[I’ve been on a nostalgia trip lately thinking about the computers that influenced me growing up. They were a perfect metaphor for our latch-key generation: “Here’s a device with limited instructions. Good luck!” I know they changed the way I think, and this week, I’ll be blogging about the early computers that influenced me.]

Radio Shack TRS-80 Model III

Released: July 1980 – September 1983

Specs: 16KB RAM, 2MHz CPU

Oh, Radio Shack, my favorite store as a kid: home of the 160-in-One Electronic Projects Kit, the Archer Space Patrol walkie-talkies, the PRO-46 radio scanner, the nigh-useless Armatron robot limb, and a whole bunch of adequate computers. I loved those catalogs when they came in the mail.

A couple of my childhood friends had the TRS-80 Color Computer, but the alpha nerds on the block – usually adult men for whom ham radio was too sexy – owned one of the massive Model I, Model II, Model III, or Model 4 computers. (Yes, oddly, they didn’t truck with the Roman numeral IV at Radio Shack.)

The Model III I first encountered was in the home of Eric Jones, the grown man who’d volunteered with foolhardy optimism to be the Computers merit badge counselor for our Boy Scout troop.

He’d told my father that he’d once taught at the American University of Beirut, which my old man told me was code for being a CIA agent. Maybe that was true. Mr. Jones (hell, maybe Dr. Jones, I don’t know) had the quiet patient badassery of someone who knew what democracy (or at least American hegemony) really cost.

By small town coincidence, Mr. Jones’s wife Margaret had been my third-grade teacher, the first of many educators who’d wonder what the hell was wrong with me. Her diagnosis in 1981 pretty much nailed it:

“While Will’s mind races to solve complex academic problems, his handwriting suffers. Further, he has a built-in resistance to applying himself to mundane tasks such as memorizing his subtraction facts. Will finds it painful to complete assignments which do not inspire his avid imagination.”

And luckily that problem has not persisted to this very day. Ahem.  

Three years after Mrs. Jones coped with what could be politely called my “quicksilver” (slippery and toxic) mind, it was her husband’s turn as he explained the workings of TRS-80 Level 2 BASIC in their den.

I did not take to it well.

One of the few values that both my parents agreed upon was that our family was eerily and perhaps tragically smarter than 99.9% of the human population, one generation or so removed from evolving into hyper-brilliant orbs of effervescent light. Work was something people like us invented robots or conned others into doing, and a single cursory read-through of a book would be enough to supervise a heart transplant or the construction of a nuclear reactor.

We were skimmers, not studiers. All we needed was the gist and we’d take it from there…if we felt like it.  

The trouble is that programming is not an intuitive inborn gift, at least not back then in BASIC. So I was bewildered to be bewildered by something, and I had no practice in listening carefully to parse out someone’s complex instructions. You can’t extrapolate the syntax of an arbitrary command from the first couple of letters.

You can’t just “get the gist.”

It turns out that ignorant genius is still pretty much indistinguishable from stupidity, and I wince even to this day imagining the Jones family discussing my progress at the dinner table: “You’d think a kid so maladjusted would be smarter.”

I may not be remembering it clearly, but that merit badge seemed to take agonizing weeks to earn, for Mr. Jones at least as much as for me. If he’d really been a CIA assassin, he must have been sorely tempted to garotte me.

The breakthrough finally came when I really listened and did my half of the work integrating what I heard. It was when I realized that the statement:

READ A$, B$, C$

could iterate through a series of DATA statements like this:

DATA Ludwigsen, Will, 555-111-1212, Amemiya, Norman, 555-222-1313,

to produce names and phone numbers.

It came to me like turning on a light. Or, more accurately, like a slowly warming filament over the course of days until it flickers into a dull red glow.

I learned from the Model III (and, more accurately, from Eric Jones), that smarts without input is useless…though it took me many more years to put it into practice.

(And yeah, I got the badge.)

But not one for sewing.