Friday, 20 January 2017

Do You Remember the First Time?

The Very First

Like many kids that grew up in the 1980s, my first contact with a computer was at school. At Highfield County Primary School in Bolton, like thousands across the country, computers were being introduced to classrooms as part of the government’s ‘Micros in Schools’ scheme. With traditional British industries in a state of steep decline, hopes were pinned on the fledgling computer industry to help Britain find its feet again as an economic force in the world.

Our headmaster, Mr. Williamson, opted for the BBC Model B computer.  This was a wise choice for two reasons: 

1. The BBC Model B was a powerful computer for its time.
2. The BBC (the broadcaster not the computer) had recently launched the Computer Literacy Project to ‘provide the opportunity for viewers to learn how to program and use a microcomputer.’ At the heart of the BBC’s project as a weekly TV show called 'The Computer Programme’ which was ‘designed to be useful to viewers in schools and colleges’ and was based around the BBC model B.




Unfortunately, in the early 80s British schools were rather cash-strapped and Mr. Williamson could only afford one computer. This meant that opportunities for kids to use it were very limited. It lived in the library on a specially made trolley and was only wheeled out now and again for the most trusted of students.  I have a few vague memories of typing in simple BASIC programs and playing Granny’s Garden – a game so terrifying it’s a wonder that it didn’t frighten a generation of kids off computers for life - but that’s about it.  Using the school’s BBC was good fun but the chances of getting your nine-year-old sticky fingers on it frequently were slim.  I quickly realised that the only way to get regular access to a computer was to have one at home. This meant persuading my parents to buy me one - so that’s exactly what I did.

In the early-80s, computers were thought of as not only expensive but also rather exotic so it wasn’t going to be easy to talk Mum and Dad round. Fortunately, Government education secretary Kenneth Baker made it somewhat easier by announcing that computer literacy was essential for the prospects of British children and after months of mithering, Mum and Dad finally gave in.

After some deliberation between the Oric 1, Mattel’s Aquarius and the Commodore VIC-20, Dad chose the Commodore computer.  Compared to some of the other budget machines the VIC was pretty high spec. It had colour graphics (unlike the ZX80 and ZX81), decent sound, a 3.5K memory and a proper keyboard.  A proper keyboard was important to Dad for two reasons. Firstly, he had some notion of giving the computer thing a whirl himself - and his big fingers would’ve struggled with the keyboards of the other computers - and secondly because the majority of programs for the computer would need to be typed in as this was a much cheaper way of obtaining software than buying it. 

In 1983 the average price of a computer game was £6.50, which was quite expensive, and I’d have to save up my pocket money for weeks before I could afford to buy one. The cheaper option was to buy one of the many magazines which offered type in listings. Mags such as Commodore Horizons, C&VG and Commodore User could be bought for as little as 75p and contained a wide range of programs which included games, simple spreadsheets and home accounting packages.

I can remember vividly the day Dad brought the VIC-20 home. It must’ve been a birthday present as it was a windy autumnal day when Dad proudly strode through the front door with it under his arm.
It came in a long white oblong polystyrene box which had a cardboard sleeve that slid over it.




We carefully unsheathed it and opened the polystyrene box. Inside was the computer itself – encased in cream coloured plastic with dark brown keys and four fat orange function keys. The box also housed a heavy fudge coloured wedge shaped thing, a small silver tin box, a couple of black cables and a spiral bound manual. We laid out all these pieces on the coffee table in the front room and gazed upon them in wonder as if they were the parts of a space ship that had crash landed in the back yard.

After a quick consultation of the manual, we attached the computer to the fudge coloured wedge – the PSU - then plugged in the silver tin box (the modulator) but then hit a problem. The computer came with a regular UK three pin plug but back in the early 80s our house was in desperate need of a rewire and we still had the old circular plugs with the three round pins that went in a horizontal line. Fortunately, Dad had an adapter. It was currently employed to connect the radiogram (I know it was the 80s but our house was still stuck in the 60s) to the house power supply. Dad disappeared behind the armchair for a moment then returned triumphantly with the adapter. The next task was easy – plug the other wire (the one which connected the modulator to the TV) into the telly’s aerial socket. I took that duty upon myself and pulled out the Ferguson TV from the corner of the front room (this was quite easy as it was on casters), removed the TV aerial and pushed the computer cable into the telly’s aerial socket. Done.

This was it. The big moment. Mum was called in from the kitchen and Our Susan was summoned from her bedroom to witness the momentous occasion.
“Ruth! Ruth!” Shouted Dad to Mum.
“Susan! Susan! We’re switching the computer on!” I yelled upstairs.
Soon the family was gathered around the computer and the excitement was building. I could hardly contain myself.

