As a child in 1983 I was privileged to live in the age of the birth of the home video game console. The Atari 2600 was the king of the block in all its Asteroids and Space Invaders glory. Needless to say, I wanted one – bad. I pestered my father almost daily to get me one for Christmas. Well, one fine Christmas day my dreams came true, sort of.
Under the tree that year lay a strange sort of box labeled ‘Radio Shack TRS-80’. I had seen these in the mall so it was not completely unfamiliar. I then realized what had occurred. I was not getting an Atari 2600. I was getting a more ‘practical’ solution. So while my friends were playing Asteroids, Space Invaders and Centipede, I was enjoying Wildcatting and Mega-Bug. Yes, I was the talk of the block for sure.
As a child, I was somewhat eccentric and unusual relative to my peers. My inquisitiveness was frequently aggravating to many of my teachers to the point of administrative intervention at times. If I could not understand what they were instructing, I would inquire publicly until they were clear to me. If I believed they were wrong, I would question them publicly until they corrected themselves. This was in elementary school. Needless to say, I was not a teacher’s pet.
Of course, I was able to demonstrate some benefits of this inquisitive tendency by having all As, acing all standardized tests, completing the reading series through 5th grade while in 3rd grade and being enrolled in the Gifted and Talented Education program for the school system where twice a week I was bussed to a special school to focus on math and science.
Now, what does this have to do with the computer you ask? Well here’s the connection. I soon became bored with Wildcatting and Mega-Bug. Back in 1983 when computers were a new and fascinating thing, they came with large user manuals, something rarely seen today. The TRS-80 manual came complete with instructions on how to program it in the BASIC language. So, as a curious, inquisitive and bored 10 year old, I decided that I must understand how to program the machine and so I put my games away and got started.
After several months of hours with the TRS-80 and its voluminous manual, I was able to write programs. I learned how to do input, output, graphics and storage to the connected cassette deck recorder. My favorite kind of program to write was storytelling programs that would ask the user a bunch of questions and then write a story based on their answers. This was far more interesting than any video game.
One of my more memorable acts following the acquisition of my newly developed skills was at the Radio Shack in the mall. I would write short programs to essentially make the screen go crazy and cause random beeps to occur. I would go into the store, quickly pound out the program which I had memorized then start it and exit the store to the walkway outside where I would stand and giggle as the sales people tried to figure out what was going on. Such a little vandal.
Several years later it became time for an upgrade. This time my father went all out. He bought a Canon A200 with an 8088 processor, 256k of RAM and an internal 10MB hard drive. If I recall, this computer cost like $2,000 in 1986. Of course, I was fascinated. No more cassette decks to store my programs, now I had floppy disks! The real bonus was the internal hard drive. Ten whole megabytes! Who could even store that much information? With this new machine I was really going to make things happen.
On this new machine I learned how to use MS-DOS, write batch programs, play a game called ‘Leisure Suit Larry and the Land of the Lounge Lizards’ as well as print to a dot matrix printer. I was now able to do reports for school using WordPerfect on my shiny new machine. I had plenty to keep me occupied now.
At the time, my father worked for Canon as a regional sales manager in the Facsimile division. Yes, back in the 1980s the FAX was huge. It was like the twitter and facebook of today. Selling FAX machines needed its own division. As a benefit of the role, Dad occasionally brought home equipment. One time Dad brought home a brand new model. He said that at his office they told him that it was able to be connected to a computer. At this mention for me, time stopped. I insisted that Dad get me the information on how to connect the FAX to the computer. He said he would and I patiently waited.
A week or so later, Dad came home with a strange computer card in a silvery shiny bag, a manual and a cable. He gave these things to me and told me to get it working. Take a moment to consider what was just done. My Dad had brought home electronics and handed them over to his now 14 year old son to modify his companies equipment. Yes, this story is about to get fun.
