The start of my computer career:
A long time ago in a place far from where I am now
I don’t remember not knowing what a computer is. That probably comes from having a mother who loved science fiction a father who was an engineer. Between knowing about the computers that were used at the work sites dad managed and reading about the computers of the future, I always knew they were wonderful things.
This was back before computers in real life were common. Back before there was a meat space and a virtual space. Back before cell phones. Back before laptops. Back at the end of 1979. Back when geeks weren’t common or popular.
Even though I knew what a computer was, I didn’t think they would be something I would use. Not until my senior year in high school that was… At that time I was attending Oregon High School in mid-northern Illinois. My friends were geeks. were the band crew, the tech theater crew, the chorus crew. And eventually, the lunch time computer crew.
The school had acquired a number of Heathkit/Zenith MicroComputer Learning Systems. (I believe they were these Model ET-3400s.)
On these tiny machines, Mr. Davis led us through learning how to solder, what hexadecimal counting entailed, even the beginnings of coding in BASIC. I played around with the system, as did many others, but I knew what I was going to do — and it wasn’t computers.
I was going to be a teacher. I was going to teach kids to read, do math and learn about the world around them. That didn’t mean I couldn’t have fun with the machines.
But then, the world changed. Mr. Davis got us a pair of Ohio Scientific personal computers: Superboard systems.
The Superboard II was the least expensive computer, retailing for around the $279 price range, with an onboard BASIC programming language. It came without a case or power supply. It was a single board computer with the keyboard integrated on the same printed circuit board. It was shipped with 4KB of RAM (upgradable to 8KB), a 2KB BIOS in ROM (known as SYNMON as the ROM was labeled ‘SYN600’ or ‘SYNMON 1.0’) and an early version of Microsoft 8K BASIC. OSI 6502 BASIC Version 1.0 Revision 3.2 (c) 1977 By Microsoft.
We had to put them into cases, wire them up, connect them to TVs and cassette tape players. We even had a pair of diskette drives which we taught the computer to talk to, though few today would recognize the 8" square floppy disks we used.
(Aside: Ohio Scientific isn’t the company that makes Etch a Sketches — that’s Ohio Art. I don’t know how many people have asked me that.)
The computer club had a blast with these machines. Before you could use the Ohio Scientific system, you had to pass the “programming” test with the Heathkits. You had to show you could count in hex, enter a program in to the Heathkit, and make the Heathkit beep and count by itself. Once you had done that, you were ready for the next step: Learning the BASIC used by Ohio Scientific.
As a club, we acquired a book of BASIC games and typed them into the system. One of the games was a Star Trek simulator which was totally text based and written for a different flavor of BASIC that the Ohio Scientific system used. Getting the games to run ate an amazing amount of time. Typing time. Editing time. Debugging time. Playing time. It was with this game that my life started to change.
I found out that it was fun to debug programs. The more we learn about programming, the more fun I had finding and fixing bugs. I started to think the computer was more than just a toy. I started to think about it as a tool for teaching.
I consider myself lucky to have learned to program on one of these rare machines. If you count yourself among the lucky few Ohio Scientific system users, let me know!
My science fair project that year? A program to help kids learn math facts. It asked whether you wanted to do addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division. Once it knew what you wanted, it quizzed you in sets of ten problems at a time. It even kept score. (Not bad for my first independent computer program if I do say so myself.)
I had a hard time with that project. Not with the programming. With getting it accepted. I was told that my theory wasn’t valid. Kids might learn the facts short term from my program, the teachers said, but that was only because the computer was new and different. The teachers weren’t convinced that the math facts would stick. So, I had the same kids come back a week later and ran them through the program a second time. My project board was a sample of the program and a series of hand drawn charts showing the improvement over time. I didn’t win, but I proved my point.
By graduation, I knew where I was going next: A small Lutheran college called Wartburg College, located in Waverly Ia. My future plans had changed too. I still wanted to teach elementary school, but now I wanted to teach kids how to use computers.
Computer club and the math facts program were only the first steps towards what turned into a 30+ year career in computers, tech, and social media.
But that’s a tale for another article…
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