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Radio, Computers, and the Temporal Prime Directive
On the night of September 2, 1956 — the day before Labor Day — my parents parked their Willys Aero in front of a TV store in Fayetteville, NC. It was a warm late-summer evening, and they were prepared to wait until the store opened at 8 a.m. the next day. They were there to buy a TV and a UHF converter.
For those of you too young to remember, UHF might require some explanation. When television broadcasting really took off after World War II, it quickly became apparent that the twelve VHF (Very High Frequency) channels the FCC had allocated, 2 through 13, were not going to be enough. Especially in densely populated areas, there just weren’t enough channels to keep local broadcasters from interfering with each other.
To solve this problem, the FCC chose a new range of frequencies, this time in the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) band, for television use. This was enough bandwidth for 70 additional channels, numbered 14 through 83. UHF did have some disadvantages compared to VHF: it was harder to tune in clearly, and UHF transmitters required more power to cover the same distance. But perhaps most seriously, most television sets couldn’t receive UHF (the FCC did not require built-in UHF tuners until 1962).
To fill that gap, manufacturers sold UHF converters. Such a converter was an external receiver that could tune in a UHF channel and convert it to a VHF channel that a TV without UHF capability could show. (Yes, set-top boxes have been around almost as long as TVs. Roku and Apple TV+ boxes are just the latest in a long line.)
My dad was always an enthusiastic adopter of new technologies, and after commercial UHF broadcasting began in early 1952, he surely would have been interested. But I suppose he was busy, first getting married, then finishing college and starting a job, and then getting drafted into the Army and sent to Fort Bragg. That’s why my parents were in Fayetteville in September of 1956, when my dad saw an ad in the paper for a Labor Day Extravaganza sale at a local TV dealer.
Two particular deals jumped out at him: a Capehart console TV for just $5, and a UHF converter to go with it for just another $5. The ad is short on details, but I can only assume that the TV was not a current model. Capehart was a well-respected name — a brand of the Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation, founded by TV pioneer Philo Farnsworth — and even in 1956, $5 was an absurdly low price. (I showed my mom some pictures, and she says the 1948 Capehart-Farnsworth 661-P looks like the TV they bought that night, even though that model had a 10-inch screen and not 8-inch as the ad says.)
And so my parents decided to go to Davis Television Co. the night before Labor Day so they could be there when the doors opened. And at some point during the night, my dad got into a conversation with the guy in line ahead of them. I can even imagine, maybe, how the conversation got started. Perhaps they were talking about what they were there to buy, and maybe that led them to talk about radio technology. And maybe that’s how it was that this stranger came to tell my dad about his hobby: amateur radio (or “ham radio”).
Whatever he said, my dad was intrigued. So after my parents got home (with their new TV and UHF converter) and got some sleep, he started learning what he could about ham radio. I imagine he would have gotten hold of some issues of the CQ Amateur Radio magazine, and he certainly would have acquired the latest edition of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) Radio Amateur’s License Manual, which was (and still is) the standard textbook for the FCC’s license exam. He learned the required electronics theory and basic Morse code proficiency, and before long, he had his license.
By the time I came along in the mid-1960s, Dad had put together a well-equipped “ham shack” in a corner of the bedroom he and Mom shared. Some of the equipment consisted of commercial gear he bought, but Dad also put his electronics knowledge to work building “homebrew” equipment. I grew up familiar with the smell of a hot soldering iron. Next to our house, he installed a 75-foot antenna tower. (When I was a toddler, I inadvisedly decided to try climbing that tower, an attempt that failed on the second or third rung. I still have a visible scar under my eye from where my face met the driveway.)
After we moved to South Carolina in 1970, Dad became active in the local ham club, and he encouraged the rest of us in the family to get our licenses. My mom, brother, and I all passed the FCC exam the same day.
I remember attending meetings of the local ham club, which were held in the basement fallout shelter in a nearby shopping center. (Over the years, the hams opened up and consumed many of the long-shelf-life snacks stored there to sustain survivors after the bombs fell. I remember the lemon drops — I mean the carbohydrate supplements — fondly.) In 1974, at a local hamfest, I won a free one-year ARRL membership by being the youngest licensed ham in attendance. I was nine.
Dad installed mobile two-meter transceivers in both cars and placed a two-meter base station in the kitchen at home. Thus my parents could stay in touch while on the go, years before cell phones were common. (In 1976, somebody stole the two-meter radio from our Rambler station wagon while parked at a Holiday Inn in Meridian, MS. This was in the midst of the 1970s CB radio craze, so the miscreant was probably disappointed to discover he hadn’t stolen a CB.)
