Thirty Years of Magic

I recently celebrated a birthday and the other day it dawned upon me that I’ll be approaching a milestone in my life at my next birthday. No, I won’t be 50 or some other birthday milestone. Instead, it occurred to me that with next year’s birthday *I’ll have reached 30 years of experience programming computers*. I’ll let that sink in with some of the kids out there.

It all began one fateful day in the 7th grade. I was twelve years old and not a whole heck of a lot was going on in my life. I spent most of my free time either reading books (I had just graduated into the adult section of our town library), drawing maps and plotting dungeons for my grand D&D adventures or just tilting at lawn furniture. I was a kid with an over active imagination and I gave it its free reign.

Being an avid reader I had befriended my junior high school librarian pretty quickly and was working my through the stacks there. Well, in my school’s library there were also five Commodore Pet 4000 seriescomputers. In order to use one of these you had to sign up in advance. Well, I decided to give it a whirl, and signed up for the following Wednesday, a week away. During the seven days that followed I never once gave it a moments thought as to using the computer or what to do, I just signed up and went on reading, drawing maps, and having sword fights with trees.

The day arrive of my computer usage and I showed up at the library. I was signed up for terminal 2 and I set down at it and turned it on. A few minutes later I was staring at the word “READY” and underneath it a glowing green block. I tried to type a few words and got back some sort of error, undoubtably the famous “Syntax Error” we all known and love from our BASIC days. But that was the limit of what I could do. I knew no BASIC, I knew no Commands, I had no idea what-so-ever about what to next.

Now, ever the bashful kid, I didn’t want to look stupid in front of the other kids on the 4 other computers whom were typing away furiously. So I played it cool. I typed away furiously. Syntax Error. Syntax Error. Syntax Error. I did this for about 10 minutes. I nervously glanced around to see if anyone was watching me. I furiously generated a few more Syntax Errors. I knew there was more to these computers, but I had no idea how to do anything.

I was just on the verge of giving up entirely, when the kid next to me took pity. His name was Thom and he clearly had been watching my failures out of the corner of his idea. I’d say he was probably laughing cruelly at me under his breath, but Thom just wasn’t that type of kid. After watching my struggles, he leaned over and said, “Would you like some help?”

“Sure,” I answered.

“Type in POKE 52768,32” he told me. (Actually, I remember the 52768 number hands down, but the 32, the value being assigned to 52768 may or may not be correct.)

Instantly all the text on the screen switched from pure upper case characters to all lower case characters. It was pure magic, so much so that I still remember that memory location (52768) three decades later.

“Type in 10 PRINT “Hello” followed by a return, then 20 GOTO 10 followed by a return. Now type run.”

I did this as he was telling me, and when I typed RUN and press return, my screen lit up with an endless stream of HELLOs. It was cool.

“My name is Thom,” he said and he stuck out his hand.

“I’m Glen. What else can I do?”

And that was it. That was the magic moment.

That night I went home and drew a keyboard on the back of a piece of cardboard so I could play that I was a computer whiz like Thom. The next day I signed up to use the computer every day after school for the next week. (Sign-ups only went a week out, so I would end up having to sign-up every week for the next week for the next 18 months until I graduated to the High School.)

And Thom was my willing guide through it all. He taught me about line numbers and GOTOs and FOR loops and DATA and READ statements. He taught me how to POKE any character onto the screen at any time (POKE 32768,42 put at asterisk in the upper left hand corner of the screen.) Within a week I was formulating my own very small programs, and within a month I was doing much larger ones. I was checking out books on how to write Commodore BASIC and scouring the libraries for everything I could find. I pestered my parents for a computer on a daily basis but they never gave in. (We didn’t end up getting a computer until I was 15, when I finally went out and bought my own Timex Sinclair TS1000 for $30 at the neighborhood CVS.)

Two months later saw the advent of my first game for the Science Fair to test hand eye coordination but really it was just me showing off that I could write a computer program. I remember that the program was about 45 lines long, a lot of input from Thom was in it, and it colossally sucked. I can still almost remember the program structure and even see it in my head. A lot of the little command details slip my mind though.

Pretty much every day since that one day almost thirty years ago I have spent programming a computer. (There was a break for about 4 years in there where I was going to school for English Literature, but even then I still spent a fair amount of time programming for an English Literature student.)

In those thirty years I’ve written so many programs I couldn’t even begin to count them. I’ve written just about every type of program you could imagine from Games to Web Browsers, in all kinds of languages like BASIC, PASCAL, Assembly, Java, Fortran, COBOL, C, Lisp, etc etc etc etc.

But in the end it all came down to that one day, thirty years ago, and that one moment where I changed all the characters on my screen from upper case to lower case. I basically performed magic for the first time using a computer, and I was hooked instantly.