A Computer Geek: Hand of Destiny

When I first touched a computer, it felt like the hand of God came down from the heavens and pointed at it. “This… this is what you will do,” boomed the LORD.

Blasphemy aside, it didn’t quite happen that way. But it felt close to that.

It was the fall of 1981. I had just started grade 10 at Dartmouth High School, my first and last year at that school. I had graduated from the Hampton Gray Memorial Junior High School, and we were bused to DHS every day from CFB Shearwater (I’m very surprised that my former junior high school is a federally recognized heritage building).

I felt very out of sorts at DHS. I wasn’t in the same classes as my friends from grades 8 and 9, it was a new school, and my classmates weren’t army brats. They were just regular kids whose parents had regular jobs and didn’t train on Sea Kings or go on maneuvers or sail in frigates. It felt very strange, and I felt very alone.

As chance would have it, my assigned locker was right outside the school Computer Room. I capitalize that because this was 1981 and computers in schools were a pretty new thing. I had no idea that there was a computer room until I saw one of my friends going in there. I followed him in there and watched him sit down in front of a strange machine and start typing.

It turned out that anyone could use the room. You didn’t have to take the computer class. I split my non-class time between the computer room, and the library where I read SF magazines like Analog and Fantasy & Science Fiction. I preferred the computer room but sometimes all the computers were in use.

I recall they had about six or seven computers there, all Commodore PETs. Commodore was a major manufacturer of personal computers at the time, competing with Apple and Tandy. They sold heavily into the educational market to try to get people hooked on their computers, much like Apple did (and still does).

The smallest PET they had was a PET 2001, released in late 1977. It was an integrated unit with display, keyboard and tape drive all in one shell. I remember it was the 4K model (that’s 4,096 bytes of memory) and most people avoided it because it didn’t have enough memory to run many programs. The keyboard was known as a “chiclet” keyboard due to the shape of its keys and their tiny size. It was practically impossible to touch-type on it.

The lab also had some later PET 2001 systems with 16K RAM and a bigger keyboard. These were definitely preferred.

Text based Star Trek game

A popular game that circulated through that room was a text-based “Star Trek” game. You were the captain of the Enterprise (represented by a capital E on the screen) and you flew it around sectors (8×8 grids) using “impulse power” and you could warp to other sectors. The object of the game was to blow up all the Klingon ships while managing your energy usage, damage and photon torpedo inventory. It was surprisingly fun.

The game was written in BASIC, naturally, and eventually I made some fumbling attempts to “improve” the game with more features. That was my first programming effort. I was hooked.

Before then, when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would always answer, “an aerospace engineer.” I loved planes and rockets and I wanted to design them.

Once I met the PET, those nebulous plans went out the window. Computers were my future, and they still are. Thank you, Commodore.

Commodore founder Jack Tramiel survived Auschwitz and founded Commodore International Limited in Toronto in 1955, making typewriters. It was a long way from typewriters to the PET and the VIC-20, Commodore 64 and the Amiga.

I never owned a PET, but I was a Commodore 64 and Amiga owner for many years. More to come.

Lead photo source: Flickr

3 thoughts on “A Computer Geek: Hand of Destiny”

  1. Steve – thanks for sharing! Those PET computers were a lot of fun. Our school got three 4032’s when I was in 6th grade, and they became my way to stay inside for recess in the middle of winter. I learned how to code on them by trial and error, later got my own VIC-20, and all these years later I am also a software engineer. I know the Star Trek game, but had only played it on an IBM 360 mainframe. The screen refresh frequency and clock speed on the 4032’s led to a cool effect with simple code (viz: 10 ?”[cls]something” 20 goto 10). The right choice for ‘something’ would make it look like the characters were melting slowly. Sadly the PET emulator I play with now can’t replicate this.

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  2. Familiar story, Steve – Thanks for bringing back some memories.
    I, too went to DHS, moving on to university in 1968. My first exposure to computers was in 1969, when I took a non-credit programming class in the summer. We used an instructional variant of FORTRAN called WATFOR. The computer we used was a room-filling IBM 360/50, and we got to punch our own cards on IBM 029 keypunches. The smells, sights and sounds of the keypunch room, and the view through the glass of the huge CPU and all the peripherals were the bait, but having the thing run a program which I had written firmly set the hook. I was involved with computers continually since that class, through many years in university and a career as an electrical engineer. Now in retirement I’m still tied to them, but now it’s a hobby. What would I have said back then if someone had shown me a Raspberry Pi?

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    • Hi Peter, I’ll be writing about my mainframe experiences later, but in short I started with WATFIV on an IBM 370. I missed punch cards by one year, thankfully. The technicians working behind the glass on the mainframes seemed almost like priests in a church.

      I think a Raspberry PI would have blown my mind, honestly. That much power in a tiny package?

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