“Well, go on Martin, switch it on,” said Dad.
After a quick check that all the cables were secure, I flicked the switch on the side of the VIC and a red LED light blinked into life. There was a sudden increase in tension in the room. I clambered around the coffee table, careful not to trip over the 2-meter-long wire that connected the computer and the PSU to the power socket, and switched on the TV.
This is it! I thought. It was like lighting a firework. I had lit the fuse and now it was time to stand back and watch the splendour and magic unfold before our eyes.
Unfortunately, like so many fireworks, we were rather disappointed when nothing happened.
“What’s wrong with it?” asked Mum.
“I don’t know.” said Dad.
“Let me have a look,” I said.
I checked all the cables but everything looked fine.
“I’ll be upstairs if you need me,” said Our Susan rolling her teenage eyes and disappeared back to her bedroom and Duran Duran.

I picked up the manual again, had another read through the first few pages and spotted the error of our ways. The TV had to be tuned to the computer’s signal. The manual recommended using Channel 6 or above as channels 1, 2, 3 and 4 were engaged with television stations. I pressed the 6 button and flipped open the little secret door on the front of the telly that hid the tiny wheels that you used to tune the stations in. The manual recommended leaving the computer on so that you could find the signal easily and after a bit of wheeling - first all the way down and then quite a long way back up - a ghostly image eventually slid into view and as I slowly tweaked the wheel to get as sharp a picture as possible this appeared on the screen:



Mum and Susan were summoned once again and this time both were suitably impressed. Everyone had a go at typing their name in and we all wondered in disbelief at how we could make our own name appear on TV.

After a shaky start, the VIC was a hit and a few minutes later we stared at it with further astonishment when Dad learned this impressive piece of early BASIC programming from the manual:

10 PRINT “HELLO”
20 GOTO 10
RUN

HELLO
HELLO
HELLO
HELLO
HELLO
HELLO
HELLO
HELLO
HELLO
HELLO
HELLO
HELLO
HELLO
HELLO
HELLO
HELLO
HELLO
HELLO
HELLO
HELLO
HELLO
HELLO
HELLO
HELLO
HELLO
HELLO
HELLO
HELLO

Now that blew our minds.

*

If all of the above seems a bit unlikely, you have to remember that this was three decades ago. Before computers existed, you could only watch the television – you had no way of affecting what was on your TV screen, you just switched it on or off and watched whatever was being broadcast at the time. You were passive. But this was different. Now you could make whatever you wanted appear on your TV screen. You were active. Empowered. It was a revelation. A revolution.

Unlike consoles such as the Atari VCS, which played cartridges that were plugged into them, the 8-bit computer was an open invitation to get involved, it handed control over to the user. Yes, you could buy ready-made software on cartridge, disk or tape but you could also create your own. With a bit of time, patience and brain work you could even produce a video game and make money. It was the beginning of a revolution that was to sweep across the world over the next 30 years and give birth to what grew into the biggest entertainment industry in the world.

I loved my VIC-20 and had lots of fun with it. At the time my best mate Collin had a ZX81 and next to that the VIC looked awesome. Over time I built up a collection of decent games which included Avenger, Blitz, Amok, Chariot Race, Mickey the Brickey, The Perils of Willy. Menagerie, Skram-20, Hunchback, Shadowfax, King Tut, Shamus, Gridrunner, Metagalactic Llamas Battle at the Edge of Time and the legendary Jet Pac. All these games and many more I hungrily devoured as my new-found love of computer games blossomed.




Yet although I adored playing games on my VIC-20 I’m not sure that Mum and Dad were quite as enamoured. The machine was supposed to help me develop my computer literacy skills, yet all I really did was play games on it. In fact, rather than helping me with my schoolwork the computer seemed to get in the way of it as I’d spend more time on Jetpac than I did on my homework.  I did put in a few frustrating hours trying to learn some BASIC programming, but my heart wasn’t in it. At the age of ten I was far more interested in playing games than learning how to create them.

Over time Mum and Dad abandoned any hope that the computer was going to be of any educational value and accepted that I was going to use it as a games machine. In a similar way Dad never took up computer coding either. After typing in a few Commodore Horizons listings that never worked he gave up and went back to his lifelong love of growing vegetables on his allotment.

Back at school the BBC computer continued to be wheeled out once in a blue moon as a rare treat for the good kids. However, the fun was cut short one night in 1984 when the school was burgled and the precious computer was pinched. It was a sad day when a visibly upset Mr. Williamson announced in assembly that the school computer had been stolen. A sense of mourning hung over the school hall as my friends and I realised that we’d never venture into Granny’s Garden again.

Yet although the school’s computer was gone it certainly wasn’t forgotten. It left a lasting impression on myself and many of my school friends and kindled an interest in computers that lasted for the rest of my life. The school BBC was a brilliant introduction to computers. It may not have been the coolest computer around but it was an amazing machine for its time and will always hold a special place in my heart. 

Thanks Mr. Williamson.

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