Sunday, April 29, 2007

Heathkit H-89

Finally in 1980 my father was awarded a generous bonus for his role in the creation of special radio equipment for use on aircraft carriers. He used this bonus to buy an H-89 kit for Heathkit.

We finally had a real computer in the house! It ran CP/M and H-DOS (we use mostly this OS) and we had a couple of different versions of BASIC for it. We had something called Benton Harbor BASIC. The computer had no graphics modes, but it had graphics characters and I remember my brother Ernie was working on a version of Galaxians for it. We wrote a bunch of games. I remember my father also did some assembly language programming for it (or perhaps he just typed in straight machine code).

One thing I remember about the machine was that it used hard sector diskettes, and the floppy drive was loud. It would make clunking sounds. Ka-chunk, ka-chunk!

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Artificial Intelligence and BASIC

When I was 13 or so years old I bought a book at You-Do-It Electronics titled Experiments in Artificial Intelligence for Small Computers, authored by John Krutch. This book influenced me in important ways. It teaches the essentials of AI so anyone could understand it. Examples are presented in the BASIC programming language. One of the examples presented is of the classic Eliza sort of conversational system. Not cutting edge research, but as a starter it gets the job done.

I was able to use the techniques in the book to create demos for the computers at NEECO. The customer would ask the computer about itself, and the computer would try and respond appropriately with a demonstration of features.

The book can still be purchased used on Amazon.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Looking for a Computer

Computers were very expensive back in 1980. My father worked for GTE at that time and he was offered a deal on the Rockell AIM-65 computer since GTE and Rockwell had some sort of relationship. It was a nice 6502-based computer and ran BASIC. It was small, had a single line display, and a built-in thermal printer.

Obviously a computer with a full size display screen (though one could be added) would have been preferable but we were excited at the prospect of having a computer in the house! Ultimately the AIM-65 was not our fate because my father decided that the nature of the deal amounted to a conflict of interest.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


Since our father is an electrical engineer he would sometimes build electronic devices. He had built a very nice stereo receiver from a kit he bought at Heathkit. My brothers and I enjoyed reading through the Heathkit catalogs that would arrive in the mail.

There were many different kinds of computers that could be bought from Heathkit at that time including the H-8, the H-11 and the microprocessor trainer ET-3400 which had a breadboarding area, could be programmed in machine code and could also be expanded to drive a terminal and be programmed in BASIC.

We spent a lot of time fantasizing about these and other machines, but we never got to see one in person. Computers were too expensive for kids with paper routes. Of course that would all change very soon.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Apple Hacker Extraordinaire

In my early teen years I met a fellow a couple of years older than me at NEECO. His name is Richard Stoddart. We hit it off pretty well and I began visiting him at home every couple of weeks. He had an Apple II+ in his basement and he was always doing something interesting with it.

Richard was smart, and he was always very nice to me and this mattered quite a lot since I wasn't exactly a popular kid. Richard taught me a lot about Apple computers, and we had a lot of fun playing games. He was also very active in his Boy Scout troop and was working on Eagle Scout. My mother called his mother and they became friends.

One interesting thing about Richard also was that he was into electronics and was the sort of person who wasn't afraid to modify his computer.

After I hadn't seen Richard for some years I tracked him down after I got married. I was glad to see he was doing well, but now I don't know where he is. I hope you're doing fine Richard wherever you are!

Sunday, April 22, 2007

NEECO, a computer store

In the late seventees a computer store named NEECO moved from Springfield, MA to Needham, MA where I lived. I'm sure it was my brother Ernie who first brought me to the store. It was at least a two mile walk from our house, but we were in the habit of walking farther than that just to go to You-Do-It Electronics on the edge of town, so this was really nothing to us.

NEECO was to become a central influence in my life for a couple of years. What a store it was. I have many memories of the place.

When I first started visiting the store there were the following models I can remember:
  • Apple II
  • Commodore PET and CBM 8032
  • Intertec Superbrain
  • Hewlett Packard HP-85
  • Atari 800 and 400

There was usually something fun running on each machine, especially the Apple and Atari computers. They also had a magazine rack and lots of software for sale.

I spent a lot of time there. Sometimes I was helpful to the people running the store, but I think they sometimes wish I was somewhere else. I owe them a debt of gratitude at least. ;-)

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Enter the TRS-80

I remember when Radio Shack started to advertise the TRS-80 computer on television. I don't think I had ever seen an ad for a computer on TV before this. It was $599 for the computer which seemed pretty amazing.

When these machines arrived at the local Radio Shack store my brother and I went to have a look. The only interesting thing you could do with the machine was program it. They may have had a couple of applications on tape in the store but we ignored them. The programming manual was very friendly, with a cartoon character that looked like a TRS-80 spouting explanations.

As I understand it the Level I BASIC that came with the machine was a custom version of Tiny BASIC. It had single letter variable names, only one string variable (I think), and it had only three error messages for the programmer:

  • What? - Syntax error
  • How? - Divide by zero, etc.
  • Sorry. - Out of memory

Level I BASIC also had SET and RESET commands so you could draw graphics on a 128x48 grid.

Friday, April 20, 2007

My own TI-57

For Christmas in 1978 My father bought me a TI-57 calculator

He also bought one for my brother Ernie. This was not as nearly as powerful as an HP-67 (or the TI-59 my brother Neil had), but it was a wonderful first "computer" for me and my brother. Since we both had the same model we had a lot of opportunity to work together on games and other things.

