Newly Digital

by john on June 2, 2003

Adam Kalsey has put together an anthology of early computing experiences from himself and 11 others called Newly Digital. Even better he’s asked the internet community to participate by sharing our own stories and linking back to his. And so it goes:

My first memories of computing date back to the mid 1970’s when I would tag along with my father to the University of Minnesota Computing Center to pick up or drop off his punch card batch jobs. For years we had reams and reams of source code listings and unused punch cards lying around the house as scrap paper. My parents still have a few long, rectangular punch card boxes in use for storage. We probably had a few hanging chads too, not that I ever knew what one was.

In 1978 when I was in sixth grade we got a teletype machine in a room off of our school library and it was on there that I first learned the rapid hunt and peck type of keyboarding I still use today. The machine was hooked up to MECC(Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium) and one of the games offered was Oregon Trail. To succeed at this game you needed to do one thing very well – type words like POW and BANG extremely fast lest you take a a stray arrow from a native out to stop your Sunday stroll. I had used a typewriter by then and a teletype was a typewriter that interacted with you. That was cool.


Between 1978 and 1981 I had periodic access to MECC through a terminal my dad would occasionally bring home from the University. If I remember correctly those terminals connected initially at 180 baud and then later at 300 baud. They had a coupler that you would plug the handset of the telephone into. Sometime around 1980 or 1981 I was introduced to a MUD(Multi User Dungeon) on MECC called Milieu. On any given night there might have been a couple dozen users online, mostly kids from Minnesota. It was fascinating at the time to be able to interact with others over a computer like that.

In early 1982 my dad brought home an IBM PC, the original model with two 160k floppy drives and the green monochrome screen. No hard drive, but it did have a 300 baud modem that we could hook up to MECC. That begin a steady stream of computing upgrades from getting a huge 10MB harddrive, to upgrading to the IBM XT, IBM AT, and I forget after that. That first harddrive is what I’ll remember the most. When you have been used to a 160k storage device 10MB is an incredible leap. It wasn’t the same as us getting upgraded from 80GB to 5000GB today because today we can envision how we could use that space. Back then we really couldn’t.

For the next couple of years I spent a lot of time on that PC from playing Milieu to teaching myself IBM Basic and then later Turbo Pascal.

Playing Milieu honed the hunt and peck typing I had learned playing Oregon Trail because, unlike today’s role playing games, it required constant user interaction (you had to continue pressing enter so as not to be disconnected), but most importantly you had to type out all of your attacks round by round. There weren’t any autogold functions to automatically loot a corpse; you had to type “get gold from corpse” faster than someone else or you lost it. There were plenty of players who wandered around stray battles typing just that in the hopes of picking something up on the sly.

At the end of 1982 the state of Minnesota shut down funding for MECC and in the summer of 1983 the original developer of Milieu, Alan Kleitz, and two investors, Bob Alberti Sr. and Bob Alberti Jr. founded a company called GamBit Systems and ran a version of Milieu called “The Sceptre of Goth”. GamBit was a for-pay service and for the hundreds (thousands?) of kids who had been used to getting it for free it was a fairly traumatic experience. I tried it for awhile but at $2.25/hour to play it just wasn’t worth it to me and I eventually went off to other things. Sadly Bob Alberti Sr. (Albatross) died of brain cancer in December of 2002. [UPDATE – Bob Alberti Jr. ran into to this article and corrected my memory – he was Albatross and his dad was Typo]

Like many other users of the original IBM PC my first programming experience was with IBM Basic. I took the ugly green manual and built programs incorporating every function in the book until I could write programs that did some fairly interesting things. The first function listed I believe was ABS(Absolute Value) and that program was pretty boring. By the time I played with PEEK and POKE things got more interesting, especially when we upgraded to the color graphics card.

I spent much of 1982-1983 discovering the miracle of open computing systems, from the local bank and the electronic sign outside the airport to slightly more secure facilities such as Universities amd Military institutions. Back then security was often as simple as using an unpublished phone number. That all stopped with the 1983 release of WarGames which introduced the public to the magic of “War Dialers” that allowed any kid with a PC and a modem to find those open doors to your system. Alas things really tightened down after that and within a few years my illicit hacking days were done. I was a bit of a nortorious local hacker using the nom de plum of Jack Flash and at one time actually was invited to appear on a radio talk show to talk about my illiit acts. Alas I drove over to the studios on a Saturday morning only to be silenced by the station’s lawyers who decided it might not be a good idea to let me talk. So I sat in the studio and listened but did not participate. Darned if I can remember the show or the hosts or even what was discussed. I’m thinking this may have been in 1984. I have no reason to believe the makers of the 1986 film Jumping Jack Flash had any idea who I was, as certainly evidenced by their casting Whoopi Goldberg as me.

