My next-older brother Mark finished high school the year before I started. In leaving, he passed along his words of wisdom. Volunteer to work in the library, he said, and you won’t regret it. So sometime during the first few weeks of the school year, I dropped by the library, introduced myself to the librarian1, and told her that my brother had said that I should volunteer. She laughed, but gave me a job in the back room.
The back room of the library was populated by what could only be called geeks. Little did I know that, by joining them, I would become one of them.2 It was there that I met Bob C, who, like Lester R, would become a lifelong friend, colleague, and mentor.
Bob was into electronics, as were a number of the other decidedly unpopular kids who hung out in the library. One of our first jobs was to create an alarm system that would let the librarian known whenever people came and went through the back door of the library, to prevent someone from letting in miscreants who wanted to steal the knowledge set aside for the good students. Bob used a magnetic switch coupled to an illuminated lamp; close the door and the lamp would go off; open it, and the lamp would go on. Pretty trivial, but I thought it was very cool.
1975, my freshman year in high school, as a time of enormous change in the world, though few people realized it at the time. In January of that year (when I was still in eighth grade), Popular Electronics ran an article on the Altair 8800, the first true microcomputer. When I was a freshman, I joined the school’s competitive slide rule team; by the time I graduated, the slide rule competition had been eliminated in favor of another mathematics competition that permitted the use of a pocket calculator.
During that time, a number of my library friends and myself started a computer club; we called it The Beaumont Computer Group. We didn’t have access to a “real” computer, though one or two of the guys had been learning BASIC programming on a regional mainframe. We were all fascinated by the technology, and tried to learn all we could. We bought used computers: one of them, a monstrous ancient beast, had been used in the accounting department of a hospital in Beaumont that had closed down. It had thousands of vacuum tubes and used patch cords to perform a rudimentary sort of programming. We were essentially given it for free, as long as we’d haul it off. Parts of it sat on my back patio for months. We acquired an IBM magnetic ledger card reader from an east Texas electrical utility coop that was upgrading.
And, finally, towards my senior year, a friend of mine managed to get his hands on the COSMAC ELF. The ELF was an extremely rudimentary microcomputer consisting of an 1802 8-bit microprocessor, 256 bytes3 of RAM, a hexadecimal keypad, and a two-digit hex display. It was on this computer that I wrote my first computer program: I believe that it added together two numbers. Pretty amazing, in its way.4
This is what a gateway drug looks like. Even though I attended college on a music scholarship, and even though I graduated as an English major, I have been programming computers5 ever since. It’s now my career and has served me well.
Mrs. Mattox. ↩︎
Not that it would have mattered in the long run. ↩︎
Yes, that’s correct. “bytes,” not “kilobytes” or “megabytes.” Such large number were beyond our comprehension. ↩︎
The traditional “hello, world” programs were years off, since you can’t really create that much text easily on a two-digit hex display. ↩︎
And calculators, too. Remind me to tell you about my collection of programmable calculators. ↩︎