In January 1975, the cover of Popular Electronics featured the Altair 8800, the first widely available personal computer. This kicked off what came to be known as the microcomputer revolution. (“Microcomputer” is what they used to call a PC.) I don’t know whether Dad subscribed to that magazine. But for an electronics hobbyist like him, home computers were a natural progression from ham radio, particularly since all of those first-generation microcomputers were sold as kits you had to assemble yourself.
Eventually, probably through the ham club, Dad got introduced to a friend of a friend who actually had an Altair 8800 and brought it over to our house. I still remember this enigmatic box sitting on the ping-pong table in the game room, its front panel nothing but switches and lights. How were you supposed to use the thing?
It was inevitable that Dad would buy a computer. I remember a family day trip to Columbia in early 1977 to look at computers at a store called The Byte Shop; computer stores were few and far between in those days. I was 11 years old, and remember how excited I was to see these devices and to imagine that we would soon have one of our own. I got my hands on a book about BASIC programming and started writing out programs using pencil and paper, even though I had no way to run them except in my head. (My dad told me I was wasting my time, that there was no way I could learn programming without a working computer.)
By this time, something better than the Altair had arrived on the scene: the Sol-20 from Processor Technology, a company that had started out making aftermarket memory cards for the Altair. The Sol was based on the same Intel 8080 chip and S-100 bus as the Altair, but it also had a built-in keyboard and a video interface to which a monitor could be connected.
And so on February 21, 1977, Dad ordered a Sol-20 kit from Processor Technology, and it arrived about a week later. It took him about another week to put it together, a task that included not only a lot of soldering and connecting wires, but also staining and varnishing the handsome walnut side panels. (Unlike the boxy Altair 8800, the Sol-20 had style.) Finally, it was finished; Dad connected it to a small black-and-white TV and powered it on. We were rewarded with the exciting sight of the SOLOS command prompt:
There was as yet no software for the Sol. Dad had ordered the Processor Technology BASIC interpreter, which would at least have enabled us to key in our own programs, but development was running behind schedule and it wasn’t available yet. But, at least at first, the novelty of being able to type on a TV screen was exciting enough. Then we learned how to manually enter hexadecimal values into the Sol’s memory, which we could then list using the DU (“dump”) command, to make patterns on the screen.
That was all we could do with the thing until, somehow, Dad got hold of a copy of Altair 8K BASIC on paper tape, along with a borrowed teletype that had an integrated paper-tape reader. (The Altair BASIC interpreter is historically notable because it was written by two young programmers named Paul Allen and Bill Gates, and it was sold as the very first product from their startup company “Micro-Soft.”) Because the Sol was based on the same basic architecture as the Altair, it could run the same software; finally, we had a way to make the computer actually do something.
Now I was finally able to test the simple programs I had written on paper. We loaded the Altair BASIC interpreter (a process that took about 30 minutes), and I keyed in my first BASIC program. It was an extremely simple pizza-ordering program, probably no more than 15 or 20 lines of code, but it worked!
Loading Altair BASIC from paper tape was fortunately not an ongoing requirement, since the Sol had a cassette interface: once we had the software loaded, we could save it to a cassette and then load from that in the future. (Loading software from cassette was agonizingly slow and unreliable by today’s standards, but it was much better than the slow paper-tape reader.) And over the next few years, Dad continued to upgrade the Sol. The cassette interface was replaced by dual NorthStar floppy disk drives; he added more memory, a sound-effects card, and even a speech synthesizer.
Meanwhile, I continued to develop my BASIC programming skills, creating a series of increasingly ambitious video games. The Sol had a slow processor and no graphics support, but I learned how to directly edit the video-display memory to draw pictures on the screen using alphanumeric characters.
(Ironically, my most popular creation was Futility, which was a parody of Space Invaders-style video games. The player controlled a spaceship at the bottom of the screen, and your task was to destroy an annoying whirling alien in the center. This task was impossible, however, because the alien always dodged your shots or blocked them with a force field. Eventually, he would destroy you, and after you lost the standard three lives, the game was over.)
Since I had no proper training, at first, my programming technique was terrible. I still have some of the old program listings, and they are the worst kind of confusing “spaghetti code.” But I was learning as I went, and my games became increasingly complex and sophisticated.
Everybody assumed I was destined for a job in the software industry. But I had a short attention span, and I got interested in other things. In college, I studied filmmaking, and then music, and then psychology, and eventually pursued a master’s degree in journalism. In 14 semesters of undergraduate and graduate school, I never took a single computer science course. I didn’t even have a computer of my own until 1989, when I decided I needed one for writing papers in grad school.
Unfortunately, by the spring of 1990 — as I approached the halfway point of the UNC journalism master’s program — I had discovered that I despised reporting and had no desire to work as a journalist. It was generally expected that grad students would work summer internships, so I went through the motions, applying for several internships, all the time dreading the prospect of actually landing one.