These calculators came with very good instructional books and also a pad of program sheets where you would write down all program steps and explain what the program was for and how to use it. Great stuff.

Some of the sorts of programs we created did things like:
  • Compute primes
  • Plot curves
  • Artillery games
  • Lunar lander
  • Number guessing games

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Summer break, and computing?

In the summer of 1979 the Needham Public Library did something amazing. They set up a couple of telephone lines with acoustic modems and terminals. Anyone could sign up for a half hour of access per day to use a minicomputer at Babson College in Wellesley, MA. I believe the computer was an HP-3000. Between me and my brother Ernie we had a whole hour each day to program in BASIC or Fortran.

We wrote our own programs and we played the classic Star Trek game and some others too. The connect speed was 300 baud. It was pure magic.

I don't know whose idea it was to be so generous with their computers. All I can say to you whoever you are is "THANK YOU!" You really made our summer great. :-)

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Northeast Computer Show

The year was 1979. What an impression it made to me when my father took me and my brother Ernie to the Northeast Computer Show at the Hynes Auditorium in Boston. Compare this show to COMDEX or E3. It was a cornucopia of computers.

Before IBM blandified the computing landscape by killing off people's imaginations with the IBM PC there was an unbelievable amount of variety in computers. Computer companies were popping up everywhere and non-computer manufacturers were also getting into the game.

Some things that stand out most in my memory are:

  • A really cool red and white R2D2 style robot that was roaming around the conference floor. There were other robots too.
  • A computer that you programmed with geometric symbols as part of the syntax. I can't remember the name of the computer unfortunately.
  • The RCA COSMAC VIP computer. Boy did I want one of these. It was a single board computer you could plug into your TV set. You assembled it yourself and programmed it in 1802 machine code using the hex keypad. The VIP had a cassette storage interface. It was expandable with a real keyboard. Very cool. I wish I could still get one of these! :-)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Calculator or Computer?

I can remember it clearly the day I first was introduced to programming. When I was 11 or so years old I wandered into my father's home office and saw his calculator flashing patterns on its red LED display. I asked him what it was doing and he told me "You don't want to know." I told him, "Yes I do!"

The calculator in question was an HP-67.

My father was really wonderful about finding ways for me and my siblings to pursue things we were interested in. As long as my homework was done I could use his HP-67 in the dining room. The calculator came with a wonderful manual which taught programming in a most clear and enjoyable way. The HP-67 uses a Reverse Polish Notation style of arithmetic entry. It also supports a GOSUB and RETURN style of programming like BASIC. The other amazing feature of the HP-67 is a magnetic card reader. This is like a tiny floppy disk drive except that the card just moves straight through the calculator instead of spinning around. The cards are about a half inch in width. This made the HP-67 more of a personal computer than a calculator.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Radio Shack

In 1977 I was ten years old and I was learning about transistors, resistors, Ohm's Law, reactive inductance and stuff like that from my father. I used to go to Radio Shack a lot after school and poke around. They always had a bargain bin box which always had odd things like computer keyboards, and other stuff that seemed good for making computers. Their catalog also listed things like this.

I had no idea of course how to do anything with these kinds of electronic parts, but it was very intriguing. I wasn't sure yet what a computer was, but I knew just a little bit. My life was about to get interesting.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Introducing BASIC

My first exposure to programming was BASIC. I didn't learn about BASIC in front of a computer. Instead, one of my older brothers (I have 5 brothers) left a programming textbook sitting around and I picked it up.

I enjoyed reading the book and I understood some of it. I didn't get to try any of the ideas from the book until at least a year later.

Interestingly I found a similar book at the MIT flea market a couple of years ago. I purchased it soley for nostalgic reasons. The book is titled Computer Programming in the BASIC Language, by Neal Golden. It's a well illustrated book, with lots of flowcharting and examples. The typography is strange to me because all the code listings substitute a slashed zero for O and vice versa.

My first scientific calculator

My father is an electrical engineer, and when I was a kid I wanted to be one also. Along the way I decided that I should have a scientific calculator, so for a Christmas present my parents bought me a TI-30 calculator

The original TI-30 was bulky compared to TI-30 derived LCD calculators you can buy today. It was wedge shaped (like a sports car) and had a red LED display. Mine came with a blue denim pattern zip case.

The calculator was fun to use. When you used an advanced math function it spun a digit around in the display to indicate it was thinking.

Probably the best part of the calculator wasn't the calculator at all, but The Great International Math on Keys Book (yes, that really is the title) that came with it. This was a really fun book full of interesting things to do with a pocket calculator.

So, this isn't really a microcomputer but it makes sense for me to start my journey with the TI-30.

Here we go!

I'm really excited to start blogging about my experiences of microcomputing, starting way back in 1977. Sure, there are people who can go back even further than that but I'm not blogging about computing in general, but about microcomputing. I can't say that I was a fly on the wall at any of the companies where computers were invented, but I think my own story is interesting enough.

The first microprocessor (the Intel 4004) was invented in 1971 and the first commercial microcomputer (the Altair) was first produced in 1975 I managed to come pretty close to the beginning. ;-)

Hang on, I've got a lot to say!