On a dreary, rainy day in the fall of 1982, I entered the Annex building of the Latin School of Chicago, somewhat bewildered at my reason for being there. I knew my mother had gone to some great length to enroll me in some special program, but I only had the vaguest of ideas that this course would introduce me to the wonderful world of computing.
As I entered a makeshift classroom with long, 8′ tables taken from the cafeteria along the north and east walls, I noticed some of my new classmates — Steven Sherman, Chris Green, Greg Fung, Michael Fourcher, and others whose names I didn’t yet know — talking away and playing what appeared to be videogames on these small, gleaming silver machines with flat black keyboards and 9″ silver color monitors: these were Texas Instruments TI-99/4A computers, many decked out with expansion chassis and speech synthesizers.
To me, it was a dream come true: for years, ever since my second grade class visited a computer factory just outside of New Orleans (Tano Computers, I believe), I knew I’d have a future in working with these powerful machines. But how could these small toys compare with the punched aluminum and steel mainframes to which I was accustomed? Where were the banks of 9-track tape readers, the raised-floor air conditioned rooms, the rows and rows of card readers and printer terminals? Instinctively, I knew I was being cheated of the real computing experience, but nevertheless could hardly contain my excitement.
The machine in front of me was off, waiting for me to activate its innards through a tantalizing, yet somewhat hidden, power switch. From what was obviously a cartridge slot (I had seen the Atari 2600, but had not yet used one) protruded a voluptuous bubble of plastic labelled “Hunt The Wumpus.” Despite the warnings from the enigmatic instructor to wait until he returned, I tentatively pushed the switch, and watched the monitor flicker to life . . . . Within minutes, I had mastered the concepts of Hunt The Wumpus: a maze of twisty passages, all alike, the bat who could randomly move you to another room, the pit of instant death, the blood stains to warn you of the mystical Wumpus itself, and the quiver of arrows at the ready. (While the traditional Hunt The Wumpus was text-based, this innovative version added 16-color graphics to the program, bringing a true intuitive feel for Wumpus. Later, I’d experience the original in its full glory.) Then a funny sound hit my ear – like a robot, one of the computers in the classroom started speaking! My classmate was playing the game Parsec, and his TI-99/4A had the fabled speech synthesis module. What wonder had I just gotten myself into?
After a few rounds, class started, and we removed our gaming cartridges to learn the rudiments of BASIC programming. My first program ever — and its output — looked like this:
10 PRINT "HELLO WORLD!"
Ah, the thrill of knowing I could make this machine perform my bidding! How exciting to discover the ins and outs of a simple programming language! I had done it! I was using a computer, and all on my own! How was this possible? My parents and former tour guides had all assured me that computing was an arduous task, requiring years of study and significant cooling. Yet, sitting in front of me, this little device could do all of that and more: who ever heard of a computer which could talk?
And then, to discover that there was more than one way to program the computer – the next class gave us the rudiments of TI LOGO, including turtlegraphics AND sprite capability! I could create, out of thin air, blue trucks and green planes to zoom across my screen, while a mystical triangular turtle would spin and weave Spirograph-like patterns with simple sequences of commands. How I’d explore the limits of the graphics engine (more than 4 sprites per scan line caused them all to flicker in and out of existence), determine the perfect number of strokes required to complete a 30-point star (learning how take a circle’s 360 degrees and divide by the number of points in my star to get the appropriate angle offset), and master the intricacies of the IF-THEN statement . . . . that all-too-brief course tantalized me with amazing concepts and technology, yet continued to puzzle me. I knew these machines were really toys, affordable by most middle-class families . . . when would I get exposure to the real thing?