Xerra's Blog

Drunken coder ramblings

Draft of my memories of the eightees entering the home computer age.

This is a draft of the first couple of chapters from possibly a book detailing my experiences of the history of home computers from when I first became involved in around 1980. It is a draft, so it is rough, and I’m not even sure I’ll ever finish it but I’m curious to put a bit of what I have so far out there.

I’ve seen several people self publish their own memories and I was curious to see how much of mine I could remember. And to write as much of it down before I actually forget it.

Part One – Childhoods End (temporary title)

Chapter One

I sat in the armchair in my grandfather’s house staring nervously at the television set. The blinking cursor of the Vic 20 flashed accusingly at me. I was about to be found out.

“Okay, Tony. You’ve told me you love playing with computers so now here’s your chance. Show me what you can do with one.” Grandad was not really one to mince words.
I put my fingers on the keys and paused for what seemed like an eternity. What was I supposed to do? I hadn’t lied. I did love playing with computers. I’d tinkered with a Vic 20 in the local Debenhams and there were other computers there to make comparisons. I knew the basic information about most of them and I loved it when they played the games. But there wasn’t a game to play here. The screen showed the familiar white screen with Cyan text that indicated the machine had just been turned on and was like a blackboard waiting to be written on. A clean slate. What was I meant to do here to prove myself?

And then I thought I got it. Grandad was fooling with me. He wasn’t expecting me to do pull rabbits out of hats and do wonderful tricks with his new and expensive personal computer. He’d already loaded up a program before my Nan had called me downstairs and was just waiting to show me all the wonderful games we could actually play. All I had to do was fire it up.

I remember smiling inwardly and thinking you almost got me there. I typed in “Run” and hit return. The computer responded with “Ready.”

And that was it.

There was nothing in memory.

This wasn’t a trick.

I glanced at Grandad hoping he was going to have a giggle then pull out some program tapes but he just glared sternly at me. “You said you had used computers and knew how to program them?”

I gulped. “I’ve seen some at school. And I’ve looked at the ones in Harrow. I do know about computers.”

“You’re trying to run a program when the computer doesn’t have one in memory. What’s the point of that? Type List!”

I did as he said and got the same response. “Ready.”

“There you go. Nothing in memory to run. So why don’t you make it do something?” he said.
“How?” I replied.

“You tell me. You’re the expert… apparently…” There was almost sarcasm here and I think my stomach actually hit rock bottom.

“I usually just load stuff in” I mumbled. “That’s what we all do. I haven’t learned to program a computer yet. I don’t have one.”
“And you probably won’t at this rate. I really expected more from you, Tony. I’m very disappointed.”

This was the summer of 1981. The year I had finally left junior school, to my great delight, and was looking forward to starting secondary school after the six week holidays that we had back then. I was twelve years old and for me the home computer revolution was just beginning. We had recently had the royal wedding of Charles and Diana, there seemed to always be snow every year in December and this was the first time I’d ever been allowed to go all the way to Wrexham in Wales to stay with my grandparents from my mother’s side. Excited wasn’t the word because I knew Grandad had recently bought the Vic 20 and I was just itching to get my hands on it.

I had been picking up bits of information about the new computers coming through. At the time there was the ZX81, the Spectrum, Vic 20’s, The BBC Micro’s and several others that were all clamoring for the kids – and adults – attention. For me it was all about the Vic, though. This had colour, big graphics, a nice keyboard and could make some great sounds.

But, as my grandfather had just discovered, I only knew all this from the games I’d seen and some adverts I’d seen showing them off. I’d been caught out and all I could think was that I’d let him down.

There was an uncomfortable silence for a minute or so while my Grandad made sure his disappointment had sunk into me. He needn’t have let it hang for so long, however. I got the message and just stared at the screen forlornly. I’d let him down and I felt terrible about it. Our grandparents lived so far away that visiting was extremely rare with a poor family like ours. This week had been the third time as a young adult that he and I had spent time together and, to him, I must have come across as the biggest disappointment ever – and, frankly, a liar.

“I do have some programs we can load up and look at, however” he said. He let me off easy in the end.

We had only two sessions on the computer in the whole ten days I spent in Wales. In retrospect I don’t think he lost interest in us spending time doing this but more of a case that I was finding myself at that age and spent a lot of time going off on other pursuits as teenagers are prone to do. He was very ill by that time so, on both occasions, it was Nan who actually dragged us away from the machine when we’d been messing with it for too long. I learned a little bit more about the Vic by the time I came back, as well as finally teaching myself to swim and wandering all over Wrexham exploring.

When I came back home and got ready to start secondary school, there were two things definitively on my mind. I wanted a Vic 20 and I was absolutely determined that I was going to prove to Grandad that I could do something with it. I was lucky enough to get the opportunity in 1987 a short while before he passed away but I will never forget the moment I let him down until my dying day.

