My First Experiences with a Computer

Posted Wednesday, August 17, 2011 3:53 PM by Nathan Zaugg

280px-TRS-80_Model_I_-_Rechnermuseum_CroppedI quite literally grew up in the start of the PC wave! In 1976 the Apple 1 was released and a few years later I was on the scene.  We never had an Apple 1, but we had a Personal Computer (PC) in our house from the beginning. The very first one I remember actually using was our old TRS-80. Boy could this puppy hum at an amazing speed of 1.77MHz with it’s Zilog Z80 processor! At first there were some games you could play, but when the computer got moved from the basement to the upstairs the floppy disks no longer worked. That meant that the only thing I could get to was Level II Basic.  I was very sad that I could no longer play games on the PC but I was quit amused by a trick that my brother Brandon showed me:


100 ? "Nate is Awesome!"

Which, if you remember your L2 basic is shorthand for: 100 PRINT “Nate is Awesome!”. I thought that was quite a neat little trick and when I learned how to make a loop so it would repeat as many times as I wanted I was entranced! I would print stuff 100, 1000, 10000 times, numbers I couldn't even begin to comprehend!  I don’t know exactly how old I was but I’m pretty sure that I was probably younger than 8 years old.  I figure that I might have even been as young as 5 years old. It didn’t take long before I had the computer asking for input and displaying output and all kinds of things.  The problem was that once you turn the computer off, your program is toast!

Not being able to save any of my hard work was very frustrating for me but it did challenge me to build it back better than it was before.  If I had to simply refactor an existing program it would have been harder.  For one the basic I was using was line numbered and if you didn’t save yourself enough room, you better be prepared to litter your code with GOSUB. When I re-wrote the program from scratch I could avoid problems I ran into in previous attempts. It by no means meant the frustration went away. I made several attempts (the best I could do as a pre-teen) to fix the floppy disk drives to no avail. The TRS-80 also had the amazing feature of being able to use a tape recorder to record and restore your programs.  This I must have tried hundreds of times and never had any success!

At first I was trying to use a standard cassette recorder rather than the special CTR-41 tape recorder with the feature of a remote jack that would let the computer automatically start and stop the cassette. Those tape recorders were about $40 and believing that I could actually save my programs I really, really wanted one! I believe I may have even asked for one for my birthday at some point. To understand how bad it was trying to save and retrieve programs this way, here is some text from WikiPedia:

The cassette tape interface was very slow and erratic; it was sensitive to audio volume changes, and the machine only gave the very crudest indication as to whether the correct volume was set, via a blinking character on screen when data was actually being loaded - to find the correct volume, one would sometimes have to attempt to load a program once adjusting volume until the machine picked up the data, then reset the machine, rewind the tape and attempt the load again. Users quickly learned to save a file three or more times in hopes that one copy would prove to be readable.

Saving my work started to become a big deal to me.  One time I spent many months working on a series of programs, games, and of course a Main Menu System to access it all! Unfortunately for me the TRS-80 produced huge amounts of electromagnetic interference! So much so that even with the computer operating in my bedroom in the upper floor of a 2-story home, the TV in the basement would be significantly affected and would show a fuzzy picture. My brother had a date and they wanted to watch a movie but he had to turn the computer off to get a better picture. I was SAD! Several months later I had finally gotten hold of a cassette recorder that had the magical remote port. It wasn’t a CTR-41, but I was sure that the existence this magical remote port that would make all of the difference.  Nope!  Like I said, do this day I never, ever, got more than a few characters to save and restore from tape.

386dxA few years later our dad invested in a 386 DX 8/16MHz with 8MiB or RAM, a math co-processor (upgraded later) and a 80MiB HDD! The new computer also featured a very nice EGA (16 color) monitor! This was quite a machine for it’s time and if I remember correctly cost around $3k. The Computer Room was established and the old, very inferior, TRS-80 went into the room along side it’s nicer, newer counterpart. I still used the TRS-80 for a year or two longer. I didn’t always get a turn on the new computer and Tetris appealed to everyone in the family!

When the time finally came to take the TRS-80 down for good for some reason I thought to pop it apart first.  I guess I figured that if I did any damage there would be no harm now. It was then that I saw the blown fuse in the expansion interface.  I put some tin-foil over the fuse and was bewildered to see that the floppy disk drives once again worked! All of those years and the problem was a blown fuse in the one part of the computer I thought was doing all of the work all along.

