Ahhhhh, Technostalgia. This evening I pulled out a box from the attic. It contained an instance of the first computer I ever used. A trusty BBC B+ Micro and a whole pile of mods to go with it. What a fabulous piece of kit. Robust workhorse, Econet local-area-networking built-in (but no modem, how forward-thinking!), and a plethora of expansion ports. My admiration of this hardware is difficult to quantify but I wasted years of my life learning how to hack about with it, both hardware and software.
The BBC Micro taught me in- and out- of the classroom. My primary school had one in each classroom and, though those might have been the ‘A’ or ‘B’ models, I distinctly remember one BBC Master somewhere in the school. Those weren’t networked but I remember spraining a thumb in the fourth year of primary school and being off sports for a few weeks. That’s when things really started happening. I taught myself procedural programming using LOGO. I was 10 – a late starter compared to some. I remember one open-day the school borrowed (or dusted off) a turtle
Brilliant fun, drawing ridiculous spirograph-style patterns on vast sheets of paper.
When I moved up to secondary school my eyes were opened properly. The computer lab was pretty good too. Networked computers. Fancy that! A network printer and a network fileserver the size of a… not sure what to compare it with – it was a pretty unique form-factor – about a metre long, 3/4 metre wide and about 20cm deep from memory (but I was small back then). Weighed a tonne. A couple of 10- or 20MB Winchesters in it from what I recall. I still have the master key for it somewhere! My school was in Cambridge and had a couple of part-time IT teacher/administrators who seemed to be on loan from SJ Research. Our school was very lucky in that regard – we were used as a test-bed for a bunch of network things from SJ Research, as far as I know a relative of Acorn. Fantastic kit only occasionally let down by the single, core network cable slung overhead between two buildings.
My first experience of Email was using the BBC. We had an internal mail system *POST which was retired after a while, roughly when ARBS left the school I think. I wrote my own MTA back then too, but in BASIC – I must have been about 15 at the time. For internet mail the school had signed up to use something called Interspan which I later realised must have been some sort of bridge to Fidonet or similar.
We even had a networked teletext server which, when working, downloaded teletext pages to the LAN and was able to serve them to anyone who requested them. The OWUKWW – One-way-UK-wide-web! The Music department had a Music 5000 Synth which ran a language called Ample. Goodness knows how many times we played Axel-F on that. Software/computer-programmable keyboard synth – amazing.
Around the same time I started coding in 6502 and wrote some blisteringly fast conversions of simple games I’d earlier written in BASIC. I used to spend days drawing out custom characters on 8×8 squared exercise books. I probably still have them somewhere, in another box in the attic.
Up until this point I’d been without a computer at home. My parents invested in our first home computer. The Atari ST. GEM was quite a leap from the BBC but I’d seen similar things using (I think) the additional co-processors – either the Z80- or the 6502 co-pro allowed you to run a sort of GEM desktop on the Beeb.
My memory is a bit hazy because then the school started throwing out the BBCs and bringing in the first Acorn Archimedes machines. Things of beauty! White, elegant, fast, hot, with a (still!) underappreciated operating system, high colour graphics, decent built-in audio and all sorts of other goodies. We had a Meteosat receiver hooked up to one in the geography department, pulling down WEFAX transmissions. I *still* haven’t got around to doing that at home, and I *still* want to!
The ST failed pretty quickly and was replaced under warranty with an STE. Oh the horror – it was already incompatible with several games, but it had a Blitter chip ready to compete with those bloody Amiga zealots. Oh Babylon 5 was rendered on an Amiga. Sure, sure. But how many thousands of hit records had been written using Cubase or Steinberg on the Atari? MIDI – there was a thing. Most people now know MIDI as those annoying, never-quite-sounding-right music files which autoplay, unwarranted, on web pages where you can’t find the ‘mute’ button. Even that view is pretty dated.
Back then MIDI was a revolution. You could even network more than one Atari using it, as well as all your instruments of course. The STE was gradually treated to its fair share of upgrades – 4MB ram and a 100MB (SCSI, I think) hard disk, a “StereoBlaster” cartridge even gave it DSP capabilities for sampling. Awesome. I’m surprised it didn’t burn out from all the games my brothers and I played. I do remember wrecking *many* joysticks.
Like so many others I learned more assembler, 68000 this time, as I’d done with the BBC, by typing out pages and pages of code from books and magazines, spending weeks trying to find the bugs I’d introduced, checking and re-checking code until deciding the book had typos, but GFA Basic was our workhorse. My father had also started programming in GFA, and still did do until about 10 years ago when the Atari was retired.
Then University. First term, first few weeks of first term. I blew my entire student grant, £1400 back then, on my first PC. Pentium 75, 8MB RAM, a 1GB disk and, very important back then, a CD-ROM drive. A Multimedia PC!
It came with Windows 3.11 for Workgroups but with about 6 weeks of work was dual boot with my first Linux install. Slackware.
That one process, installing Slackware Linux with only one book “Que: Introduction to UNIX” probably taught me more about the practicalities of modern operating systems than my entire 3-year BSc in Computer Science (though to be fair, almost no theory of course). I remember shuttling hundreds of floppy disks between my room in halls and the department and/or university computer centre. I also remember the roughly 5% corruption rate and having to figure out the differences between my lack of understanding and buggered files. To be perfectly honest things haven’t changed a huge amount since then. It’s still a daily battle between understanding and buggered files. At least packaging has improved (apt; rpm remains a backwards step but that’s another story) but basically everything’s grown faster. At least these days the urge to stencil-spray-paint my PC case is weaker.
So – how many computers have helped me learn my trade? Well since about 1992 there have been five of significant import. The BBC Micro; the Acorn Archimedes A3000; the Atari ST(E); the Pentium 75 and my first Apple Mac G4 powerbook. And I salute all of them. If only computers today were designed and built with such love and craft. *sniff*.