Newly Digital in 1983
I caught Gizmodo 1983 this week, along with the news that NBC may be revisiting the old 1983 scifi series "V", and I was reminded that that was right around the time I got my first computer. I've been meaning to write something for Newly Digital, so here goes:
My history with computers starts a few years earlier than 1983, though. I think it was during the first grade, when I was a hyper, easily bored kid. I would get class work done quickly and early, yet forget to turn it in. Then, I would disrupt class until I was somehow calmed down or sent to the principal. I seem to remember that, once, I was caught scaling a classroom wall via the curtains. How far I made if before being caught, I'm not sure, but it seemed like miles to me at the time. I remember being the only one happy about it.
One day though, the usual trip to the principal changed. I remember him as a tall, bald, and imposing man whose breath always smelled funny. (This was long, long before I knew about coffee and had become hopelessly addicted myself.) The man scared me, since he was known have spanked students in the old days, and though he wasn't allowed to do that anymore he still had the power to call my Mom. And I'm pretty sure most everyone knows the little-kid terror of that.
This particular visit, though, he led me back into his office, and sat me down in front of an Atari 800 and a TV screen. Though I had already been introduced to video games via our Atari 2600 at home, I had little idea what this thing was.
He showed me how to turn everything on, and introduced me to a stack of workbooks as tall as I was. Each book was about 1/4" thick and the cover colors were a rainbow of progressive difficulty. He told me that he was trying to decide whether or not to start teaching computers in the school, and that these books were what the company sent him for classes. He wanted me to try them out for him and see what I could do with the computer before he bought more for the school.
From then on, when my class work was done, I had a pass to go to the principal's office and work through the books with the computer until either I ran out of books or the year ended. I worked mostly on my own, with a heavy sense that it was something special I'd been trusted with. As the principal went about his daily work, I was barely supervised with this expensive machine, and I felt I needed to prove I was worth it.
My grades and my behavior improved as I tore through the workbooks in his office. There was so much to learn and play with. I remember with unusual clarity writing a program that asked me for my birthday and replied with my age in the year 2000. It dazzled me that something I programmed into the computer could tell me about myself, all grown up, in the twenty-first century. You know, the year when all science fiction stories came true! But there I was, playing with the stuff of sci-fi already.
And the greatest thing, as the books began to ask more creativity and originality from me in my assignments, I felt my mind stretch. I'd never quite felt that before, and it was so amazing. Part of it was, I'm sure, just a property of the elasticity of the brain at that age, but I'm sure my time at the computer helped. Every day, I remembered and could do more. My thoughts were becoming more ordered and organized, as programming the computer required it.
But, after a few months, observing my obvious enthusiasm for the work, the principal took me out of his experiment. I was disappointed but he told me that he'd decided to build a computer lab and turn what I'd been doing into a real class for everyone in the school. I crossed my fingers: There were still plenty of books left to get through, and I was just getting to the fun things like graphics and sound.
When the school's little computer lab was finally opened, all the kids got sorted into groups of five or so, and each rotated through a weekly schedule of hour-long visits. When my group's turn came, I was crushed: I found that there were no assignments, just Pac Man and Missile Command and a smattering of math and vocabulary games. We were handed joysticks and told not to touch anything else.
These machines were Atari 400's and looked so much less advanced than what I'd been used to. I remember there being an intense nervous aura radiating from the supervising teacher on duty in the lab, just waiting for one of us to destroy these things. And, when I asked if I could have a BASIC cartridge to work on some of my programs, I told that if I didn't want to participate in the computer activities I could just go back to class. As bitter as a first or second grader could be, I was.
See, I'd gotten teased a bit for the special treatment in the beginning, but I didn't mind. And, now that everyone played with the computers, I got teased for not being so special anymore. What I couldn't get across to anyone, not even my teachers, was that they weren't getting what I had. There was so much more they could have. Well, I'm not sure my thoughts were so mature at the time, but I felt like everyone, including me, had been cheated.
So that ended my education in hands-on programming, temporarily. I took to reading more computer books, often bought from the school book fair, like David Ahl's BASIC Computer Games. Lacking a computer of my own, I read and ran though the programs in my head.
For the next year or so, I had sporadic access to computers. My Uncle had a TRS 80 Model III that he let me use during visits. That thing mostly confused me though, as I was introduced for the first time to an alternate flavor of BASIC. And still, there was the not-mine feeling and my Uncle's protectiveness of his expensive business machine. My grandparents also had a VIC-20, but sans tape drive or hard drive, so every visit was starting over from scratch. Nothing would substitute for what I'd had: My own time with the machine, doing things myself, building one thing atop another.
Then, the Commodore 64 arrived at the local K-Mart. I was in love. This was it for me, and I raved about it constantly. I never quite expected to get one, though, since the thing was expensive, especially for a kid my age. And besides, computers were always something that someone else had. But I guess I must've really gotten on Santa's good side, because I was met with this surprise on Christmas morning that year:
That first computer was really something. It was mine, given to me by my family as a whole. No one protecting it from me, fearing I'd break it.
So I attacked it. I learned everything about it, buried myself in books and magazines, figured out how every bit of it worked and could be used. More than once, I'd gone at it with a screwdriver to see what was inside. Then I went at it with a soldering iron to add things like a reset switch and RCA audio output. I made friends with people at a local computer store, and they let me be a guinea pig to test new software and hardware for the thing. At one point in fourth grade, I learned 6502 assembly, printed out a disassembly of the machine's kernel, and mapped out what everything did. I still have that print-out, bound with rubber cement, and full of my scrawlings.
That Commodore 64 would be my gateway to all sorts of further hackery and geekery, as well as a means of meeting more of my kind. After getting a modem, it became my entry point to local (and not-so-local) bulletin boards, and eventually my first tastes of the Internet. I was still using that Commodore 64 up until my last year of High School, coincidentally the year of the machine's last production run.
I've had other computers since that Commodore 64, but it was opening that box on Christmas Morning that let me continue the process that my Elementary School principal had started for me, and I haven't stopped since. I love to feel my mind stretch, and I love to take things apart and see what's inside.