Chapter Two

It was around two years before Grandad passed down the Vic to my mother when he eventually upgraded to a Commodore 64. In that time I grew up a bit. It was around Xmas of 1982 when I started spending a lot of time after school in the computer department of the local Debenhams in Harrow. I hadn’t had much more experience of computers up to that time because I didn’t own one and the only place to really use one for any length of time was after school with the BBC in one of the classrooms – and everyone else wanted to do that. My interest had not waned, though, so I had taken to tinkering with the machines in Debenhams whenever I wasn’t being kicked off them by the sales staff there because they all knew that a spotty kid in a school uniform isn’t likely to be buying one.

At this time it was also the consoles that were starting to interest me. If I hadn’t had the let down from my time at my grandparents then, it’s possible that my preferences could have completely swung to just playing the games, and I might have just saved up the money for one of them instead. I was already on my way to planning for my first computer because I didn’t think that Grandad was ever going to give me his Vic due to my deception. I was doing two paper rounds by this time as well as working an hour an evening after school, emptying bins in a local office. I had also just sourced myself a job in a local snack bar for Saturday afternoons and for occasional weekdays as soon as the next school holidays hit.

Mum was dead set on me saving the money from the office job – a whole seven pounds a week – in my post office book so I knew at some point I’d be having the discussion about trying to talk her into letting me use it. Luckily i had the paper round money to use for general spending. Like a lot of teenagers, I’d picked up smoking by then, so that used to burn a hole in my wealth. Fortunately computer magazines were pretty cheap at that timen, and sometimes mum would buy them too, which also kept me interested. Vic Computing and Your Computer – despite not being Vic 20 specific – were both particular favourites at the time.

I suspect that if I’d shown more commitment to learning and making a better case for owning a computer then I may have got one a year or two earlier than I eventually did. However, I’d spent some time a couple of years previous convincing Mum that I could be the next potential Chess champion so she had promptly invested in several books and a Chess computer and probably felt they were wasted as I mostly lost interest pretty quickly afterwards. I’ve only myself to blame if this was the case.

The computers in Debenhams weren’t just interesting to me, however. All the kids wanted to tinker with them. Naturally, it was mostly for the games, but we were all teenagers looking for the next big thing. We considered it a result if we could get on one of them and tinker with it – especially if it was one of the few times that it had a game pre-loaded onto the machine where a salesman had been demonstrating it earlier and forgotten to switch it off.

At the time Ghostbusters was a particular favourite due to its brilliant title sequence and the fact you could hit the space bar to make it shout “Ghostbusters!” at you in digitised speech. An amazing feat for the C64 in its infancy. Luckily for me most of the older kids used to try and get on the consoles so i often had a shot at tinkering with the computers themselves. The Atari VCS had yet to die a death and the Intellivision was particularly strong at this time. But, for me, I think I was mostly impressed with the Collecovision that had come out that in August of that year. If I could get on it – usually by ducking the last lesson at school – then they used to either have the Smurf game or “Looping” playing. Smurf was amazing for its graphics but I loved to play “Looping” as much as a I could. What a game that was compared to the kind of games that I’d seen on computers at the time.

At this time a friend had an Atari VCS and sometimes he and I would play the games on that but they couldn’t compete, in my opinion. If I’d decided, and had been allowed, to get a Collecovision, then maybe I’d have just played games on that for a year or so, and then it would be discarded just like my many other fads. It’s also possible that I could have moved to a completely different interest and never used a computer again for years afterwards.

But I didn’t. And this time was the start of the last two years of school, where I spent more time actually avoiding the place than attending. And a huge part of this was to hide up in Debenhams and play with the toys on offer there. Looking back there was a lot of rubbish on most of the machines at the time but there were absolute gems as well. I knew next to nothing about the Texas Instruments TI 99/4A at the time, apart from thinking it had a bit of a daft name. It sounded more like a calculator model than something catchy like the Spectrum. I’d have completely ignored the machine were it not for Parsec. I spent hours playing this with some of the other kids from school. This game had elements of Scramble and Defender in it as well as breakpoints where you had to fly through a narrow refueling tunnel and navigate through asteroid belts. I admired this game immensely and I would watch other people play it just so I could look at how it all worked and wonder how the AI was programmed and how they got it to scroll so smoothly.

In my head it was the basis for wanting to try and do the same thing myself.

Not long after this the Vic 20 finally made it into our house but it was considered a family hand-me-down by both my Grandad and Mum so I couldn’t have it in my room, even though both my sisters had zero interest in the machine. My mother, however, definitely did.

At first my sessions on the computer were seriously limited. I had stuff like homework going on. My truancy from school was starting to become a real issue that had my mother tearing her hair out trying to resolve, and I was a typical teenager being a teenager. This meant things like BMX’s – or, in my case, a racer with straight handlebars, because a BMX was far too expensive. I’d also got into swimming so I was doing that most Saturday mornings and this usually led to just doing outdoor pursuits instead of sitting around indoors in front of the television. And this suited Mum just fine because she’d got into using the Vic as well.

