My father bought a TRS-80 Color Computer 2 in 1984 (aka CoCo2). He used this for his Pool Service business, where he used the spreadsheet cartridge called Spectaculator to keep track of budgets and print invoices. I remember hearing his dot matrix screaming at night, printing out those invoices for all his customers. His other favorite program was Flight Simulator by subLogic, where he enjoyed flying around Chicago (near where he had gotten his real pilots license a decade earlier). My favorite games for that system were Downland, Canyon Climber, and Dungeons of Daggorath (which doubled as a typing tutor, since movements and action commands were typed in).
But before we get into that, I recall a time when we didn’t have a computer. Not a single computer in the entire house, and we spent the majority of our time outside. I was in the 4-H club at the time. My mother encouraged me to do horse back riding, joining both my older sisters who were also in 4-H. I always liked the little pony I had (Pepper), but I envied my older sisters with their larger horses, which were doing competitions involving horse jumping. We would attend the large regional competitions in Tampa every summer. “Walk your horses, please. Walk.” and the judges would evaluate our posture and overall control of the animal. “Trot your horses, please. Trot.” they would then announce, and we would comply. “Reverse,” to which we would gracefully steer the horses around to the opposite direction we were going.
Towards the end of a competing event we would be asked to line up at the center of the ring, where judges would more closely evaluate our dress, continued posture, and give instructions like “Walk your horse back.” (back a few steps, making sure we kept a straight line). It required daily practice with the animal, grooming and caring for their hooves, and long weekends at show events. We managed to find schedules, locations, costs, sign up for events – and no one had a cell phone.
In my last year of riding horses, my mother always nagged that if I had just attended the last competition of the season, I would have been regional 1st place. While I do recall that last competition, I can’t recall why I didn’t compete. I like to think that subconsciously, I wanted my nemesis to win: a young girl, who was also high in the rankings.
My other activity was Cub Scouts (who wore an orange shirt), followed by Boy Scouts (where we wore uniforms and earned badges after completing certain physical challenges). The Pinewood Derby was the favorite annual event, where we carve and painted model cars out of pinewood. I recall sanding for hours on our steps outside the house. My fathered grew up hanging out at the inner circle of Indianapolis 500, so he provided a few tricks that made us competitive every year (lead filings between axles to reduce friction, sanding the wheels, adding weighs to be right at the limit).
Our other past-time was building a HO-scale model railroad set, with bridges and multiple tracks on a large 12×6 foot table.
This was a time before gas pumps took credit cards. The first calculator watch was available in 1980, but in general no one carried any electronic devices. I’m not saying things were better, my point is just that I do remember a time when any computer (from a pocket SmartPhone or any “desktop PC”) was not a part of anyone’s daily lives. I recall a statement that my grandfather once made, about how “two ships could pass in the night” without the world knowing or caring about it, and those passing moments were fleeting, not immortalized into some digital content shared with the world.
SIDE NOTE: Personal computing started in 1975, accelerated at both coasts in 1977 (by Commodore and Apple, then the midland by Tandy). The introduction of the IBM PC in 1981 displaced many smaller shops, with a side effect of reducing their costs and making these “bottom end” systems more affordable (for example, a 4KB $1200 system in 1978 was under $200 by 1983 for a 64KB system). While computers were available, it was a gradual growth by “word of mouth” as people realized more things you could do with a computer (and as software became easier to use). A “computer in every home” wasn’t achieved until a decade later, when things like VGA, multi-line BBS (e.g. AOL, CompuServe), Internet becoming available.
So, back to the TRS-80 CoCo2 that my father had purchased. On rainy days or quiet evenings, I would read the Getting Started with Extended Color BASIC book (1984), type in the samples and experiment with changes to the program, then save them using the tape cassette. All self taught from this one book. My father would hang out at Radio Shack, chatting with their staff, and buy issues of RAINBOW magazine for me. In the 1980s, that was a magazine all about the TRS-80 and BASIC programming, and had more extensive sample programs to experiment with.
Around 1986, my father upgraded to a Tandy 1000SX, which meant I had exclusive use of the TRS-80 CoCo2. We had the 4-cartridge extender, the Speech Synthesizer and Orchestra-90 cards. I read the manuals and had some success with the speech and audio cards, and was becoming more proficient with BASIC programming. I remember a few demos about computers by Mr. Hartman at school (“computers are coming our way!”), but overall I didn’t have much contact with anyone else who knew about or had any interest in computers.
In 3rd grade, I recall the first PC game I got was a used copy of Sierra’s King’s Quest 1 (KQ1). And on the Tandy, this was fantastic: 16 color and multi-channel audio. I’m thankful we skipped the CGA experience entirely. KQ 1 was an “auto-booter” which meant no complexity of “installing” the program. Just insert the disk, turn on the machine, and the game “booted” itself.
