My early computing memories part 1

I have just been thinking back on my technologically full life, back to my times at the beginning of home computing.  Real home computing. 🙂

My first experience with a computer of any kind was in the fourth grade at Weinberger Elementary School – the San Diego Unified School district had purchased a few HP2000A, or one of it’s various iterations. I know why they purchased those computers, they were at the end of their sales life. They got them for cheap, and I for one am glad of it. I got to see this computer, well not exactly that computer, but the terminal with a paper tape punch/reader, with an acoustic coupler modem that was most likely 100 baud half duplex.  So what that meant is the computer would communicate across the phone line to the computer on Normal Street at the maximum rate of 10 characters per second, one way at a time. It was SLOW, so very slow, and what made it slower was the teletype that was the primary human interface.

I can see it; almost like it was yesterday, they set the terminal up and then loaded a football game program from a paper tape roll, through the reader, and sent the program to the computer on Normal Street, and then executed.  It was fun, we could choose the plays, be the digital quarterback, put in the plays and run them against the computer. It was a lot of teletype sound and just people standing around imagining this ‘game’ that we couldn’t really see or truly play.

It fascinated me that there was this cool machine that existed; and if I work it right someday I could use this fascinating machine called a computer.

I had such a fascination with computer that my family would always encourage me to call the radio station we listened to when they had the radio “computer” choose a winner in a contest. They wanted me to ask if it were a real computer, and was it hard to get one to talk on the radio?  I don’t remember much of what the kind DJ told me on the phone, but I remember him sounding like he was having a great time talking to a kid who was crazy about computers and wanted badly to believe that it was a computer really talking on the radio, not just sound effects and a funny sounding voice.

The next time I saw a computer, a full blown computer console, was not much longer after I saw the one in elementary school. I had been taken by my mother and Aunt to their hair appointment in El Cajon, no one was around to babysit me, so they dragged me along.  I was told to sit in a chair and read some stupid kids magazine. I had asked if I could go look in that strange store just a couple of doors down, that sold computers.

I remember what the place looked like, and what the computer kind of looked like: sfws_2

I remember the guy at the store getting irritated with me and a few other kids my age that were hanging around.  So, shortly after looking at it and playing a game called Colossal Cave (Adventure) I made my way back to the chair and kiddie magazines.  But again, I was fascinated.  Before I left the store I was feeling like I had been using a computer like this:


The next big computer, or mainframe in a datacenter that I got to see and wander around in a little bit (with supervision) was when I was in the 8th grade.  I got to go with my scout troop to visit General Dynamics in Kearny Mesa to get a presentation on the new thing that NASA was up to; the Shuttle.  I got to see the cool space stuff, then go look at a large format plotter (which had lots of different color pens) something you don’t really see much of then, or now. So expensive. And I got to see the inner workings of a datacenter, the air-conditioning, the raised tile floor and some tiles were askew so I could see some of the cabling.. And again, fascination hit me. Pretty hard in fact.

When I got back to school the next day I knew there was a computer terminal in our school – Pershing Junior High, not middle school. (I still don’t get that change of designation.) It was in the career center.

So I signed up to be a student helper in the Career Center. Back then, we had to fill out questionnaires, enter that information into the GIS system to see what our best fit for a career was, they had some other information we could use to help us decide what we wanted to do. I found what I wanted to do, be involved with computers. I didn’t need to ask a program to figure it out for me, I wanted to be the one writing the program that tells others what they would be great at. And now you can visit this site to see what schools are offering students these days. A big improvement!

Then I got the bug for programming.  I saved up 12 weeks of allowance (I got $2 per week) to purchase my own copy of the HP 2000A conversational Basic Language manual. I was way ahead of my friends who wanted to work on and learn computers. I was teaching myself basic from the HP documentation.

My first program was a menu program, all of the options were hardcoded, the logic looked great, but after I gave it another review I found that my program did not have an input, no way for the user to make a choice. I found the error in my code, that I was writing on lined paper in a composition book. Later I would type it in to the terminal, line by line.

Another installment later..

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