Monday, January 31, 2011

Entering the Digital Age

Sometime during my Freshman year in High School, I found a magazine on the dining table. The cover art suggested a science fiction theme, but the contents definitely had something to do with electronics. The title was very weird and confusing to me: Byte. The subtitle was not that helpful either: The Small Systems Journal. What kind of small systems are they talking about? As I tried to read the articles and analyze the ads, I began to realize that this magazine was about small computers. Up to that moment, my concept of a computer was something that cost millions of dollars and filled several rooms. When I was six, my dad had taken me to work on a Saturday, and let me go with him into the data processing center, full of cabinets roaring with forced cooling air, reel-to-reel tape drives, washing-machine looking disk units, punched card readers, all controlled from a large panel of switches and blinking lights. This Byte magazine had pictures of machines costing around a thousand dollars that could fit on a table. It now appeared to possible for someone to actually have a computer in their home.

This was mind-blowing for me; science-fiction was becoming reality. I pored over the magazine trying to understand what these machines were, what they could do, and dreamed about how I could possibly get one. It turned out that a friend of my dad's had given him the magazine, and more issues started to arrive. Some of the articles reviewed hardware or showed how to build circuits, but other articles talked about programs. Some of these programs were in machine and assembly language and were completely incomprehensible to me, but some were in a language called BASIC, and I could figure out some of what they did. Not long after that, the first computer store in Dallas opened up. My dad took me there and I got to see some of these machines in person. Some of them had boxes with switches and lights on the front, others just had a power and reset button. Some had keyboards and little TV monitors connected to them. I could press the keys and see the letters appear on the screen. On one of our visits there, I tried typing in a little program...
20 GOTO 10
... and my name went racing up the screen. What a thrill!

Thoughts of computers filled my mind. A company called Commodore came out with a computer called the PET which you could buy for $600, and it included everything you needed to write BASIC programs. My goal was to save up enough money to buy a PET, which seemed achievable with a lot of work. I did not consider the dream machine, the Apple II, which at over $1000 seemed unobtainable. In the meantime, I heard that my High School had a course called Computer Math that taught BASIC programming, so I signed up to take it my Sophomore year. I didn't think it would be a very good course, but at least I would get to program a computer.

That summer, my dad surprised me and delighted me to no end by bringing home an Apple II with 16K of RAM! I probably spent every spare hour I had that summer on the computer, typing in programs out of magazines, playing little games, and coming up with my own programs.

When it came time for me to take the Computer Math class, I had already learned on my own most what would be taught in the class. There was one other kid in the class, Chad, who also knew a lot about computers, and we became friends. Chad and I did well in the class, but Chad had stories of a kid named Mike who had taken the class earlier and was quite a computer wiz. Later that year, our teacher took Mike, Chad, and myself up to North Texas State University (now UNT) for a programming contest. This was my first time to spend any time with Mike, and although he was kind of strange, he was clearly very smart, and I admired him. We did not win the contest, but we had a good time. On the drive back, Chad and Mike put a tape in the car stereo, and a very strange song began to play. It seemed to have a religious theme, but it was not like any religious song I had ever heard. I couldn't tell if it was serious, or making fun of religion. I now know it was Larry Norman singing Moses in the Wilderness, and this song was a kind of sign of things to come.


Homeboy McCoy said...

I remember in the 90s, while a student in a high school run by the Order I'm now about to enter, one of the Brothers in the library called me and my friends over and introduced us to this thing called "the internet." He may have used air-quotes when he said that brand new term.

We were so uber impressed that the page of pure text was coming from some other place other than the box sitting next to the monitor.

Oy, how times have changed!

St. Izzy said...

Remember the therminal at school for the old HP Timeshare BASIC machine in Wag's room? The big clunky cradle modem and paper tape storage?

While my youngest brother Dave was in Austria, he had a blind room mate with perfect pitch also named Dave. Dave's modem had stopped sending the handshake signal, so he would dial the phone, wait for the tone at the other end, whistle the handshake himself, and then (by touch alone) have to slam the handset down onto the cradle in time for the two machines to keep talking to one another.

Them was the days.

Gregory said...

Homeboy, it's still pretty amazing when you think about it. I recently read Lord of the World, a science-fiction story written 100 years ago by an Anglican turned Catholic priest, Robert Hugh Benson. One high tech gadget in the book is a radio-telegraph machine that has a typewriter keyboard that the operator uses to send a message, and then the incoming message appears on a sheet of paper.

Michael, I certainly remember the teletype and acoustic modem. It's interesting that you remember it was an HP Timeshare BASIC machine. Might that be because you had access to the manual, which Wag kept locked up by the time Chad and I came along? I believe he did not let us see it to keep us from creating something like your Colossus program which disabled the break key and logged off the account, if I remember correctly.

Ruminations said...

As I finally get around to reading some of these, I remember even before you got the Apple II that you had access to a BBS system and a teletype as far back as middle school. You printed up up little newsletters and brought them to school and shared them with me and a few others. Do you not remember that?

Greg Graham said...

Hey Doug, that's amazing you remember that!

We had some old teletype equipment for Ham Radio. We had an old VHF radio permanently connected to it that was tuned to a teletype repeater in Dallas. A dozen or so other hams in Dallas had the same setup, so it functioned kind of like a chat room, but there were no computers involved. You would listen to see if the channel was clear, and if so, you turned on your transmitter and started typing. Whatever you typed appeared on everyone else's teletypes. When you were finished, you turned off the transmitter and you were ready to receive what the next person sent. We left it on all day and night, and when I got up in the morning and I came home from school I would look at the paper to see what had been said while I was gone.

The teletype equipment included a paper tape punch and reader. I had forgotten about this, but now that you mention it, I remember I would compose my newsletter by punching it on tape. Then I could run the tape through the reader connected to the teletype printer, and that way print off multiple copies.

Thanks for reminding me about that. I had forgotten about the little newsletters.