Then, at school, we got a new student in our class named Fred. I didn’t get along with Fred, partially because he “stole” my best friend (Walter) away from me. Walter had been my friend since Kindergarten, and in 2nd grade we had an accident together: during PE while running laps around the outdoor basketball court, we were both racing to the end of the last lap. Our legs somehow got tangled up with each other, and I ended up hitting my head on the concrete court quite badly. And the serious thing was that I couldn’t see after that.
While my sight wasn’t pitch black, everything was extremely blurry. At first I thought this was just because I was crying so much. But even when I got the crying under control, everything was still blurry. I needed help walking, and I got escorted to the nurse (by my good friend John, who I played a lot of NES together with during sleepovers). Walter, and his parents, stayed with me even after school. I don’t recall going to a doctor, my recollection was that while I still couldn’t see, they all decided to let me rest overnight and see how things were in the morning. Since, after all, there probably wasn’t much a doctor could do for me anyway.
And, fortunately, it turned out that my normal eyesight did return. Walter and I were still good friends for the remainder of 2nd grade. So, returning back to 3rd grade: the new kid Fred got all the attention (he was a loudmouth and made funny comments, like “sit on it and rotate”). But somehow I discovered that Fred had beaten King’s Quest, and I was still quite stuck in the game. So as an ice breaker, I asked Fred how to beat the dragon in the well. He said “throw water on it.” And, he was right! We still weren’t exactly friends after that, but he did stop directing insults in my direction.
What made 3rd grade bearable for me was that I got seated next to Cheryl Angel, who (in my eyes) was the most beautiful, athletic, and smart blond ever. Absolutely she was my first crush. And while I don’t think she particularly liked me, I do think we did get along together well, helping each other with assignments (and again in 6th grade we sat next to each other in a math class).
Then, moving along to 4th grade: the teacher (Mr. Steel) had two TRS-80 MC-10 computers connected to televisions. I impressed him one day by keying in a BASIC program without consulting any books or magazines. It was a simple “guess my number” game with some effects like changing border colors and different sounds on high vs low guesses. 4th grade was an interesting year for me. Thus far in school, I wasn’t a particularly good student and got in trouble quite often for disrupting class. I had been caught cheating on a Spelling test in 2nd grade. I was a Garbage Pail Kid addict, aggressively outsmarting younger classmen with 3:1 trades (in hindsight it was impressive that I expanded my initial pack of 7 cards into a collection of over 300 cards, which included several complete decks; but I admit I was a messy collector, my edges weren’t kept crisp, since we couldn’t afford any fancy binders to hold them cleanly).
BELOW: Mr. Steel was a legendary teacher with a powerful voice, known for interesting and engaging projects. Notice on the left is another cameraman with a large RCA camcorder (everyone was dressed up since the entire class had built part of a city model, and this was going to be presented on the news media later that week – this was long before SimCity existed).
But it turned out that in 4th grade, they had an in-class competition where students got points for doing activities. Even though I wasn’t a particularly bright student, I did have the following intuition: find the easiest activity that got the most amount of points. I identified that activity as writing a brief report about a set of short stories, where each story had an explicit moral that it was trying to convey. It was an optimization problem: finding the most points (per event) for the time/effort spent.
I was in the lead on points for many months, but then had some competition by a new student named Bruce – since Bruce had also caught onto my easy-points scheme. Eventually I ran out of moral-focused short stories from the classroom stock, and gradually lost my lead in points. But I still managed to be in the top 3 overall, to which the top 3 were awarded with a private pizza party!
Anyhow, I recall the look on my 4th grade teacher’s face when he saw me writing this program without guidance, and I wasn’t yet 10 years old. The month before I had completely botched a classroom assignment, which was essentially to build a diorama without using any paper (and in my submission, I had basically used nothing but paper). The teacher was quite disappointed in me, and yet my excuse was that we were dirt poor and couldn’t afford the fancy resins that many of my peers had used (and at least I learned what resin was and some interesting things one could do with it, like simulate water in a diorama). So when that same teacher saw me later coding right there on his new MC-10’s, I felt a bit of pride: this kid might not be a poor dumbass after all.
I wish I had been shipped off to work at Microsoft or Sierra right then. But true, I still had a lot of regular things to learn, like decimal fractions for one thing. What I really needed was to move past BASIC programming. And sure enough, that happened a year later in 1988. Actually it was a combination of a few things, a curious sequence of events and seemed intent on drawing me to my destiny as a software developer. Which to me, I always felt right then, some guiding (perhaps divine) influence was at work.