Albeit short by the span of a single human lifetime, personal computing has lived through a number of distinct, although occasionally overlapping eras. In the mid-1970s, there was the first wave, driven mostly by hobbyists savvy in electronics and bare-metal software development, one obscure sideshow of which I have chronicled in the previous installment in the series, Marinchip Systems. A second wave was the advent of very inexpensive “home computers”, generally all-in-one systems such as the Commodore 64, Radio Shack TRS-80, and subsequently the Texas Instruments 99/4. (The Apple II had a foothold in this category, but at a substantially higher price point, was perceived as more oriented toward the educational and business markets.) The third wave was represented by the IBM PC, its many clones, and the Macintosh, and subsequently we’ve had an accelerating series of waves culminating in what I call our present age of “extravagant computing”, which will give way in a few years to the “Roaring Twenties”. I’ll get to these eras in a while, but for now, let’s set the WABAC machine for the late 1970s to late 1980s and dip into the second wave: home computers.
I was late to come to this game. I’d participated intensely in the first wave, and when the IBM PC was announced, I saw it as an opportunity to get out of the hardware business and concentrate on what I and most of the people I knew did best: writing software, especially complicated programs informed by our mainframe experience which our systems programming background allowed us to shoehorn into the severe memory, disc space, and processing power limits of contemporary personal computers. As the 1980s wore on, and I had some success in the second wave market, I found myself, perhaps perversely, looking down and not up. Home computers were selling in the tens of millions; companies selling inexpensive software for them were springing up like mushrooms; and a host of magazines dedicated to their enthusiastic user bases provided a direct and inexpensive channel to market products to them. I was considering a number of mass market products oriented toward the same people who buy popular science books—this later became the short-lived Autodesk Science Series, which lives on at my Web site as Cellular Automata Laboratory, Terranova, Earth and Moon Viewer, Solar System Live, and Your Sky.
When you’re contemplating selling a product to a mass market, it’s wise to spend some time learning about what your potential customers already own which might run your software, just as if you’re planning to build a locomotive, you’d be well advised to note the gauge of the tracks in your area and make your wheels compatible. The Commodore 64 was well and away the market leader, so I bought a Commodore 128 (which was 100% compatible with the 64 if used in its base mode) and started to learn about the machine. As I explored the machine and its sound and graphics capabilities, I ended up developing several programs which, as every keystroke is sacred, were submitted to Commodore user magazines and some of which were published.
Commodore Curiosities is a collection of some of these programs. Programs include an extensible key clicker, a Moon phase calculator, and, most outrageous of all, neural network simulator implemented in fewer than 250 lines of BASIC. Programs which were published in magazines include their published versions. All programs include complete source code and floppy disc images which can be loaded into the VICE emulator to run them on contemporary machines.
Have you any poignant memories of the second wave of personal computing—or any home computer programs to share? Was your first experience with computing on one of these machines at home, school, or work? Did you ever use one of these rudimentary computers to access a wider world through bulletin board systems or services such as CompuServe, GEnie, or BIX? Did you imagine, then, where we’d be now? Weigh in below in the comments.