A Computer Geek: Our First Computer

It was a momentous day when my parents bought a Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer 2. This was the first personal computer in our house, and indeed it would be in our house for a very long time.

We called it the “Trash-80” because of the TRS-80 in its name.

Computer image by Adam Jenkins, from Flickr. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.

The Color Computer, or CoCo as I will call it, was a desktop computer released in 1980. It was based on the Motorola 6809E processor and came with the Color BASIC operating system. It was a contemporary of the Commodore VIC-20 and the Apple II. The CoCo came with anywhere from 4 to 512 KB of memory; I think ours had 16K.

We bought the Color Computer 2 in late 1983, when it first came out. I found a note in my diary from October 15, 1983: “went to Radio Shack => saw Color Computer (luv it!)” Keep in mind that I was 16. It ended up being a Christmas present for the family.

My parents may have thought my sister and I would need a computer for school. The CoCo was wholly unsuitable for that, but it was a pretty decent game machine. We had a few games on cartridges, and quite a few on tape.

The computer was set up in our dining room, next to the front window on its own desk. I’m not sure what we used for a monitor… maybe an old colour TV?

I remember playing a few Zork-like mystery games. They were all pretty similar – first-person text-based games that start with a paragraph or two describing what you see. You can then type in commands to “look” at things or “take” items, go through doors, and so forth. You can play Zork online!

We had a few Space Invaders-type games on cartridges. We bought joysticks for the CoCo on New Year’s Eve, 1983. These were a must since computer mice weren’t common back then. Mice weren’t necessary since personal computers didn’t have graphical interfaces at that time.

I eventually purchased my own computer in 1985 – a Commodore 64 – but my dad kept using the CoCo. He had it in his office for years, although I’m not sure how useful it really was for his business.

The CoCo in 2022

Pair programming effort

I visited my son and daughter-in-law in Waterloo in mid-November 2022 (see Bayview Junction and Between the Buildings for railfanning escapades). He’s a computer geek like I am, and he collects old computers. He actually has a Color Computer 2, and one evening we spent a few very enjoyable hours programming together. We wrote BASIC code to draw a snowman (with snow!) and play “Frosty the Snowman”. I recorded a video of it and it’s shared above.

Book called "Going Ahead With Extended Color BASIC"

Note the Philco television. Philco was an early radio, television and battery producer in the USA. In 1961 it was purchased by Ford, which is why this television has a Ford logo on it. Since Ford sold the company to GTE in 1974, that means the television is almost as old as I am!

The two reference books we used were Getting Started With Color Basic (available online) and Going Ahead With Extended Color Basic. These were well written books!

It was a treat to be able to program together with my son. I’m grateful.

Other Computer Geek posts

6 thoughts on “A Computer Geek: Our First Computer”

  1. Not sure I agree with “wholly unsuitable [for school]”. A good friend of mine in high school had a CoCo. He wrote his own word processor program for it and was probably the first student in the school to turn in papers printed on a computer. So maybe “mostly unsuitable” unless you were l33t (which of course wasn’t a term back then) 🙂

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    • That’s a great story, Jeff! I imagine most people who owned a CoCo weren’t capable or interested in writing their own word processor! I certainly wrote my own programs but nothing quite so ambitious as a word processor… and l33t was definitely not a word then. I think “hacker” was still a good term. I still remember phone “phreaks”.

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  2. This was so enjoyable to read.

    Our first was the little Timex Sinclair machine. I’m pretty sure we bought it at Towers. I remember we had it hooked up to an old Zenith desktop black and white television. We had their RAM expansion pack and the family tape deck joined in on the party too. (What fun to be using cassette tapes! I had, like, two tapes and they were in heavy rotation serving to record songs off the radio then being overwritten with my latest software overture!) A lot of the BASIC commands were available as hotkey shortcuts and, combined with the smooth keyboard, it all felt very futuristic—perhaps even more so since I’d never touched a computer before. It was easy to write to the limits of what it could process and certainly my early work was mostly to sate that feeling. In time I started writing my first model railway software—a primitive database style piece of software to create the switchlists I used to operate my model railroad.

    We probably acquired our first Commodore around the same time you got yours. Ours also came from the computer aisle at the Towers department store in Charlottetown. A friend had a Vic20 and it felt so wildly advanced compared to our machine and our days alternated between building forts in the woods, finding stuff on the beach, and learning more complex BASIC on his Vic20. I think my family’s Commodore64 was also set up in the dining room. As I got older I just kept spending more and more time on it. I recreated some boardgames we had and because Model Railroader magazine ran their column Computers in Model Railroading I attempted some code based on their ideas—I did well on the board games and failed at most of the model train software.

    Commodore had a desktop suite called GEOS that teased with some word processing things. I think we dreamed of beautifully published school projects but the software limitations were limiting, which would have been a problem but, instead, was overshadowed by not having access to a printer. As a tool for school it was kind of a non-starter. I always wonder how many households lived out that revolutionary dream of a house futurised by the incorporation of a home computer into their lives? At the time the fit felt awkward. Come to think of it, we’re certainly further advanced but at times the fit isn’t as much of a anthropological advancement as a technological one.

    Our machines came from Towers but I spent a lot of time hanging out in Radio Shack stores. I’ve never tried one of these machines and I’ve always wanted to see what they were like. Reading your post reminds me of a beautiful mix of yearning to feel that experience of a computer not tried mixed with the familiar and happy nostalgia of visiting Radio Shack. Sorry for the long comment. I’m so grateful to have felt what it was like to be a part of this era in home computing and, equally so, for the memories discovered reading your post. I’m thrilled to read your son shares the interest and you were able to share this touchpoint together—that’s truly beautiful.

    Thank you

    Chris

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