Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Of Love and Microprocessors

It was early in my career, both professional and marriage. I was teaching at Electronics Technical Institute in Denver, Colorado and running my own business, RC Electronics, out of my home. I did stereo equipment repairs and built guitar amplifier and speaker systems as well as servicing electronic organs and guitar amps. Linda supported my home business, and we had borrowed money from the bank to buy the electronic test equipment and parts I needed. To save money, I bought all Heathkit test equipment and built it myself. I had a great little shop in the extra bedroom in the basement, contracts with Oden Sound and Music for all their repairs, and things were going very well.

I had subscribed to Popular Electronics since I was about 9 years old, and Radio-Electronics since I got out of the Navy. I also received monthly copies of Byte magazine and Dr. Dobb's Journal. I had a bookcase full of back issues, and eagerly awaited the arrival of new articles about the exciting world of electronics. So I was right on top of the new personal computer fad. I had read with great interest about the Altair MITS 8800 computer in the January, 1975 edition of PE. (Which I still have — wonder what that is worth to a collector?) Since I was an electronics engineer, I had some experience with computers, first at college in Montana where I had written a program to calculate the date of Easter for the next 100 years using FORTRAN on an IBM 1440. (The 1440 had 16 K of memory — but still supported both COBOL and FORTRAN compilers! They really knew how to get the most out of designs in those days.) Later, in the Navy, I hung out a bit with the D.P. (Data Processing) guys on board our ship. I worked in the Electronics Calibration Lab, and they worked in Ships Stores. I would loan them our good Tektronix Oscilloscope to calibrate the magnetic heads on the ship's IBM Tape Drives. I practiced my FORTRAN skills on the program that did our job estimating after I discovered my first bug in the program. (I’ll save that story of my first bug for another time — I worked for 12 years in IBM as a software tester, and I trace it all back to this experience.)

In the late 70’s microprocessors had moved past the first primitive versions that were based on calculator chips and there were several manufactures. Intel produced the 8080, an 8-bit microprocessor that ran at 2 MHz clock speed. That was the processor in the Altair MITS 8800.

Motorola had what I considered a superior chip in its 6800. It was among the first processors to have an index register, which I think put it in the league of an IBM mainframe — although admittedly in a much lower class. It is the Index register that allows array processing, which leads to indirect memory references, dynamic memory, and all the powerful features of today's top languages like C++, Java, and Ruby.

The MOS 6502 was out. It was a fascinating, low cost design that was picked up by a couple of young guys in California, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, to use in their new computer, the Apple 1. Also the Zilog Z80, a derivative of the Intel processor design was available. Zilog was started by the former Intel engineer Federico Faggin. This Italian emigrant and naturalized citizen of the U.S. is the father of microprocessors in my opinion. So the microprocessor industry was ready to support the embryonic personal computer trend.

A little side note about Micro Instrument and Telemetry Systems (MITS). This Albuquerque based company was started by Ed Roberts and Forrest Mims in 1969 to manufacture miniaturized telemetry systems for model rockets. They branched out into programmable calculator kits popularized in Popular Electronics and Radio-Electronics. Radio-Electronics had a smaller circulation than Popular Electronics, but led the way with innovative construction projects between 1972 and 1975. When MITS produced the Altair 8800 (Ed asked his teenage daughter what they called the computer on the TV show Star Trek. She answered “computer.” So they named it after the Enterprise’s destination that week, the star Altair.), they attracted the interest of Paul Allen and Bill Gates, two Harvard students, who then dropped out of school and moved to Albuquerque to work with MITS on software. In 1975 they formed a little company called Microsoft which sold a popular BASIC interpreter program. I think, to this day, Bill Gates thinks BASIC is the best programming language there is — never mind about C# (pronounced C-sharp).

I was watching all this happen with an engineer’s eye and a newly weds pocket book. My bank loan to purchase equipment for my small business had some money left, and I spent a lot of time at the Heathkit store on 38th in Denver, near the Lakeside Amusement Park. So after a Saturday visit to said store, I came home the proud owner of a Heathkit ET-3400. This little trainer had a hex keyboard and 6 - 7 segment displays. It had 256 bytes of RAM, and you programmed it directly in machine language. You had to hand assemble machine language instructions in hex and type them into the keyboard. It had a K byte of ROM which ran a simple monitor program, and it was great fun learning how to use registers and program counters, but you couldn’t do much with it, and I chafed at its limitations as I read about all the neat things going on in the industry.

By 1979 a lot had changed for me. I had a new job working at IBM in Boulder in copier manufacturing, and I had a second child on the way. At that time there were several very popular personal computers out there. There was the original Radio Shack TRS-80, the Commodore PET, and the Apple II. Unfortunately, those were beyond my budget. I was going to graduate school at night, working during the day, and spending weekends with my family and repairing stereos. A busy schedule, and there was not a lot of extra money. Still I kept searching.

