I’ve been fascinated with computers since first being exposed to them in my tiny hometown of Fosston, Minnesota. The early 1980s were a interesting time to be a fledgeling computer geek, as many companies were attempting to explore the new market (with various degrees of success.) My school was lucky enough to have a small computer lab filled with Apple II computers, and my friends and I spent many hours staring into their green phosphor depths. We would spend an eternity manually keying in code from the back of Byte magazine – in all of its badly-typeset dot-matrix printed glory – to be rewarded with some simple little game. Eventually.
On Christmas of 1981, my Grandpa Ted gave me a Texas Instruments TI-99/4a computer of my very own. (Did you know that TI released a home computer? And that Bill Cosby was its spokesperson? If not, you’re not alone!) The computer used software on solid state cartridges (just like the venerable Atari 2600), and the only mechanism that I had for storing programs was an audio tape recorder. Definitely primitive, certainly finicky, but effective nonetheless.
Having a computer at home exposed me to writing my own software for the first time. I quickly exhausted the capabilities of the built-in BASIC implementation and got my hands on an Extended BASIC cartridge in the summer of 1982. The new version made it possible to create actual playable games – multiple onscreen sprites, collision detection, subprograms, and lots more. The local library had a decent sized collection of books available for the computer, and I tore through them all. Trips to the closest mall – located an hour away in Bemidji, Minnesota (near the headwaters of the Mississippi and home of Bemidji State University, AKA BSU) – allowed me to focus on my two primary obsessions, being my TI-99/4a and the glorious experience that was The Arcade in the early 1980s. Alas, the latter is a story for another post. The bookstore had a large collection of titles not available at my local library, which I would sit and read while my family shopped for whatever godawful clothing passed for fashionable in those days. Many stores – including Sears, Toys R Us, and others – had large collections of software cartridges for the TI on display. Pretty primitive by today’s standards, but I was in absolute awe at the wide variety available.
Several of my friends had home computers as well. My friend Dennis also had a TI-99/4a, and we gave each other games and programs that we had written to try out. This was always an interesting challenge due to the finicky nature of audio tape storage; the volume on the player had to be set properly when restoring data, and if the gain was too high or low when the data was saved it would simply never load without error. Other friends had different computers – the Timex-Sinclair 1000 was fairly popular, as was the Commodore Vic-20. As this was well before the era of interoperability, these computers were utterly incompatible with mine.
That little computer set me firmly on the path that I continue on to this day. Prior to getting that device I struggled with math; my brain simply couldn’t deal with the abstractions. Programming gave me metaphoric handholds to grasp the concepts, and led to lifetime fascination with mathematics.
It’s been a fun ride, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.
Want more information? Here’s some interesting links:
- TI-99/4a Home Computer on wikipedia
- TI Extended Basic on wikipedia
- Getting Started with the TI-99/4a, a book by Stephen Shaw (in all of its unformatted HTML 1.0 glory)
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