You Want to Open a What?
Vol. 10, No. 11
It all began in August of 1976 during one of our frequent lapses of sanity. That was the time we dreamed up the idea of opening a community computer center. In today’s world of bytes, frame buffers, and miniscule-microscopic-floppies, starting a computer center might not seem like such a revolutionary notion. But in that day and age when the only way someone could get his hands on a computer was by going to MIT, it really was something. When we presented our brainstorm to our friends and family, they were unanimously baffled by our choice of endeavor. “What in the world do you know about computers?” they asked with as much skepticism as they could muster. To which we replied, “Nothing . . . yet, but neither does anyone else!”
After a year of falling asleep on page 2 of every computer book we tried to study and cursing our borrowed teletypewriter until all hours of the morning, we finally finagled a bank loan that would put us in debt for the next five years. Then we were ready to open the world’s first microcomputer center. Ready except for one small detail; we couldn't decide which computer to buy. And even back then, when there were relatively few choices, picking “the right system” was a problem. David spent six months collecting brochures on every one manufactured within a 25,000-mile radius, and when it finally came down to the ultimate decision, we purchased ten Processor Technology Sol-20s. Why? Because they were blue.
The Grand Opening
Then, computers in place, we opened our doors, and 700 screaming people (kids because they were excited and adults because they were petrified) rushed in to play the most advanced games available this side of the Pentagon. And what did we have waiting for them?
Well, there was a Robot Chase, which we entered byte by byte from an issue of Dr. Dobb’s Journal with the help of a magnifying glass. Now there was a graphic adventure: a bunch of X’s chasing an O in living black and white. And, if you placed an AM radio next to the computer and tuned it in between stations, you were rewarded with a cacophony of buzzes and beeps to accompany your game play.
Then there was Trek-80 which presented all kinds of challenges, the first of which was to get the damn thing loaded successfully from the cassette. Then, when the game was finally in the machine, it moved so fast that nobody could learn how to play it.
And let’s not forget the ever popular, Guess My Number in which the computer actually called you by your first name (heaven help those who insisted on typing in their last names too).
Those were the days when people would walk into our center in San Rafael, stare stupidly at the Sols lining the walls and exclaim, “I though this was a computer center. Where is The Computer?” What did they think those things were, blue typewriters. Weren’t they large enough to qualify as real computers? Those “micros” weighed in at 44 pounds apiece, not to mention the 30-pound monitors we had to lug around with them when we went out to schools to spread the word. Oh the biceps we developed!
Even when we weren’t bench pressing the computers, the technology was somewhat difficult to work with in the days before everyone used floppy-disks. We had to contend with onery tape recorders that routinely ate tapes and onery computers that consistently refused to talk to the tape recorders when the cables were plugged into the wrong holes. When we finally got a program from the recorder into the computer, either there wasn’t enough memory to play the game or the customer changed his mind about wanting Hangman after all.
Then there were the customers who asked, “How long will it take for this game to load?” “Somewhere between four and five minutes,” we’d reply. Using one of those new digital watches, they’d stop the recorder when 4 minutes and 30.0 seconds had elapsed and then demand to know why the game didn’t work.
When everything was working though, it was pretty easy to wow people with computers then. Running a little program like:
10 INPUT "What is your name?" N$
20 PRINT "Nice to meet you,"; N$
was enough to knock anyone’s socks off. Today’s kids are different. With all the mileage they rack up in the arcades, they have become a pretty jaded group. But during our first couple of years only one or two kids out of every visiting school group had even touched a computer.
Despite (or because of) their total ignorance, people expected miraculous things from computers back then, figuring them to be a cross between the Library of Congress and a crystal ball. We were constantly hearing complaints like, “Can’t it even tell me my birthday?” and “How come it doesn’t know the capital of Venezuela?” One man searched in vain for a slot in the back of a Sol large enough to accept copies of both an English and a Russian dictionary, figuring the computer would then be able to do instant translations for him. A woman who took our beginning programming class had typed the word EDIT on line 1 of her non-functional program before she saved it on cassette overnight. When she came back the next morning, she was distraught to find that the program still didn’t run. “How come my program doesn’t work?” she said, wringing her hands in dismay, “I told it to EDIT!”
Have we mentioned yet how much fun it all was back at the dawn of microcomputers? It was a double density pleasure that we wouldn’t have traded for anything.