Wednesday, October 15, 2008


I just finished a fun book called “The Great Funk: Falling Apart and Coming Together (On a Shag Rug) in the Seventies,” by Thomas Hine. A design and architecture critic, Hine writes about ‘70s culture, and provides lots of great illustrations spanning the years from Woodstock to disco to Reagan. Macrame? Spider plants? It’s all there, and it’s really entertaining.

Part of the book focused on the birth of personal computers, and made me remember my own early experiences with computers. When I was in seventh grade, in 1978-79, my middle school got a Radio Shack TRS-80 computer. We named it “Calfitzmus.” It was a clunky beast of a machine that we learned to program using BASIC, an antiquated computer language that as far as I know has been long since abandoned.

We wrote lines of code to make Calfitzmus perform little tricks, like printing out a single line of text ad infinitum using a loop command. Not very sophisticated, but considering none of us had ever used a computer before, it seemed adventurous. And it was unusual enough that The Tampa Tribune sent a reporter to our classroom to do a story about us. (My first appearance in a newspaper, I believe.)

I didn’t do much with computers over the next few years, unless you count playing video games on our Atari. When I was in high school my mom bought an Apple IIe, which allowed me to further practice my BASIC programming, and my brother and I to play more games. Even though it had a two-color monitor -- green and black -- I remember writing programs to make it draw the flags of different countries. (What a nerd!)

I took a “computer math” course in high school, which had very little to do with actual math but still provided a math credit -- which I desperately needed, having reached the end of my own mathematical abilities in Algebra II. More programming in BASIC. Then, in college, I moved to ATEX word processors at the student paper, and that was it for me and computing until 1995, when I bought a computer to join the Internet era. (The Internet blossomed while I was in Morocco, so I missed its earliest years of popularity.)

It’s hard to believe we’ve come all the way from Calfitzmus and BASIC to here, with the Internet such a part of our lives. Remember when doing research meant schlepping to the library? Sheesh!

(Photo: Chelsea doorway, Oct. 2008)


Barbara said...

I am the strange combination of a math geek and a technophobe! My first introduction to computers was at Math Camp at FSU in 1966. The CDC computer we used needed a raised floor, took up a whole room, and was far less powerful than your current Mac. But as a result of this experience, I loved programming and that became my career. I never became good at dealing with the hardware, but I could write programs to do just about anything. It's utterly amazing to see the progress this one thing has made in our lifetime. As we take for granted the speed, capabilities, and size of what we have today, it is fun to remember how it all began.

Reya Mellicker said...

I love the internet, but I have to admit I miss trips to the library, too.

Love your pic today!

J. David Zacko-Smith said...

Wow! What a flashback!

I remember having a few Spider Plants in my room as a teenager, and LOVING them.

I also remember using a TRS-80, and the Apple IIe, which my little Catholic school bought 6 of! It was very exciting. I also owned a Timex Sinclair that you hooked up to the TV and I wrote games for it; but there was only so much I could do since the directions were limited.

I also remember getting my first digital watch - it was also a Timex, I think, and glowed red.

Utahdog! said...

Basic is alive and well, in many diferent evolutions and permutations.

Merle Sneed said...

I spent $249 in 1982 for a Timex computer that had to be programmed in BASIC to do anything. It never worked.

e said...

I well rememmber the ATEX computers at the college paper as well as the small holes punched in a roll of thin paper when things were written...those little flecks of paper left from the holes being punched haunted my dreams...

My first experience with using the Internet happened in a free class at the public library near my house. It was the librarian who ran the class, and the library is still the only place many people have access to computers today.

As for schlepping to the library to do papers, not everything is on the Internet and not everything there is the best source of information, so using a librarian's help to find other sources is still a very good strategy if someone wants an excellent outcome for a project.
Librarians have not yet gone the way of the ATARI, I'm happy to say!

tut-tut said...

I miss the card catalog, with all the happy unintentional discoveries using it provided!

Steve said...

E: Don't worry, I don't mean to dis the library. As you said, it's still a vital resource, especially for complicated topics.

Utahdog: I've been told by a couple of people that BASIC still exists, having morphed into Visual Basic, a Microsoft product. (That's one example, anyway.)

mouse (aka kimy) said...

makes me think of a link to this incredible vid a friend recently sent - hope you can copy and past to view it.....thought it amazing
here it is:

Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

With all the talk that we're likely to have a 1970s style recession, it's funny that when people generally reference that era the recession is rarely mentioned. Today people look back at it fondly as a more loving, progressive, happy time.

Pod said...

i had a zx81 whilst everyone else had a fancy spectrum. typical. but i loved it all the same. playing rubbish games listening to the soundtrack of flash gordon. or was it watching flesh gordon? i forget now...

Kellyann Brown said...

I graduated from High School in 1977... so I am definitely a child of the 70's!!!!

One of the things I am exploring is the diffusion of technology... I was looking at gender differences and adoption of technology and this one fact blew me away:

1995 - less than 5% of internet users are women.

1990 - approximately 50% of internet users are women.

Rainer, R. K., Laosethakul, K. and Astone, M. K. (2003). Are gender perceptions of computing changing over time? The Journal of Computer Information Systems, 43(4), 108-114. Retrieved October 8, 2008, from ABI/INFORM Global database. (Document ID: 383780361).

I am doing research using online library and I love it. I still go to my public library, but I don't miss the legwork of trying to find hard copy journal articles in the university library that was normal when I left grad school in 1984.

lettuce said...


we had a zx81 as well!
used to type in code for games.....

and OMG! spider plants!!