[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.]
Released: August 1982 – April 1994(!)
Specs: 64KB RAM, 1.023MHz CPU
“Gee, Will, with access to so many computers and parents who owned a bookstore, you must have been rich!”
No, we weren’t rich. My father ran the bookstore into the ground with his sketchy accounting and customer service (“It can’t be cheaper back in Michigan. They print the price on the fucking cover!”) by 1984 or so, but even at its height, there were only so many Judith Krantz novels and books about snakes we could sell. Soon, my father was working as a furniture mover and security guard, and my mother was working at a doctor’s office and as an EMT.
I was lucky in a few important ways, though:
- My parents had very strange financial priorities, often involved with keeping up appearances of our social class. So we’d eat Dinty Moore beef stew with my father’s restored Porsche parked out in the driveway.
- My grandparents, much better money managers, must have asked my parents at key birthdays and Christmas what my sister and I wanted.
- My family as a whole likes to give dramatic, wish-fulfilling gifts. (Which sucks as adults because we all have most of what we want.)
So it came to be for my twelfth birthday in 1985 that I got a Commodore 64 home computer. I remember my father did a lot of research and asked around to discover that it was a superior product for the price, which was essentially true. It came out of the box with a lot of features that required upgrades to an Apple II.
My father also imposed a rule for the Commodore: no games except ones I wrote myself. That felt draconian at the time, but in retrospect, it sparked me to learn programming in a way that I wouldn’t otherwise.
He eventually got a professional job again (at a mental institution, ironically), and my first black-and-white monitor for the Commodore was almost certainly pilfered from there, because that’s how he rolled.
Before I could work on games, my father was obsessed first and foremost with having me write a program that he could use as an address book.
What he craved was the convenience of:
- Sitting down at the computer.
- Inserting a tape into the cassette drive and fast-forwarding to a spot we’d written down for the counter.
- Typing LOAD “ADDRESSBOOK”,1.
- Pressing Play on the tape deck and waiting patiently for the program to load at 55 bytes per second.
- Typing RUN.
- Entering a person’s name precisely spelled in answer to a prompt.
- Waiting briefly for the program to churn through some READ and DATA statements.
- Receiving the requested phone number, assuming the person was in the data.
Even as a kid, I thought this was insane, so I suppose this marks my first encounter with unreasonable client demands for software.
It was also my first encounter with development delays and bad project management because he left my mother for another woman before I finished writing the program.
(And thank God, because as funny as I make him sound, he was a dangerous and violent sociopath and he exits the story here.)
In his absence, I got cracking on those games, including a Star Trek ship simulator.
My friends and I would position the coffee table and TV in the living room to be the bridge of the ship, and I’d write a program that could accept commands for navigation and combat. You could enter a heading and a warp factor, and the computer would show you scrolling stars as the ship was underway. At random intervals, Klingons would attack, and it was possible to fight them off with phasers and photon torpedoes after declaring Red Alert.
There are no pictures of this bridge setup, alas, but this was the computer at the time:
It was really a prop for role-playing more than an actual game, and that source code had to be an ungodly mess as I added feature after feature to make it better. A few friends remember my frustration at debugging that resulted in some loosened keys, but then, shit was blowing up on the Enterprise all the time like that.
What I learned most from that Commodore 64 was the power of tinkering and incremental changes based on making something user friendly. It wasn’t necessary to get the exact product you wanted on the first try, though my anxiety disorder didn’t let that part sink in for many more years.
The programs I wrote on the Commodore were all about entertaining people, and that’s a practice I maintain today not only with my fiction but also with my design and technical work. I’m less interested in what I can help people DO than in how I can make them FEEL. The Commodore’s emphasis on audio and graphics made that easy.
And yeah, I still own one (not the original).