In 1984 I was a senior in Highschool and really started getting into Borland’s Turbo Pascal. I learned it much the same way I learned IBM Basic – page by page. By this time I was visiting a lot of Online BBS(Bulletin Board System)s and was experiencing the richness of the online community with services like The Well and The Source. In 1985 I wrote my own BBS software which included the ability to include control codes within your text message to serve up stock images to the reader. The images were restricted to those I included in the software but it was pretty cool none the less and a feature I had not previously seen. The system was used only by a few friends and it never went in to production. The Turbo Pascal source was lost long ago.

My college years (far more than there were supposed to be) were filled with a mix of MUDs and offline distractions such as pool and bridge. I was a regular on ROM(Rivers of Mud) which was a popular MUD that has spawned a number of different generations of MUD code. I learned FORTRAN and C.

In the early 90s I worked for a small consulting company where my job was to create a graphics program to display data created by the programs from a number of graduate students. I originally wrote it in FORTRAN because that is what the students were using and that is what we had lying around but I eventually made the move to C and ported the code. The latest release of the software was in 1993 and it is still in use at the University of Minnesota today.

Since 1994 I’ve dabbled in VB(Visual Basic), SQL(Structured Query Language), Microsoft Office scripting, ODBC(Open DataBase Connector), Perl, PHP, HTML, ASP(Active Server Pages) and a host of other programming technologies. I don’t get to code much anymore and I miss that.

I’ve forgotten a lot, no doubt got some dates wrong, and probably even mis-remembered a thing or two but that’s my Newly Digital history as far as I can remember it. It seems like my young children have it different now but who knows, in 30 years when they are going through this exercise no doubt the computing world of today will look awfully archaic to them, sort of like how Oregon Trail on a teletype sounds today.

It’s hard to imagine.

{ 5 comments }

Snapping Links June 2, 2003 at 11:34 pm

newly digital and other geeky things

This is actually a long entry, part of the “Newly Digital” project.

Linda June 3, 2003 at 11:02 am

Looking for John R. Weidner. An author of Gibbets of Gibberish in his youth. Because grass DOES grow greener on the other side of the leprechaun. I’m hoping he’s writting and publishing his strain of thought.

Scot Wilcoxon July 31, 2003 at 5:07 pm

The terminals on MECC’s systems ran at 110 baud, 300, or 1200. At the time, 1200 was very high speed and there were very few phone lines at that speed (I think there were four out of the 448 total ports).

The “teletype machine” at school was undoubtedly the Teletype ASR 33, a very common printing terminal with a paper tape punch and reader. The pedestal which it was mounted on was probably full of circuitry. Integrated circuits were new technology, so electronics took a lot of space.

That terminal which your father brought home was probably a Texas Instruments TI-700. It had a keyboard, an acoustic coupler on the back (which was the bottom when the cover was on and the handle was upward), and a printer which used thin and expensive heat-sensitive paper. If the terminal was a “glass teletype”, there were many types — Teleray and DEC VDT were popular units.

I saw GamBit at one time, at a booth at a hamfest. At the time I was investigating creating a similar service, but couldn’t make the financial estimates show a reasonable profit. This was in the era of BBS technology, so each active user required a phone line. I don’t remember if Alan or Bob was the person in the booth, but I’m pretty sure John was busy programming on GamBit at that moment. I tried GamBit on the demo terminal, in the COMBAT space-fighting game. No ships were present, only the three “Gorn” bases which shot at those who wandered too far from the play area. One of the bases had some damage, and I finished it off. Then another ship appeared, and I’m pretty sure that was John. I used my usual method of zooming almost head-on, so fast that it was almost impossible to cause fatal damage to the forward and rear shields, then rotating 180 degrees and blasting to a stop right next to the other shi It took 60 seconds to come to a stop, with the other ship having to rotate very quickly to try to aim at me. As I knew exactly when I would stop, I could immediately get the exact bearing to the other ship, rotate, and fire at a ridiculously lethally close distance. Just as the other ship exploded it sent a message asking who blasted the Gorn which it was using for testing. Oh. Apparently the other player wasn’t playing, he was trying to test the program. So it probably was John.

The State of MN did not simply terminate funding for MECC. MECC stopped operation of its CDC timesharing system when it became uneconomical, I think in 1981, primarily because MECC’s own programs for the Apple II were replacing the needs for its online services. Unfortunately there was not justification for selling access to the 400-port digital data network, or the state would have been a leader in microcomputer statewide networking. Then the state spun MECC off into a separate corporation, which was eventually sold. That is the MECC which is still visible, particularly its Oregon Trail program which began as a text based program on its timesharing service.

I sort of doubt that the author of “Jumping Jack Flash” knew you. I don’t know where he went to college, but he mentions Vermont as home. He also mentions his story “eventually” became the 1986 movie, so his story was undoubtedly written years before then — and then rewritten with the 3 other screenwriters, then produced, edited, and released…

Scot Wilcoxon July 31, 2003 at 5:11 pm

Oh, great. “Page is no longer valid” neverthess posted it and did not show it.

ERU August 18, 2003 at 3:40 pm

Eeks, sad to hear Bob Sr. Died. I always wondered what he was doing these past years.
–Saltine

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