I did like the new computer though.  For one it could save my programs! :) It also had QBasic that didn’t require line numbers and I liked the color screen.  I think I must have decided pretty early on that I wanted to be a programmer.  When I was still pretty young (maybe 9 or 10) we took a trip to BYU to see the museum and stopped in the book store. They had tons of books on programming basic! I wanted to get two of them but my parents graciously agreed to buy me one. I believe the book was like $60 so I would be happy with one.  I read that thing inside out over and over again.

When my brother Preston got to high school he started learning Turbo Pascal. Now I don’t remember exactly how this came about but one time we both had written a drawing program.  Preston used Turbo Pascal and I used QBasic. It was almost like we were in competition with each other to see who could make the best drawing program.  They were nothing fancy – neither one of us knew how to enable mouse support so it was keyboard commands and arrow keys only – and we weren’t exactly writing the same features. Preston would have an unlimited undo buffer, I would have the ability to save as bitmaps, etc. so they were apples to oranges but it was a lot of fun. One day he added the ability to display cool text in neat fonts to his drawing program.  My battleship was sunk! There doesn’t seem to be any way to do that using QBasic. If you can’t beat them, join them; I switched to Turbo Pascal.

Me and Preston didn’t always get along so congenially. One time after a particular nasty computer crash that wiped out the entire hard drive, my brother decided that he would lock me out of the computer. Never mind I had nothing to do with the issue! I could usually break in anyway, and for the most part though (or at least upon reflection) we got along pretty well sharing the PC. Another quark of mine was to grab the Computer Shopper magazine and imagine myself with all of the awesome hardware! I wanted a new computer so bad that for my 15th birthday I actually got an Osborne II (not realizing how old they were at the time). It looked like the computers in the magazine so I figured it had to be close!

My parents and brothers were very supportive of my self-guided computer exploration. Some examples of note are getting a copy of Turbo Pascal, more programming books, more computer hardware, college courses in programming and electronics (when I was 14), more computer software, a 2400 Bps modem, a $400 phone bill acquired by calling BBS’s in California with said modem (what? all of the BBS’s in the state were busy!), and a copy of OS/2 I got for Christmas. We were also among the first to get the Internet, first with Prodigy and then with AOL.  We had our AOL account for a very, very long time! I admit that I did rather like AOL – the Internet never seemed as friendly again.

TI-86All through Jr High and High School I would make computer programs to do my homework for me. I had an instant love for the TI series calculators! My first TI calculator was the TI-80 (in blue) which was faster than my old TRS-80 and had the same style CPU! It was also programmable with a form of Basic and I wrote many programs; none of which I could really share because of the lack of an external port. I sold it to my neighbor and got a TI-86 as an upgrade. I wrote a LOT of programs for the TI-86 and when I checked a few years ago the ones I wrote in High School are still in Roy High School. Blackjack, Scorched Earth, TextEdit all passed down from student to student. These calculators have still not been decommissioned in spite of having a 20+ year run! Although I only owned a TI-86 in high school, I borrowed others calculators to port programs to them.  My high school masterpiece was a program called BOS and a text editor, both written in Basic. BOS was a shell/menu system which was useful because running programs on the TI-86 was not very easy otherwise. I later learned how to write assembly for the Z-80 processor and spent a significant amount of time developing a preemptive multitasking operating system with full GUI/graphics. I even used an assembler that was written to run on the TI-86. I got to some level of completion but never really released anything to anyone but a couple of friends. I now own three TI-86, a TI-82 (my wife’s), and a TI-89 (loaned to someone and I don’t know where it is right now).

It will be very interesting to see how my kids react to the technology age.  The computers I played with when I was young were very different! In a way I had a great learning curve where about the time I outgrew a PC another one had been invented. Now days my kids have a much better computer but the understanding is probably going to be much more superficial at first. Although, if I had all of the resources of the Internet when I was a kid I could have gotten so many more answers and progressed so much further! They also have the added benefit of my knowledge.  My Dad could work computers but never understood them like I do. It will be very interesting if my kids post a blog page 25 years from now and lament that they had to deal with only a 1GHz processor on their tablet (more than 1000x the speed of the TRS-80) or that their battery life was only 9 hours, etc. I’ll pull out this blog post and send it to them.