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A digression... My First Computer...

I’m doing something a little different today. A few weeks ago, I stumbled across an old internet anthology project, Newly Digital, where folks talk about his or her first time using a computer, or getting onto the internet, or first becoming part-human, part cyborg. Many of the stories are very interesting. Browsing the stories, I learned that the guy who came up with the idea of the series started with a computer very similar to my first computer.

This dust-encrusted device you see to the right is a Radio Shack/Tandy TRS-80, my first computer. I’ve had it with me for as long as I remember. It was probably an early birthday gift I got from my folks. (BTW, today is my birthday.) Pulling up the specs from the TRS-80 history page, you’d probably marvel at how far we have come in technology. It ran at a speed of 0.89MHz. Fractional megahertz! My model had 16 to 64KBs of RAM. It probably only had a slightly better resolution than a Ti-82 calculator, and to save programs and data, you have to record it to an audio cassette tape. So of course, I never saved anything created on it. Just think, would you use a medium designed for recording and playback of music to save data? Now, it was first released in 1983 (retail price $240), so it was already several years old by the time I can begin recall playing with it. But play with it I did. None of that technical stuff above mattered. There were many cool game cartridges, with which I can control what was on the TV screen!

Well, after a while, playing the same games gets boring for everyone, so I took to looking at the two books that came with the computer. There was a skinny one that showed the basics, and a big fat book filled with nothing but strange scripts where each line starts with a number -- usually a multiple of 10. Unbeknownst to me, this would be my introduction to programming, with BASIC as my “See Spot Run!” Here I come to computer geekdom.

Though with me, I was always curious as to what the book didn’t tell me. For example, the CLS command in basic is the command that clears the screen, reverting it to an empty  green field. However, if you placed a number after the command, it would change the color of the entire screen as well. (Well, until you started typing. For whatever reason text would always remain black on green.) According to the book, only 0-9 were valid numbers to use with the command. Type “CLS 10" and you get invalid number or some other error message. Other kids, after typing CLS 11 or CLS 12 and seeing invalid command, would probably move to the next command. Not I. I continued upwards until I got a curious result. As I typed CLS 20 or some other high number, something new happened. I simply got the word “MICROSOFT” Using the superior reason skills available to a seven-year-old, I concluded that the command changed the color of the screen to something so beyond the comprehensive abilities of humans, the color could only be described as micro-soft. This color could probably only be seen by insects.

Moving on, I eventually began to use this computer for more computer-like tasks . . .  as a word processor. Well, at first as a typewriter. The big book of programs came with two programs that allowed a printer – in my case, a dot matrix printer to print what was typed on the screen. One of which allowed you to type one line at a time before it was sent to the printer. The other one allowed you to type however much memory would hold before getting sent to the printer. The latter one would be the most useful, if it didn’t have the misfortune of being broken. I have to admit right now that I do not remember exactly what was broken about it, but I think that the big problem was that word processor printed all that you typed on one single line. Pressing the Enter key would not tell the printer to make the printer move up a line. So for the longest time, my mom and I would settle on using the former program.

However, one day, I just decided to fix the program. I looked throughout the book, trying to figure out what each line in each program did, and try to find a line that told the printer to feed the spool up whenever I pressed the Enter key. I wrote all of my work out in the margins of the wordprocessor program itself, writing out lines starting with numbers like 32 and 47, so that my commands would execute in between the right official commands. (Again, I never saved this data to cassette tape.) After several days of intermittent hard work, and several pencils with bad erasers, I came up with a somewhat useable wordprocessor.

I was so proud that I fixed that one problem in my wordprocessor – with all that work I did, I claimed it as my own now – I can overlook the lesser annoyances of the program. You could not use the backspace key; the program took it to literally mean to tell the printer back up one space and start typing over. You needed to press Enter when you got to where you think the margin was in the text. But think, for a seven-year-old, fixing a mistake in a 100-line program that escaped the notice of a publisher and a programmer who had to be at least twice his age is a mighty big accomplishment.