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Newly Digital

It all started in the late 70's, when I was 10 or 11 years old. I visited my sister, and she and her then-boyfriend showed me their computer, a TRS-80 Model 1. Subsequently I spent a weekend now and then at her place, and they taught me to program.

This was, of course, big fun, but I desperately needed my own computer. I wanted a TRS-80 like theirs, but they were many hundreds of dollars. Fortuitously, right about then the Sinclair ZX-81 came out, and with the 16K memory upgrade it was about $250, which happened to be exactly the balance of my birthday-and-paper-route savings account. Mail order, from England, and it took an eternity. Coincidentally, it arrived on my twelfth birthday, 1980, and my parents hid it and presented it along with my birthday presents. I thought my head would simply explode.

Of course, none of us realized that unlike the TRS-80, this machine didn't come with a monitor. The next day, off we went to buy a cheap black and white TV. Some of my siblings had been clamoring for a TV in their rooms, so mine came with a stern lecture about how it was strictly forbidden for me to watch TV on it. I quietly agreed, wondering to myself why in the world I would want to watch TV on it instead of using the computer?

The ZX-81 was a meager sort of machine. It had a tiny membrane keyboard. You entered BASIC keywords with single keystrokes; a key switched the keyboard between this keyword mode and regular letter-at-a-time mode. The 16K memory upgrade was a module that plugged into the back, and the connection was flaky, so that if you pushed too hard on the keyboard (which you pretty much had to do), the machine would freeze up or reboot. Still, I wrote some fun stuff on it. I learned Z-80 assembly, primarily so that I could write a fast enough version of Conway's Life. Mostly, though, the most important feature of that ZX-81 was that it was mine, right there in my room and ready to be used whenever inspiration struck.

A year or so later, my sister upgraded (to a Commodore 64, I think) and gave me her TRS-80. This was a tremendous upgrade from the ZX-81. It had a real keyboard, a nice monitor, and better graphics (128 x 48 pixels!). I wrote all sorts of programs on it, very much of the "solution looking for a problem" type. I rewrote that version of Conway's Life from my ZX-81 for the TRS-80. I wrote a lot of the kinds of things I saw in the "Mathematical Recreations" column in Scientific American: fractal curves, genetic algorithms, and the like.

One summer I took a computer class. What passed for a computer class in the early 80's was learning FORTRAN on an obsolete IBM/360 using punchcards. I did learn some useful skills in there, probably the most important of which was factoring out pieces of code into subroutines. (Plus, I secured my status as the youngest person I know who has ever programmed using punchcards.)

I wrote code on that TRS-80 long after it was obsolete. Even into the heyday of the IBM PC, I was still playing with the TRS-80, because that was what I had. It bewilders me that sharp people didn't recognize the revolutionary nature of the personal computer, how amazing it is to have a whole computer--even a little one--all to yourself right there in your home.