Saturday, October 29, 2011

Gadget Freak, Part 2

I grew up at a time when Radio Shack was a place that electronics enthusiasts, and those needing vacuum tubes and phonograph needles, actually sought out. Back then, the store was dark and lined with all manner of electrical components. The staff actually knew the difference between a BNC and a DIN. Today The Shack sells cell phones and overpriced accessories and what they still have for electronic components are relegated to storage drawers tucked into a back corner. And good luck finding an employee who knows what you're looking for much less where to find it.

But I digress.

When I was about ten years old I went to our neighborhood Radio Shack with my father. He needed some sort of widget and I was most likely picking up a battery with my battery club card. Displayed semi-prominently in the middle of the wall opposite the cash register was this black keyboard outlined in silver-grey plastic connected to a similarly colored black and white television measuring about 13" (it actually was a modified RCA XL-100 B&W TV) and it caught my eye. (ooh, shiny...)

I went over to look at it. What was this? Some kind of new typewriter? No... A typewriter needed some kind  of output to paper. Let's see. There's a keyboard, presumably to type with, and a display. What has a keyboard and a display? Oh, I know... it's a computer (a TRS-80 Model I, to be precise). What can you do with a computer? I think I pressed the return key or maybe typed in my name and pressed enter. I may or may not have gotten some sort of unknown command error but it certainly didn't do much.

I stood there pondering this new device for a while longer, wondering how I could test it, play with it a bit, get a better feel for what it was and what it was capable of. Then I remembered that you have to program a computer.

I thought about that thing for days. I marveled at the possibility of having a computer in a home. Those visions of the future I had seen on TV were starting to come true. I told my mom about it excitedly when we got home. I told my friends at school what I had seen with my own eyes. I wanted to learn what you could do with it and how to do it.

A few days later I went into the store on my own (it was within walking distance of the house). I remember walking to the back of the store to a revolving wire rack with books on it. I looked at the different titles and found two that I had to have. The first was a book about the TRS-80 and programming in BASIC. The second was a book of BASIC programs. I could only afford one so I bought the programming guide.

I read that thing from cover to cover. I absorbed every bit of information it contained. I learned the structure and the syntax of the BASIC programming language. I learned how to construct the program then execute it. I even learned about storing the program on cassette tape for later retrieval.

Side note: The TRS-80 tape drive was nothing more than a portable tape recorder with a special cable to connect it to the computer. Reading programs was sometimes hit-and-miss because the computer was extra sensitive about the volume. Yes, it had a volume control on the tape recorder and if you didn't get that thing just right you would have to rewind and start all over again.

In the course of reading that book, I wrote my first program (and no, it wasn't 'hello world'). It had variables and user input and loops and subroutines and it was all mine. I knew it was overly simple when I wrote it but I didn't care. It would ask you to type in your name and some other information then display it back to you, or something like that. Only problem was, I had no way to test it. Unless...

The next weekend I took a trip to the store with the express purpose of testing my program. I don't remember if I asked for permission to do so but I typed in my program line by line, saved it somehow, and ran it. I think it even worked the first time. If I was hooked before I was obsessed now.

I would sometimes spend hours and hours at that store on a Saturday afternoon. I would code and test and debug and learn. Sometimes I would only spend 30 minutes entering a program, giving it a run-through, and leaving it in memory as a demo for other kids that might be just as curious as I was that first time I saw it.

I remember my mother telling me I shouldn't spend all day at Radio Shack. It was a business and I was getting in the way. Shortly after, I asked the manager, whom I had come to be friendly with, and he told me it wasn't a problem. He said he honestly didn't know much about the thing and that the 'demo' programs I put on there at least showed it off a little bit.

As other computers were introduced to the market (the Apple II, the Commodore 64, the Atari 400 and 800, etc.), I began to spend my weekends hanging out at different computer stores doing basically the same thing I used to do at Radio Shack but with different systems. Every once in a while mom would give me the speech again and I would maybe skip a weekend but I was right back in short order.

I eventually outgrew my Saturday morning computer club of one (well, it was eventually 2 when my buddy Bill would join me) but I've never really lost my passion for computers and all things electronic. I involved myself in computer classes at school and even managed the school's BBS system for a while. Before graduating high school I had learned something like 4 or 5 different computer languages and, as with many things in my life, I was not proficient with any of them. Well, I was proficient with the programming languages, I've just never been terribly proficient with programming.

Now, my passion has become a career as I, and many others, always knew it would. Stay tuned, there's more to come.

1 comment:

AM said...

And a geek was born. This must have happened when I wasn't looking. Thanks for sharing the story.