In those days magazines were very popular and you had many of them so choosing one or two to stick with was a serious undertaking. Some magazines like “Your Computer” were open platform, and had articles and news on any computers they wished to cover. More specialist magazines like “Vic computing” were specifically Vic 20, although they did broaden the horizon to include the later Commodore machines as well, so they could keep up with the technology. Nowadays we’re all spoiled by the huge resource of the Internet and luxuries such as immense broadband speeds and mediums like CD and DVD. Back in 1983 there was none of this. If you wanted the new game that had just been released then you popped out to your local computer store and hoped they had it in stock. Or you went the mail order route, and usually the only medium you had was cassette.

The early computer magazines did not go with the route of having a cover tape with lots of programs on it to tempt you into buying that issue. I suspect it was both costs and also shelf space that caused a potential issue and so they went with program listings instead. If you wanted to play this game that they had a screenshot for in the magazine which looked really interesting then you had to sit down and make yourself comfortable. You were going to have to type it in yourself before you can play it.
With our Vic 20 we were pretty lucky in that we had a decent tape recorder that came with the machine so the results of mammoth typing sessions could be saved and usually be pretty safe until you went back to them. I did often wonder why the guys at school that used Spectrums, ZX81’s, or any of the other machines that would let you use any tape recorder you like to load and save data, put up with the problems they had as a result. I guess they just got used to the risk of data loss and the many loading errors that resulted from cheap tapes or dirty machine heads in their tape recorders.

There were many listings that I can remember typing in including a legendary session attempting to work through 4 pages of decimal numbers in data statements for a Scramble game that was all machine code. I never did get that one working. Scram20 I wish I could have played you…

My mother used to type in listings as well and spent nearly a whole weekend typing in the lines for a game called Citadel that did work when finished, although there were so many errors that more time was spent actually trying to fix it than actually playing. I would have probably destroyed the tape in frustration if I had typed in any programs of these lengths only to find that they had not recorded properly on a cheap tape and I had to start again. I have very vivid memories of sitting in the front room dictating the listing – including punctuation that had to be correct – so she could fix any typing errors just so we could actually run it. Then there was the real problem of trying to work out what was wrong when it actually didn’t crash with a syntax-error, or similar.

The appeal of buying games on tape was much greater after a few back breaking sessions of typing, that much was certain. And the Vic 20 had one more ace up its sleeve in the form of cartridges which you could buy with software or games on them and just plug in the back. These were instantly loaded as soon as the machine was turned on and we had some absolute gems.

Omega Race, Gorf, Radar Rat Race, Cosmic Cruncher and many more were very popular but for our family the text adventure games by Scott Adams were the clear favourites. Scott had written several games already by the time the Vic came out but only the first five were licensed and put out on cartridges for the public. They were Adventureland, Pirate Adventure, Impossible Mission (Secret Mission), Voodoo Castle and The Count. Of these we only owned Voodoo Castle at the start so that was the game that mum and I set out to finish. And we eventually did after being stuck at a block point for what seemed like forever. Just on a chance conversation with a pal at school, I realised that there was something obvious in one of the rooms that wasn’t just an object but actually a location I could go into, and that was the final hurdle to finishing the game. I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t played as these games are still well worth looking up and can be played on just about any platform under emulation now – or even in a web browser.

After completing Voodoo Castle we had to have the other games so I managed to swap, buy, negotiate or loan the other four and eventually worked through all those without looking for hints as we had no Internet or any other real method of getting help short of other kids who had already played through them. However, later that year I did come up with a system to crudely reverse engineer the data on the cartridges to read the text strings stored on them as they weren’t encoded in any special way. It was probably just as well as I would have likely given up then and the start of my Vic 20 programming days could have been very different.
From memory I wrote a listing into the Vic 20 something like the following:-

10 Print “<clr screen>”
20 T = 8186
30 For X = 7680 to 8185
40 poke x, peek(T)
50 T = T + 1
60 Next X
70 Get A$
80 If A$ = “” then Goto 70
90 Goto 30

It was a crude program to just look in the memory locations just past screen memory and keep filling up the screen with character symbols of the bytes in them. As the text wasn’t stored in any kind of cryptic way eventually you would get a screen full of text strings that meant something. Such as the names of locations, items that could be picked up. The program did nothing with the data so it was still down to Mum or myself to work out if we were missing something based on text we had not seen in the game yet.

The text games used the input system of two words , being Verb/Noun syntax, so often we could work out what commands you could use that we had not used yet. This worked pretty well with The Count due to how tough it was to get the right things done on the right day as the game was played over three virtual days.
I had dabbled with some of the Vic 20 commands up to this point and even written some programs to do simple things but it was probably doing this that got me into the idea of looking how other programs worked extensively so that I could better what I was doing.
To put it simply: I was hooked.