It all starts here … or rather there (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1

I can’t comment on the state of computers in schools across Australia back in the mid-80s but in the three schools I went to in Tasmania they all had Acorn’s BBC Micro.

If that interests you not in the slightest then you may want to go elsewhere, as that name is going to come up a hell of a lot!

For whatever reason, I was absolutely hooked on it.  I’d spend pretty much every lunchtime playing games on it, typing in programs and just generally playing around.  By this time a lot more kids had computers in the home and there was the usual sort of rivalry you’d expect.

Except back then it wasn’t as simple as Mac versus Windows versus Linux.  Out of ten people there could be five or more different brands and models of computer – each with completely different operating systems, form factors, expansion options and capabilities.  There wasn’t one operating system to rule them all – most companies wrote their own in-house.

I think that was what made it for me the ‘golden age’ of home computing – there were so many companies trying so many different things, and everything was so accessible:  the easy things were easy and the average user never encountered the hard things unless they wanted to try programming things themselves.  Most of the time you stuck in a disk or cartridge, switched on the machine and the program would just run.

And because you had probably never seen anything like it before that instant, it was always fascinating and new.

Best of all, these early computers came with the tools, as primitive as they may have been, to write your own software.  People took a masochistic delight in spending hours typing in programs that would do anything from draw shapes on the screen to playing a hangman game.  The fact you could break out of the confines of what the manufacturers had provided was like nothing else back then.

For those people who persisted in this, it was pretty exciting watching something you typed in, or even wrote, yourself come to life.

Virtually every home computer back then (or ‘micro-computer’ as they were referred to to differentiate them from their main-frame and mini-computer (don’t ask) cousins) had a version of a computer language called BASIC.  Some history can be found here, but the BBC Micro had an especially capable version called BBC BASIC.  This had new-fangled features such as procedures and functions which could be called by name – therefore reducing the need for the dreaded ‘goto’ command.  I think this more than anything meant that despite Dijkstra’s assertion that:

It is practically impossible to teach good programming to students that have had a prior exposure to BASIC: as potential programmers they are mentally mutilated beyond hope of regeneration.

I managed to escape unscathed and became the disciplined and skilled programmer I am today.  The ability to mix assembler and BASIC together in the same code-base was also something that scarred me for life (yes, it is possible to be scarred positively and negatively – just look at the Karate Kid – he could have so flipped out and ended up pushing a shopping trolley around wearing a pair of pyjamas and offering to wax your bonsai, but instead, through a serious series of unorthodox exercises became a kick-arse martial artist.  Learning assembler on a machine with 32 kilobytes of RAM (up to half of which was used by video memory depending on the number of colours and resolution you wanted) teaches you a thing or two about resource usage which you never forget).

For anyone who doesn’t know what assembler is, imagine trying to explain a complex concept to someone without using the words ‘so’, ‘like’, ‘instead’, ‘or’ or ‘screw it, I give up’.  What you have left is assembler.  But it runs fast once ‘compiled’ in to machine code (is that too grand a word? ‘Converts’ probably explains better the close relationship between the two).  Machine code is the only thing your computer actually understands, despite that fact that you seemingly accomplish most tasks these days by clicking your mouse or with your shiny new Wii, waving something around pretending to think you are burning calories.

So I spent much of my time typing stuff in, reading books and magazines (back then most home computers had quite a large community of magazines, books, and bulletin boards) and writing my own programs.

As a digression, a lot of those materials had a strong ‘DIY’ angle: many of the early adopters were happy to get their hands dirty and type in a program or two (I’ve  just realised I’ve said the word ‘typed’ a few times – no Web back then to download stuff from.  If you were lucky you may have been able to dial-up to a local bulletin board and download programs at blistering speeds of bytes per second.  The idea of having cover discs on magazines didn’t come until later, and putting a 5 1/4 inch disc on a cover was a risky proposition, especially when half your readers still probably used cassettes!).
This was lost for many years – most modern magazines have endless reviews of anti-virus programs and better ways of organising your collection of MP3 ‘backups’ and not much on interacting with the computer itself.   I think the increasing number of Linux magazines is turning that around – there are a bewildering array of programming languages easily installable for a Linux system and the command line mentality lends itself to whipping up a quick program to do something to suit your needs rather than wait for someone to do it for you.

As a further digression, I remember getting my first copy of Linux (Red Hat 4.2 I think) and installing it on a dual-boot Windows PC.  That was pretty exciting – the idea that I could run my own webserver (Apache httpd) and relational database (MySQL) on my humble PC.  Powerful stuff back in 1997.

So back to the BBC (or the ‘beeb’ as it was affectionately known.  Or disparagingly known by a close friend at the time, but what does he know – he had a Tandy Color Computer III otherwise known as a ‘CoCo’).

The unfortunate thing from my perspective  was that my parents didn’t have much money and we couldn’t actually afford to buy me a computer of my own for many years.  While I collected books and also a monthly magazine called ‘The Micro User‘ (and less frequently ‘Acorn User‘ and ‘A&B Computing‘), all of which somehow made their way down to Tasmania, I had to sponge off the education system to actually use this knowledge.

Back then it was considered slightly odd that someone would want to spend that much time using a computer and various tactics were used to address this.  I believe at one point I had to spend 15 minutes playing outside before I was allowed to spend the rest of the lunch hour socialising with friends around the computer and performing tasks that improved my reflexes and spatial ability.  Ok, so I played a lot of games.  I remember spending hours with a school mate playing Killer Gorilla, a BBC clone of Donkey Kong.  I think we managed to finish it even, which is always a great feeling.

I’m tired now … I’ve just gotten back from the Symphony under the Stars with the fabulous Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and I’m ready for bed.  I’ll get into specifics next time and introduce you to the  ‘(re)unboxing‘ of my toy (yes, I did finally get hold of my own computer).  It’s been under my parent’s house for a while so if I can’t boot it up I’ll have to amuse you with something completely different.

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