I’ve been on a nostalgia trip lately thinking about the computers that influenced me growing up. They’re easy to take for granted now, but for much of my childhood, computers were owned by geeky hobbyists experimenting with their potential more like ham radio enthusiasts or stock car mechanics than by people trying to get things done.
I wonder how much of the thinking of Gen X has been influenced by the logic and problem solving it took to even open a game or a word processor. They were a perfect metaphor for our latch-key generation: “Here’s a device with limited instructions. Good luck, and don’t accidentally provoke a thermonuclear war with it.”
I know they changed the way I think, and this week, I’ll be blogging about the early computers that influenced me.
Texas Instruments TI-99/4A
Released: June 1981 – March 1984
Specs: 16KB RAM, 3MHz CPU
From 1979 to 1984, my parents owned a bookstore in Englewood, Florida, called The Bookmark. Though we carried the bestsellers of the day (Robert Ludlum! Harold Robbins! Judith Krantz!), most of the clientele wanted books about the treacherous Florida plants, fish, birds, and snakes they’d never seen before retiring from Michigan.
I spent many Saturdays there reading books very gently in the backroom so we could still sell them (Sherlock Holmes, Choose Your Own Adventure, Encyclopedia Brown), but when I got bored, I could walk to the other end of Palm Plaza to the Eckerds drug store where, for some bizarre reason, there was a kiosk demonstrating the TI-99/4A home computer.
(I never saw anyone but me ever using it.)
It had no tape or disk drive, and it may have had a cartridge with a demo game or two, but what I mostly did was write programs on it in BASIC until a store employee chased me away. Usually, that meant that I’d write the programs by hand at home and then type them into the computer.
Let me say that again: I wrote the programs at home on a piece of notebook paper, folded up the paper, walked into Eckerds, and typed them in…until someone chased me out.
I’m not sure what appealed to me about doing that, except perhaps a vague entrepreneurial spirit: smart people were making cool things (mostly games) with software, so maybe I could, too. I used to create instruction manuals for the games I imagined, too.
Which probably trained me to imagine creative projects in my head before putting them on paper or a screen.
In high school years later, I somehow got ahold of a TI-99/4A in my collection of vintage computers, and I always liked its sleek design, clicky keyboard, and nicely written manuals. I didn’t keep it, but recently I bought another one.