Two systems that played a formative part in my relationship with computers were the PLATO and the Timex Sinclair. The PLATO was the first computer I touched. The Sinclair was the first system I owned and therefore tore apart.
I must have been about eight when the PLATO team in Tucson brought a terminal to our school. The acronym stands for “Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations” (Wikipedia, 2010). We thought the thing was color. Cross-referencing the years and capabilities of available models ((Ibid.) and (Hochheiser, 1988)) this must mean it was an early PLATO IV terminal (back-projecting those colors(Wikipedia)), and since I remember them talking about 'the computer in Chicago' it probably still connected to the CDC 73. So this was a multi-user system (hundreds about this time (Hochheiser)) cranking out 0.641 MWIPS as it blazed along at 10 MHz (Longbottom, 2009). And those 512x512 graphics were spectacular (if actually monochrome). We got to keep it for about a week, then it had to move to another school. I don't know if this had anything to do with the fact that someone had hacked “The Enforcer”. But we heard that the University had bought a few terminals and some of us had parents working there so that wasn't the end of my PLATO adventures.
Fast forward a few years and a lot of time-sharing to my twelfth birthday, when my inventor grandfather gave me a Timex Sinclair: .00052 MWIPS (Longbottom), 3.25 MHz, 32x24 black and white characters (Garret, 1983). I did eventually get the 16K upgrade. Because, while I'm still not really a programmer to this day, I can code a little more than 2K (in BASIC at any rate). And my grandfather had a slightly ulterior motive; he wanted me to write a simulation of a factory he was thinking about. So we sat together in front of the black and white TV it supported and wrote on that little membrane keyboard until the memory ran out. He lived in Vermont and I Arizona so when vacation ended we parted with our tails down a little: the RAM wasn't available at the moment.
Today I have more computers than I need, the least of which compares rather favorably to a CDC 73. I try to get the lowest power, least material machines I can get by with, but software requirements keep driving that baseline up. Which is a little unfortunate because I'd hoped a phone with 7.6 MWIPS at 684 MHz and 640x480 color graphics was adequate.
Hochheiser, Sheldon (1988) 'An Interview with Donald L. Bitzer' [Online]. Available from http://www.cbi.umn.edu/oh/display.phtml?id=83 (Accessed 16 January, 2010).
Longbottom, Roy (2009) 'Whetstone Benchmark History and Results' [Online]. Available from http://www.roylongbottom.org.uk/whetstone.htm (Accessed 16 January, 2010).
Garrett, Billy (1983) 'The Timex/Sinclair 1000', Byte Publications Inc. [Online]. Available from http://oldcomputers.net/byte-ts1000.html (Accessed 16 January, 2010).
Wikipedia (2010) 'PLATO (computer system)' [Online]. Available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PLATO_(computer_system) (Accessed 16 January, 2010).