Finally I found just what I was looking for, the Sinclair ZX80. This Zilog Z80 based computer had one K of RAM and a 4K ROM running Sinclair BASIC, an actual high level programming language. It had a funky little pressure sensitive keyboard and could display on a TV following the designs from Don Lancaster’s articles in Radio Electronics for the “TV Typewriter.” The ZX80 supported a cassette tape system for program storage. Wow, this was big time. It cost a little less than $200, and I talked Linda into letting me buy it. When it came in the box and she saw it was only about the size of a paperback book, she said, “Is that all you get for $200?” But she didn’t realize that this was a real computer, and I dove into BASIC programming with a vengeance.

(A historical footnote: the Sinclair ZX-80 was later sold as the Timex Sinclair 1000. This is a little ironic, since MITS got its start in the early 70’s selling, among other things, programmable calculator kits that used the same little LEDs found in the early digital watches. It all ties together.)

I bought a lot of books intended for the Radio Shack computer and started writing games. I became an expert at BASIC, and even helped Linda's dad, Bob Lincoln, with a BASIC program he was working on at Coors. The Sinclair was very limited, but I wrote several games for it including my “Nuclear Meltdown” game in which you were in charge of a nuclear power plant and had to keep the reactor stable and prevent the “China Syndrome.” In those days you sold programs in zip lock bags at the local hobby store. This was the era of the early computer stores such as the Byte Shop and Computer City. Unfortunately, the more sophisticated the graphics, the less room for programs since the Sinclair shared program and video memory. I learned early on many tricks to get the most from the hardware, but the Sinclair just wasn’t up to the task, not to mention the difficulty of typing on the one finger at a time Sinclair keyboard.

Then I found the computer of my dreams. It was the new Radio Shack Color Computer or as I affectionately called it, the CoCo. This state of the art computer borrowed a lot from the Apple II. It had the latest version of my favorite microprocessor, the Motorola 6809 and a REAL KEYBOARD. The 6809 costs twice what the Apple’s choice, 6502 cost, and we engineers knew that extra money bought some real advanced hardware. It had Microsoft BASIC in ROM with color graphics extensions from Microware. This was a computer an embryonic gamester could really sink his teeth into. The model I wanted had 32 K of memory and you could even get a floppy disk drive, although my budget did not allow such a luxury. In fact, the computer, at nearly $500, was more than our budget could handle. But, as an engineer, I realized that this computer was one of the most powerful available at that time. It did not have the graphic capability of either the Apple or the current Commodore computers, but it had great potential and COLOR!!

(Later models of CoCo could even be had with OS-9 operating system, a very advanced OS for this primitive time in computing history. I never got OS-9, but read lots about it in the literature.)

So, how to talk my sweet bride into letting me purchase this computer? After all, we don’t really have to make the car payment! Well, I started by talking about the computer at the dinner table. “But what would you use it for?” she asked. “Oh, many things darling, and it would be so educational and career enhancing for me.” “Yeah, sure,” she said with a sneer. Still I wasn’t discouraged. I kept up the chatter until one week I told her, “this Saturday let’s go to Boulder and check out the CoCo.” (Our little Radio Shack in Longmont didn’t have a computer department.) So come Saturday we all hopped in the car, Linda, Mike, the new baby, and off we went down the diagonal hiway to Boulder. There I showed her the CoCo on display and explained all its wonders. She said, “Do you really want this THING?” “Of course I do honey.” Then the sales clerk explained that he didn’t think he had any in stock right now, and would have to order it.

Linda then said, “When I called yesterday, you said you had five in stock.” WHEN YOU CALLED YESTERDAY!!! “Honey, why did you call yesterday?” I asked in astonishment. “Oh, I knew how much you wanted this THING, and I wanted to make sure they had them for you.” Now folks, let me tell you something: that is love. She could care less about the THINGS I had in my little shop in the basement, but she didn’t want me to be disappointed. It turned out the dealer did have some in stock, and by evening I was happily programming “Nuclear Meltdown II” in the basement on my new CoCo. The love of my life was upstairs doing the dishes or reading a book, and the happiest husband in the world was downstairs playing with his latest toy.

You know, it really did help my career. Later, when IBM came out with its new Personal Computer, I was one of only a few engineers in Boulder familiar with Microsoft BASIC, and I went right to work on the IBM PC programming disk drive routines to test our new 3” drives. How that job led me to IBM Technical Education and to a graduate degree in Computer Engineering and to where I am today sitting in front of another IBM PC typing these words is a story for another time.

But let me just tell you right now how important the support of your wife and lover is and how much the sacrifices of a loved one build credit in your heart. I love that wife of mine and, as Ralph Kramdon always said, “Honey, you’re the greatest.”

No comments:

Post a Comment