to be careful with experimenting with technology but that’s also a way to really learn. You have to make (sometimes large) mistakes and fix them to understand how things work. I eventually did this with bulletin board systems (BBSes) when I was 14 which is a story for another post.