Tuesday, March 23, 2004This morning I was having a pleasant flashback to my early days of computing. The year was 1983, and I had my first real hands-on experience using personal computers at Salmon River High School in Fort Covington, NY under the tutelage of two fantastic teachers, Mr. Gene Childs and Mr. George Emery. They've probably both retired from teaching at this point, but they really inspired me to want to learn math and computing.
Back then, this was a rare and delightful thing: a rural classroom filled with about 40 Franklin Ace 1000 computers - self-contained units, not just "dumb terminals" - so each student could work at their own machine. Each one of these Apple clones had a 12" green-phosphor monitor, a 1MHz CPU processor, and boasted a whopping 64Kb of RAM. Impressive, non? All this for a mere $1049, with a 5-inch floppy drive only $479 extra, plus the interface card. That's a lot of cash for what ended up being a pile of scrap metal and cadmium contamination. Unfortunately, the Franklin Computer company eventually lost a lawsuit launched by Apple for copyright infringement.
The computer lab was one of the "hot spots" of the school, even more popular than the gym or the outdoor smoking lounge (Yes, we had a smoking lounge. This was 1983, and smokes could be seen hanging from many a lip). During any study hall or free period, it would be packed with teens (mostly geekish boys) playing text-based or simple graphic games and writing programs, their shiny new cassette Walkmans blaring Duran Duran or Quiet Riot into earphones. Remember any of these names? Broderbund's Lode Runner™, (the original) Castle Wolfenstein™, XYWrite™, RearGuard™, and any number of text-based BASIC versions of Dungeons and Dragons™, many homebrewed.
Wow. That memory makes me smile. This was the genesis of the global Revenge of the Nerds: the first time in high school history that we geeks could in some way claim superiority over the "popular" kids. Sometimes I would be so obsessed with writing BASIC I would go to sleep at night or daydream in numbered lines of code: "0 START 10 OPEN DOOR 20 STEP INSIDE 25 SUBROUTINE: IF DOOR IS LOCKED...." I'm not kidding.
Who knew then where it all would lead? This was where the Revolution began, in the form of a keyboard and a green screen. Man, do I feel old. I still have two boxes filled with 5-inch floppies of those programs. ;) Sure, there are older systems; the Altair 8800's, the Heathkits - but that was before my time, and with all due respect, before the personal computer was accessible to the general public. When kids start to get their hands on a technology, imagination takes over.