Then I saw a notice posted on the J-school bulletin board soliciting applicants for technical writing internships at a large computer company; apparently, journalism training was considered a valid qualification for technical writing. It seemed like a potential lifeline, a way of turning my misguided decision to study journalism into something I could tolerate.
When I filled out the application, I emphasized my background with computers, hoping that might help my chances. I must have said the right things. Later I heard through a friend of a friend that the hiring manager, upon seeing my application, said “This guy’s perfect! I’m going to call him right now!” And so that summer, while my classmates were laboring at small-town newspapers for minimum wage (about $4 an hour at the time), I was writing process documentation for the software division of a multinational computer company. I must have made a good impression because that internship led eventually to a real job.
Three decades later, I still work for the same company. My official job title is Software Engineer: I write software documentation, but I also maintain API specifications and contribute to product design. I occasionally get to do some programming, developing and maintaining build automation scripts and other utilities. I got this job despite having no formal education in computer science or engineering, all because I had self-taught computer skills I learned as a teenager. I had a head start at a time when most people didn’t have access to computers, and it served me well despite my own poor decisions later.
My life, like every life, is in part the product of a series of chance occurrences, many of which didn’t seem important at the time. That night my parents bought a TV in Fayetteville, nine years before I was born, was just one such occurrence, but it fascinates me because I can so easily draw a straight line from there to where I am today.
A common trope of time travel stories is the danger of interfering with the past, inadvertently changing history, and thus altering (or even eradicating) the future one came from. Star Trek formalized the idea in the Temporal Prime Directive, a law that forbids such interference with the past. If time travel were real, I might be tempted to visit that moment in Fayetteville in 1956, but I wouldn’t, because it would be so easy to change something that changes everything.
What if my parents had arrived at Davis Television Co. a few minutes earlier or later, and had ended up standing next to someone else in line? Would my dad still have discovered ham radio eventually? Or would he have gotten into a conversation with some other stranger and discovered some other hobby instead? How different would his life, and thus my life, have been?
As long as time travel remains fictional, we needn’t worry about violating the Temporal Prime Directive. Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that everything you do — every action you take (or fail to take), every chance encounter you have, every careless word you speak — has the potential for ripple effects that go further, and last longer, than you can imagine. So you make the best choices you can, hoping they add up to the future you want to make for yourself and those who come after you. Even the ones you don’t know and will never meet.Published in General
Firesign Theater quote:
“Does this get UHF?”
“No, I don’t believe in flying saucers.”
That’s a great story and your thoughts about how changing one event would make a completely different life outcome is right on. Similar thing in my life, my mother’s family difficulties with my step-father’s mental problems followed by her sudden demise at 40 years old was a proximate cause of my not finishing college with the full NROTC scholarship I was on. Changed everything for sure. Now, a mother’s troubles and death is a big deal and not something one would prefer but following those tragic events I would not change anything.
The TV looks similar to a table model we had in the late fifties. I think it was just as big with a similar size screen and the speakers and controls on the side, big for a table TV. Might have been a Philco.
This is a great post, BXO! Thanks for the stories.
Beautiful essay, Bart. I had no idea what I was getting into when I clicked on “open.” Thank you for sharing your (and your parents’) story. We are of similar age, so I see some echoes. Your conclusion about pivotal moments and ripple effects takes me earlier into the essay to note the importance of what sounds to be a well functioning nuclear family. That’s a very, very excellent and, these days, a far too underappreciated foundation.
You’re right, and I appreciate the fact that you picked up on that. I didn’t understand until I was an adult how fortunate I was to grow up in the kind of family I grew up in: two parents who were always present and always available. Even though the specifics of my childhood could have been very different if my dad had had different hobbies, none of that would have changed who my parents were, and I’m sure they would still have provided me and my siblings with a good start on life.
-My life has had critical moments. I just happened to sign up for the one Spanish 101 class that had the professor who changed my life. She was so good that I changed my major to Spanish so I could teach like her. I hadn’t had any Spanish classes before.
-As a newly arrived 2nd Lt in the base Q (temp quarters), I was sitting in my room and a friend talked me into going to the OClub for refreshments. There I met my future husband who was only there on a cross country in his F4. Two weeks later, we both were sent to Tyndall AFB for training, him flying on the range and me in weapons controller school. We were such a perfect match that he proposed before my training was over. That was 1978.
-When we cleaned out his father’s house, we found his old ham radio stuff. We called up the local club and donated to its members whatever they wanted.
-We started out with the Apple IIE
Bart, I enjoyed this history very much, and I bet your folks were a hoot! I bought the ARRL study manual, but so far it has intimidated me. I will center my Ki and slog into it, since your entire family is such an inspiration!
Amazing to think that all that technological growth and capabilities will culminate in the mandatory cerebral tracking implants.