Newly Digital

The following is my entry for Newly Digital -- a distributed writing experiment (thanks to Adam Kalsey for bringing the project together). (Other entries on this theme.)

When I was a wee lad -- around 9 or so, I got my first game console. It was a "Pong" knockoff that only played Pong. I think we got it through mail order from Sears or some place. A year or two later my parents made the mistake of buying an Atari 2600 for the family. Things have never been the same since.

Atari 2600 Combat cartridgeComputers had been around for a while -- for business and government, that is. But consumer-grade computing (or home computing), well, that was starting to really take off in the 80's. I recall seeing Wargames for the first time. David Lightman became my hero. And he gets the girl! Yeah, right. The only part of the movie that's implausible. :)

Around '82 my parents bought a computer for their office work. It was an Olivetti word processor. I can't even find a picture of it online... it's quite obscure. At the time I didn't know what CPM was, but it wouldn't do me much good anyway. This thing was wired to run word processing software and nothing more. How disappointing. So I waited some more.

By '84 I was dying to get a computer. Of any kind. Desperation was setting in. I was looking high and low for something that would be affordable enough to persuade the folks. The TRS-80 Color Computer was one I looked at (we had TRS-80s in our school so I had a little exposure to "Trash" BASIC). The TI-99 4A was another. The Coleco Adam looked interesting -- a friend of mine got one. I even considered the Commodore 64, although the 128 was going to be out soon and I just couldn't wait for it.

Apple IIcThe Apple IIc was announced in April of '84 and thereafter I was dreaming at night about it. Portable and cool. Cool only like Apple can do. That was what I wanted. Every time I came in range of a computer store I would look for it. Any time I saw a magazine with a picture of it, I would glean all I could from it's pages.

The IBM PCjr was what we settled on. I think perhaps because it was relatively cheap (compared to the Apple IIc anyway) and came from a well-known and established company. It was family-friendly and expandable. It wasn't my first choice, but I was thankful. My parents probably had no idea what they were setting in motion and I'm sure they regretted it at times in the remaining years I was at home. I don't think I've had a proper night's sleep since.

IBM PCjr mascotsThe Jr. wasn't the most popular device in the world, but at the time it was really a neat computer. Ahead of its time in some respects. It had a wireless keyboard (infrared). It had a port for a light pen and joystick. The graphics were ahead of the basic CGA as it could do 16 colors instead of the basic 4. And the sound chip was more advanced, capable of 3 sound channels (compare).

My early experiences with my Jr. are vague, but I do recall getting severe hand cramps from all the typing. I learned to type on a little toy typewriter at age 10 or so. (Sadly, the thing was missing the semicolon key, so the right-most home row letter was "L".) The cramps didn't come from learning to type, but from long, extended periods of typing. I was typing in everything I could into the thing. Such a creative outlet.

Learning to program

I had a book with some BASIC programs and a few COMPUTE! magazines. I would type up those programs line by line. Not knowing or understanding what I was typing. I just typed. And typed. And then I would type that magical three-letter word: RUN.

IBM PCjr Cartridge BASICAnd then I would always see that error message. Hmm. Line 70? LIST 70 ... compare character by character to line 70 from the magazine. OH! I didn't put in that comma there. So I would retype line 70 and hit F2 (which was short for "RUN" in BASIC). Hmm. Error on line 80. Sigh.

And that's how I learned BASIC. It was a slow, sometimes painful process. But very rewarding in the end. Eventually I got Cartridge BASIC for the Jr. which let me save my programs (prior to that, all that hard work vanished once I turned the computer off. I probably typed in some of those programs 3 or 4 times each. And naturally only one could be in memory at a time.)

I started writing my own programs. One that would let me use the computer as an electronic typewriter (writing to our Brother daisy-wheel printer in realtime). LPRINT and INKEY$ and the like. Drawing programs (PSET, CIRCLE, LINE, oh the memories), silly games and such.

Thanks to a friend, I also got an early introduction to database programming. I couldn't run dBASE III+ on my PCjr, but I could run dBASE II. Primitive, but it introduced me to storing data in rows and columns. Indexing and data analysis. And writing code without line numbers. Blew my mind.

It was a great time. Back when the "net" meant CompuServe and your email address was two numbers separated by a comma. And broadband was 1200 baud. So many new things to learn and do. I still enjoy that about computers. There's always something new to learn and do. You never get bored. From BASIC to dBASE (and Clipper!) to C and assembler to Pascal to C++ to Perl to Java. Lots of languages under the bridge.

And there's still more to learn and do.

See Also

Other "Newly Digital" Participants:

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Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Newly Digital:

» Newly Digital from Kalsey Consulting Group :: Measure Twice
Newly Digital is an experimental writing project. I've asked 11 people to write about their early experiences with computing technology and post their essays on their weblogs. So go read, enjoy, and then contribute. This collection is open to you. Wri... [Read More]

» Newly Digital: Hack's Retreat from Waxy.org
The following is my contribution to Newly Digital, a distributed writing project about early computing experiences started by Adam Kalsey.... [Read More]

» Newly Digital from C:\PIRILLO.EXE
When people ask you about your first computer, what do they mean? I mean, do they mean the first one you ever used, the first one you assembled, the first one you monopolized, or the first one you purchased? I'm still not sure where it all began with m... [Read More]

» Newly Digital from Life in the Zu
He stood in the doorway that separated the PC and Mac sections of our computer lab. "Regina. I need to see you." It wasn't unusual for Will to come into the lab looking for me. He was a computing staff member and I was serving on the Academic Computing... [Read More]

» What are your early computer experiences? from UtterlyBoring.com
I might as well jump on the bandwagon. Adam Kalsey started what he calls "A distributed anthology of early computing experience." He calls it Newly Digital. The idea is to... [Read More]

» What are your early computer experiences? from UtterlyBoring.com
I might as well jump on the bandwagon. Adam Kalsey started what he calls "A distributed anthology of early computing experience." He calls it Newly Digital. The idea is to... [Read More]

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This article was published on May 31, 2003 7:16 PM.

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