Technology, computers and programming have always been a major part of my life. It also provided me with an exciting career so far; recently in the Business Intelligence, SQL and databases environment. I think that most technology workers and people in the IT industry can feel blessed that they are pursuing careers doing something they really enjoy.
However, it is not just new technology that excites me. The history and development of it is also fascinating.
In this post, I am going to look back at some of the “retro” technologies that sparked my love of computers and programming in the first place. As with most of these type of stories, it started with the boy that lived down the street…
This boy’s father worked at an insurance company that used punch cards. He occasionally brought some of them home and we soon discovered that these stiff little pieces of paper had multiple purposes – from building card-houses to sticking them in your bicycle’s wheels to make a noise pretending that you were driving a motor cycle!
Even though we knew that they were somehow associated with “computers” we really had no idea what their purpose was. It was many years later that I only learned that these cards actually represented information by the presence (or absence) of holes in predefines positions.
So they were in essence computer files or programs stored on paper instead of magnetic disks and could be used to automate data input or directly control automated machinery.
This boy was also the first in the street to own a “home computer” called the Sinclair ZX Spectrum.
The Spectrum was an 8-bit computer developed by Sinclair Research Ltd in 1982 and manufactured in Scotland. It could plug into a normal CRT television set and programs were stored on magnetic tapes that were loaded via a peripheral tape deck. The name “Spectrum” as well as the rainbow image on the keyboard were chosen to highlight the machine’s colour display capabilities.
I can recall how we had to wait for the tapes to forward or rewind when loading a new game or program, patiently watching the analogue tape counter ticking over. It felt like hours!
The Spectrum was the first mainstream home computer and it paved the way for other brands like the Commodore 64, BBC Microcomputers and ultimately the IBM PC to find its way into living rooms and studies.
BBC Micro (computer)
Due to its roots as an educational tool, BBC Micro’s were used by many schools in the United Kingdom. My primary school (in South Africa) also purchased a couple of them and basic computer literacy classes where given to the older students on Fridays. There was also a small computer club that came together every week for more advanced programming lessons.
The RAM (Random Access Memory) was minute in todays’ terms (16 KB for the Model A and 32 KB for the Model B) and it did not contain any build-in hard drives. The floppy drive was also connected as a peripheral device for loading programs and games.
Four 16 KB ROM (Read-Only Memory) sockets where provided that could be used for ROM chips containing program languages and applications. This helped freeing up most of the RAM to be used for program execution.
My computer contained a ROM chip with a word processing application as well as one for the BBC BASIC programming language (BASIC stands for Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code). BASIC was an easy to learn language that provided a good platform for developers that later moved onto other languages like PASCAL, C, C++ or Visual Basic.
I wrote my first computer program using the Logo programming language.
Logo (designed in the late 1960’s) was synonymous with the “turtle” or triangle cursor that graphically shown the output of your computer program on the screen, typically line graphics.
A square could be drawn with the following command sequence: FD 100, RT 90, FD 100, RT 90, FD 100, RT 90 and FD 100. The commands necessary to draw the square could then be stored together as a ‘function’ that could be called multiple times. By turning the turtle, say 15 degrees (RT 15) between each function call would draw a complicated image that represented something like a flower.
It must be noted that “Logo” is not an acronym (like BASIC) and was derived from the Greek logos meaning “word” or “thought” to distinguish itself from other languages that were not graphically oriented.
My school also had a “real” turtle that was connected as a peripheral device to the computer. A marker pen was attached to the turtle’s body and it could then draw the output of your program on a piece of paper on the floor.
It cannot be denied that many programmers, like myself, got involved with computers due to the interest in games. At some point you start asking yourself how a game is actually written and if it is possible to create one yourself.
Our game of choice was called “Chuckie Egg” and the objective was to collect twelve yellow eggs positioned in each level before a countdown timer reached zero. Bumping into little “chicks” instantly killed you, but they followed predictive routes and stopped to feed on the purple piles of seeds. When your player ate the seeds in return, it temporary slowed down the timer.
In later levels the “mother hen” was released from her cage and she could fly through any obstacles (ladders, platforms) heading directly for your player. She was, however, slow to turn around and you could use it to your advantage to draw her away from your eggs.
Today this game can easily be recreated with game making software like Game Maker Studio, but one can appreciate the programming effort – bearing in mind that the executable file was typically stored on a 360 KB floppy disk and ran on a computer with 16 KB RAM, like the BBC Micro.
You can try out this game online at the following site: http://www.repton3.co.uk/chuckieegg.aspx
To conclude, the history of technology and computers always fascinates me. I hope you enjoyed this post and that it evoked some of your own childhood memories playing Mario Brothers or creating your first computer program!