Sunday, June 26, 2011

Back in the day ...

Just recently, in the most unlikely of places (a newsgroup dedicated to Disney theme parks), a discussion developed about the early days of home computing. (Yes, I am that old!) The home computing scene was much different in many ways back in the day.

The day I am talking about would have begun in the early to mid 1980's. At first, if you wanted a computer at home you needed to plunk down tens of thousands of dollars to have one. That changed in the early 1980's with a computer company in the UK, Sinclair. I was reading a current issue of Games magazine when I came across an advertisement for a computer for $99! Of course you needed to be handy with a soldering iron to put it together and get it to work, or you could buy it preassembled for about 50% more. I opted to put mine together, and soon after entered the age of  the personal computer.

Soon, other affordable computers started coming to market from Apple, Commodore, Radio Shack and others. Some computers which had been sold as game consoles also started selling kits which could be added to make them usable as "real" computers. Things started getting interesting.

Back then, I was writing a monthly column for Computer Shopper which, although basically a collection of computer advertising back then, started printing articles about these new computers coming into the market. And there were many. You could read about the new computers and what you could do with them. New hardware, new software and many technical articles were the order of the day. You were learning the down and dirty aspects of using a home computer.

If you owned a computer back in those days, most likely it was for the fun of seeing what could be done with it. Computers weren't yet the "appliances" that they are today where you simply use it as a tool to be productive, but were things that you played with. And I don't just mean game software. Many people learned the BASIC programming language that came with many of these early home computers. We would sit for hours trying to get something to happen - sometimes as simple as getting a pixel (or group of pixels) to appear on the screen. If you were really willing to give up sleeping, you might write a program which actually had some usefulness. I did! A few to be exact.

In those days, there was no internet and when you played with your computer it was to see what it could do. We scanned the magazines - paper magazines that is - pouring through each issue to see what new piece of software was in development or released for our computer which would give it new and previously unimagined capabilities. Each issue brought new ways we could modify our hardware, which was not made to be modified. At one time I added a second ROM chip to a computer so it could not only run the software written for it, but for that of another computer as well. This was hacking in its truest and most positive form.

There were numerous computers, with various operating systems and we wanted to see just what they could do. In those days it was all about local hardware and software.

Then the industry grew up. The dozens of computer operating systems shrunk to 2 (Apple and PC) and then 3 (Mac, PC and Linux). Playing on your computer is more about using the computer as a terminal for access to the internet now. Facebook and Twitter have replaced programming and local software as the most common computer activities (By the way - feel free to follow me on Twitter @marklf). Hacking has taken on a negative association. Using your computer with local software is now almost strictly for work or a utilitarian purpose - not for fun. Yes, there are still games on home computers, but they are very different, and often are played online with others as well.

The home computer revolution has matured and I miss the old days on the frontier.


  1. I remember learning BASIC programming at high school. I loved it, it was so cool! :)

  2. My first computer was a Mac - I loved it. The idea of using IBM with the cntrl + seemed so highly foreign and frightening. I have always been amazed my computer programmers its a language that is similar to hieroglyphics. Never in my life time. :)

  3. I had one of those. It was given to me by my dad's cousin when he upgraded to a VIC-20.