A Computer Geek: Computer Magazines

The late 1970s and early 1980s were the golden age of computer magazines. There was Creative Computing, Popular Computing, Info World, Compute!, BYTE, and many more. These were the primary ways that people learned about new computers, new programs and technical details of the computers. You couldn’t look this stuff up on the Internet yet!

Some magazines offered program listings that you could type into your own computer, usually written in BASIC. Many people who grew up in this era have not-so-fond memories of typing a program in and encountering the dreaded ?SYNTAX ERROR when trying to run the program for the first time. Compute! magazine was probably the leader in this field.

Since most of the personal computers of the era came with some version of the BASIC language, it was possible to run a simple program on a Commodore VIC-20, an Apple II or a Timex Sinclair… as long as it didn’t do anything machine-specific like graphics or sound.

U-boat program, Compute! magazine, November 1983

For machine-specific graphics or sound, some programs were offered in different versions. The example above shows the game “U-boat” by Mark Vittek. It is offered for the VIC-20 and the Commodore 64, and there is a “patch” to allow keyboard control on the VIC instead of using a joystick.

The November / December 1980 issue of Compute! divides the magazine into sections, or “gazettes”, for Apple, Atari, OSI*, SBC*, and PET. They also included articles on the AIM-65, with a name I recognize – Jim Butterfield. He was well known in the Commodore user community and wrote many computer articles and several books. He was an active member of the Toronto PET Users Group (TPUG), a well-known organization in the Canadian Commodore community.

* I had to look OSI and SBC up. OSI stood for Ohio Scientific Inc., a company that sold single-board computers like the Superboard I and II. SBC was not a company but an abbreviation for Single Board Computer, like the Superboard but also including relatively popular computers like the MOS Technology KIM-1, based on their 6502 processor. Commodore bought MOS Technology in 1976 and cemented their long association with the 6502 and its successors.

Reading these magazines from the late 1970s and early 1980s, it is clear how new the personal computer industry was. There were so much variety in the computers offered, and many of them were still very much a “build it yourself” computer. You had to know a lot about BASIC and hardware and how your computer worked. Kids today have no idea (shaking cane).

I wasn’t very interested in the hardware of computers, but I was very interested in the software. I wrote quite a few programs for the Commodore 64 and the Amiga, one of which achieved a tiny amount of fame. More to come.

Just One More Thing

A lot of the research for this post was done on the Internet Archive, a fantastic resource. They spend countless hours and uncounted terabytes of data recording the Internet and related items, like computer magazines!

You may know them for the Wayback Machine, where you can enter a URL of a site and see what it looked like in the past. For example, you can look at my first web site on Geocities, from its inception in early 1999 to the final version in early 2002 before I moved to my own domain.

Have a look around at https://archive.org and consider giving them a donation – I have!

Leave a Comment