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My first computer - the Digi-Comp II

When I was growing up during the 1960s, just having a remote control television felt a little "science fiction." Back then, access to leading-edge technology was unthinkable. So you can imagine my surprise when I was given a computer for my 13th birthday -- a Digi-Comp II.

I vividly remember studying the outside of the box, carefully reading all the text and taking it all in. I had no idea what a computer really was but when I think about it now, I can only recall the sense of excitement I had.

Pictured on the top of the box, a family sat around the Digi-Comp II, watching in wonderment. I too sat there looking at the box the same way. "What miracles this computer can perform!" I exclaimed. "I will be able to do all my homework with this!" All I could think of was, "This looks like loads of fun!" and "The best gift ever!"

I removed the cover and went through the contents. There were a lot of parts, much to my disappointment. I had the impression that the Digi-Comp II needed batteries or even plugged into an electric outlet -- I was wrong. Among the parts were marbles! No electric power of any kind was needed. The computer only used rolling marbles to work; how odd!

I continued to empty the contents of the box. Looking at the instructions, I began to put carefully together the magnificent gift. "So complicated," I thought and then began to worry, "This will not be easy." However, after hours of carefully placing all the plastic parts and switches on the board, it was ready.

The Digi-Comp II was a unique computer. The concept was designed around the actual "guts" of a computer. It had all the basic machinery a computer needs --registers, accumulators and operators -- all run without electricity and powered only by marbles! This was a true analog computer.

The Digi-Comp II itself was a long board, probably only 3 feet long, that would be propped up on one end so that the marbles can roll freely down the board. You load up the marbles at the top and they would sit "parked" there until you are ready to run a calculation. Then you put in the data and pulled the start switch.

Data input was fun and tedious. No, there was no keyboard or mouse or microphone or camera. Input required flipping little plastic switches with 0's and 1's on it to represent a number. For example, if you were going to add 3 + 5, you would put the binary representation of those numbers into the registers. 3 is represented as 011 and 5 is represented as 101. Adding them together would give you 1000, which is the binary representation of the number 8.

Once the data was entered and you pulled the switch, the marbles would roll down the border, bumping into each switch and moving the switch according to the operation being performed, such as addition, subtraction and so on. I sat for hours watching and trying different calculations.

After a while, I realized that the miracle computer could only add numbers where the result was less than 128. I was so disappointed, not because the Digi-Comp II was not the coolest gift I ever received, but that it could not do all my homework.

Nevertheless, I spent countless hours playing with the computer. The funny thing is, not only did this computer not help me with my homework, it actually sapped all my available time and therefore took away from my homework time. Obviously today's computers are so much more powerful and useful, yet I have no more available time to get things done then I did with my Digi-Comp II.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

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Tags: analogcomputer, computer, digicomp2, first computer, FirstComputer, history, retro

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