Undeterred by the fact that I had zero electronics experience beyond disassembly of nearly everything that ever broke in the house I embarked on installing an ‘RS-232 Interface Card’ into the FAX machine. Now, today this operation is a simple non-event. Open, plug in, close, move on. In 1986 however, this was surgery. There were data lines, power lines, grounds, mounting holes and other considerations. Of course, with only a disassembly background, assembly was a new adventure. The card had so many wires. It couldn’t have needed them all. So I connected the ones that were easy and left a few of the green ones unconnected.
My stepfather told me once, all electronics have smoke in them. If you let the smoke out, they don’t work anymore. In 1986 I hadn’t heard this morsel of wisdom before, it’s applicability however was not lost on the moment. Upon power up of the FAX machine a wretched smelling white smoke belched from the rear of the machine. I quickly powered down the machine. I then went to undo my work by removing the interface card hoping to restore the machine to its formerly pristine state. No such luck. It was dead.
Upon giving my father the news that the FAX was dead he had a mild outburst. He was now going to have to take the machine into work and explain how it became damaged. After several weeks of having the dead machine at home, he finally did so. When the machine returned home not only had it been repaired but it had the interface card installed. I was overjoyed!
The same day, I connected the FAX up to the Canon A200 and read the interface manual to learn how to send and receive faxes by computer control. After a few hours I had it working. It was a great victory for me to be able to see a computer control another machine. I was fascinated.
Now we fast forward to about 1992. By now the A200 was quite dated. It was slow and unable to work with current software. Clearly it was time to upgrade. Enter the IBM PS/1 Consultant. 486SX at 25Mhz with 4MB RAM. This computer had a mouse and could run Windows 3.1. We used it for word processing using Microsoft Works. At the time there were not many games for Windows however, the DOS game selection was decent.
At this point, the computer begun to feel more like a tool and less like entertainment. Of course, by now I had discovered skateboarding and girls and lost interest in spending hours in front of the screen until…the modem.
The modem enabled my computer to talk to other computers over telephone lines. This was more amazing than I could ever believe! There were magazines we could get that had numbers of things called ‘BBSes’ that we could dial into. I would spend hours and hours going through the pages and dialing into all different BBSes and reading discussions, articles and downloading programs. This was a whole new world. As exciting as this world was little did I know what was around the corner.
One day Dad told me about this thing he called ‘Compuserve’. It was like a BBS only more sophisticated. He gave me the article from a magazine and told me I could set up an account. I did so and discovered exactly what I had hoped for. There was a whole virtual community of people like me. People who loved to tinker and explore and do interesting things with their computers. I was in hog heaven!
Soon, Compuserve expanded their service to use their own windows program. Until then, I had been using ProComm Plus for my BBS and Compuserve usage. When Compuserve came out with their own client program yet another world was opened up, graphics!
Now instead of just characters, I could see pictures with words. It was like using Microsoft Works with documents. I could just click instead of having to memorize codes and use text driven menus. it was certainly a new experience, another stepping stone in my computerized journey.
Soon from Compuserve, I moved on to AOL. AOL was an even richer experience. Additionally, some of my friends and family had also begun to use AOL. This means I could use email! Wow, to be able to send a written message instantly to one or more people. It was even better than using the FAX!
Right about this time, I was in my senior year of high school. It was a tumultuous time in my life for several reasons the details I’ll leave out. The important point is that I found myself in ‘alternative’ school for my senior year. By this time there were networked computer labs in many schools including alternative school. As I’m sure you are already expecting, yes, I learned to do things to the computers on the network. While AOL and Compuserve were great fun, the ability to disrupt class by hacking over the network had become my latest joy. Since Novell Netware was rather new, the school had not done the best job with security. Getting lists of machines, servers and printers was simple to figure out. Submitting print jobs into the principal’s office was also an easy task. Needless to say, I found my way to the principals office on more than one occasion and not to retrieve my assignments from his printer. 🙂
So let’s review. At this point, I’m 18 years old. I have a high school diploma. I have had no formal computer training yet I have experience programming, interfacing with devices, going online, working with local networks and expert use of word processors. All this while just satisfying my own personal curiosity. Of course, I am clueless as to the value of both the behavior and the experience as an 18 year old boy.