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I was 8 years old when this machine hit the market. At the time I knew – on some primal level – that I needed to get my hands on a programmable personal computer. However, I had trouble explaining to the adults around me why I wanted it. I already had an Atari 2600, after all. Doesn’t that play the games you want? What I wanted was a computer that I could program. I wanted a machine that I could understand and eventually bend to my will, but I couldn’t get anyone to buy me such a thing.
I know it sounds insane; what sort of parent wouldn’t buy a computer for their kid? But you have to remember, this is 1979 we’re talking about here, and the utility of home computers wasn’t a universally recognized truth. For a kid living in a home with a blue-collar father and a mother who worked in an environment where “computer” meant big-iron mainframes operated by gnomes, a computer was a strange thing for me to ask for. It was like a kid asking for his own cement mixer or printing press. What on earth would I use that for? Computers were expensive, and a sensible adult would fear that it would just be treated like a puppy: obsessed over for a week and ignored thereafter.
I remember one Christmas my best friend got a TI-99/4A. I was sick with jealousy. From that point I couldn’t even remember what presents I’d gotten. He couldn’t possibly want such as thing as badly as I did. I felt the way Homer Hickum might have if he’d gotten a BB gun and his friend had gotten a home rocket-building kit. It seemed like a grave injustice. For him it was just an interesting toy, and for me this was a gift of infinite possibilities.
When I found my friend with his new computer, he was doing the unthinkable: He was typing in a program from a magazine. Someone else’s program?!? Why aren’t you learning how to write your own? This was like finding Merlin’s Spellbook and using it to prop up a crooked table leg. The secrets of the universe are in there, man! How can you be content typing in all these words and symbols without knowing what they mean? They demand understanding! Does their mystery not taunt you? At the time, I thought I was the only person who thought of computers this way. It would be many years before I met anyone else like myself.
(I had an uncle that was wired this way as well, but he was born about 30 years too soon. He spent his teens and twenties messing around with model trains and ham radio, which is what computer geeks did before computers were available. He went on to work on the Apollo program, which is nice enough, but doesn’t seem to make up for not having computers available for half his life.)
Eventually I stopped being such a crybaby and got a paper route. I saved my money for a few months until I had enough scratch to buy a Tandy MC-10:
Most people have a fondness for their first computer. You can still find fans of the TI-99/4A, the Commodore 64, the Amiga, and the Atari 800. It was not so for the MC10 and I. While I did grow attached to a few of the above systems, I never really liked the Tandy computers. This dislike grew into a resentment that I extend onto all of Radio Shack today.
As long as they were in the computer business (which lasted until sometime in the early 90′s) Tandy computers were dull and akward. As a programming platform they were difficult. Their hardware was bulky, ugly, and gave off the stench of obsolescence right out of the box. Imagine the proprietary nature of Apple combined with the asthetics-assulting early IBM clone hardware, and imbued with the clumsyness of Windows 3.1. Now regress that unholy union back to the days of sub-megahert CPU speeds and computers with 4k of memory. It wasn’t pretty. I wish there was a familiar object in the above photo to provide a sense of scale. The chicklet keyboard was horrible. Even for my 13-year-old hands, it felt a little crowded. I can’t imagine a grown man making use of it.
In the late 80′s / early 90′s, Tandy had their own line of quasi-IBM clones. They seemed to use similar architecture, but the machines were just a little different. Aside from costing more, they also required certain Tandy-specific parts. At the time I told people they had “compatiblity problems”, as if the Tandy engineers had trouble duplicating the mysterious IBM clone architecture. Looking back I can see the system for what it was: A very cynical attempt to take the large IBM clone market and make their own proprietary offshoot. Again, it was Apple-esque proprietary hardware and IBM / Microsoft uglyness, all for a higher price! Being known as “the computer guy” among my friends meant that I was the one people called when their computer went sideways. I always dreaded when a Tandy user called for help, because there wasn’t much I could do but shrug and blame Tandy. This was akward because it was also indirectly pointing the finger of blame back at the person asking for help, for buying such a machine in the first place.
During my high school years it became clear to the adults around me that this computer thing wasn’t just a phase I was going through, and that it was just the sort of thing that might make me useful in my adult life. I enjoyed quite a bit of support from parents and a couple of teachers during my high school years. For graduation, the uncle I mentioned earlier sold me his old machine, which was my first IBM clone. It was a 4mhz machine, but with the math co-processor he’d added it ran at at a supersonic 7mhz! It had 256k of memory, or 1/4000th of the memory of the machine I’m using now. However, it had a C compiler, which is what allowed me to escape COBOL and BASIC and learn a real programming language. From there, I was off and running.
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