From informality to Fun
(c) Fernando Caracena 5 May 2012
In the late 1960s and 1970s I taught physics at Metropolitan State College. It was an enjoyable experience because the college was just starting up in rented space in downtown Denver. The informality of it was much to my liking. The president's office door was always open, and he encouraged us to drop in and chat. The academic administrators taught courses. The college was small and lean. I served a turn as head of the physics department and a stint in the faculty senate. Then we got a new president who came in on the promise of organizing the college more productively. He wanted to cut faculty and hire more administrators. The new president destroyed the charm of the new college, and we began to think of better ways to spend our careers. I applied for a post doctoral fellowship a the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder. I was accepted to the Advanced Studies Program. It was at NCAR that I became reconnected with computers.
In those days, computer users still used paper intensively, but alternatives were coming along. You could use a computer terminal, which then was a monochrome cathode ray tube (CRT). The display was usually green against a black back ground. The programing language of choice at NCAR was then FORTRAN—a compiled languages whose source code was very readable for scientists. Having been developed in the days of punch card I/O (input/output), the format of lines of instruction still reflected the punch card design. Punch cards were still around, but they were in the process of being phased out. The big changes came in the 1980s when I was working at the Atmospheric Physics and Chemistry Laboratory (APCL) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). APCL was part of the Boulder Research Laboratories.
Even in the 1980s, computers were not too easy to get to use: they were mainframes, big expensive machines that you could access through a teletype terminal. To gain access, you needed an account to which your time online was charged. The terminal was a machine that looked like a typewriter in which a roll of thermal paper was mounted. Your typing was echoed on that paper as well as the computer's response. There were portable terminals that one could check out and take home. The had cradles that would hold your home phone. To connect to the mainframe by phone, you first dialed a special number, which answered with screeching noises. Then you put the live phone on the cradle, and the teletype terminal came to life. By answering the various prompts you logged into the mainframe, and you were ready to run your programs. The printed record of you own typing and the computer's response was the log of your session.
Fun with computers did not come until the late 1980s and 1990s with the advent of the personal computer (PC). As my first personal computer, I selected a TI 99a that had the first 16-bit microprocessor and accepted programs written in TI-BASIC. The programs were stored and read off audio cassettes through a peripheral reader that plugged into the computer's main bus, which is like the computer's spinal chord. Other peripherals for this computer attached to the main bass in a daisy chain fashion. The ROM module that was my favorite was Extended Basic, which featured sounds and sprites--graphic objects that once initialized, continued to move at a fixed velocity across the screen. I wrote a program for the 99r Magazine called Spriter (99er magazine (1982 vol. 1 no. 5 page 39) that was a utility for designing sprites on a grid of pixels. You could add or erase pixels, which made it easy to create separate frames by modifying the previous one a little bit. I wowed a user's group by filling the screen with colorful tumblers that danced around to computer-generated music. The TI 99/4A was just the machine for computer hobbyists: it had music, voice synthesis and animation. There must have been some back room deal between TI and other computer manufacturers, because suddenly they discontinued the TI 99/4A in the middle of its height of popularity.
Another machine that I would have liked to have owned was the Amiga, which featured three processors for sound, video and number crunching. Despite its popularity, it too was discontinued by Commodore Computers.
In retrospect I see what has happened. The machines that gave access to the users of all the hardware capabilities were phased out in favor of business machines that gave users limited access to machine capabilities. It is as if behind the scenes computer manufacturers decided to phase out the hobbyist who wanted to play in the marvelous, new digital world. Now as I look at my great number crunching machine, I realize that I cannot do the audio video programming that I could do on the TI 99/4A. If for example, I am writing a blog on sound, it would be nice to generate the various sounds involved, such as middle C at 440 Hz.
After the discontinuance of the TI 99/4A, I decided to buy an Apple II for a home computer. Dr. Stanley Barnes and I had talked our managers at NOAA into letting us buy Apple II+ computers as candidates for weather analysis work stations. We stressed that these desktop systems could be used both as monitors and as computers, allowing post processing of computer output that did not add to the computational load of mainframes. Further, they could be used to animate weather displays. I had found a manufacturer of a board to plug into the Apple II+ mother board, which ran the programming language FORTH. It ran much faster than Apple BASIC. Using peeks, pokes and binary move commands, I was impressed with how well and fast you could process data on an Apple II+. At home on our own Apple II, my son thoroughly enjoyed playing games like Castle Wolfenstein. My daughter enjoyed playing the Eamon text-based games.
Although the PC was originally developed for hobbyists by hobbyists, the PC manufacturers quickly learned that the biggest money-making market was in the use of PCs in business. This is when IBM entered into the picture. The big money was in business applications. At this time, magazine articles turned to business applications and away from the computer hobbyist applications. The computer manufacturers turned the PC into an appliance that ran a variety of canned software featuring business applications. The computer was beginning to lose its luster for the computer enthusiast. Fortunately, along came the open source movement that sparked my interest in computing on a different level. At least, now I can do number crunching applications; but the simple things like animation and sounds have been made artificially complex (to satisfy exaggerated notions of intellectual property), to the point that they they are a pain to do and no longer fun. If I were a billionaire, I would fund the development of a hobbyist machine that has all the technological advances of modern day PCs, but gives the programmer-enthusiast simple access to sound and graphics.