SwordsweeperTechnology How “Home Computing” shaped my future

How “Home Computing” shaped my future

When I was 6 years old my parents brought home a Texas Instruments home computer. They wanted us to be smart and smart kids had computers. Bill Cosby was showing up in TV commercials touting the Texas Instruments product.

“Want a powerful home computer? This is The One! With 16k memory it can take you a long way”… And don’t forget “more software cartridges than any computer system in the world.” How could my parents go wrong? Dr. Bill Cosby Ph.Ed. said this was “The One”.

Bill Cosby TI Ad

Bill Cosby in Texas Instruments Ads

We opened the box and pulled out the shiny stainless steel computer, hooked it to our TV and turned it on. Then my parents pulled a book from a bag and dropped onto the table. The computer came with games so we weren’t sure why they bought the book. We decided to ignore it, opting instead to play “Munch Man”, not to be confused with Pac-Man.

home computing game alpiner

Alpiner — TI Home Computer

My favorite was Alpiner, you had to maneuver your climber as he scaled Mount Hood, watching out for bears and falling boulders. But after a while, we got bored with the games so we started to flip through the pages of the mysterious “programming” book my parents had given us.

We didn’t understand any of the weird words and funny characters on the pages but we soon found some pictures in the middle of the book. The pictures were of graphics that you could create by following the steps in the instructions. So we tried it. We turned on the “home computer” without inserting a game cartridge and a blinking cursor showed up on our TV screen. We spent what felt like hours typing the words from the book onto the screen using the built-in keyboard. Words like “GOTO”, “GOSUB” and “NEXT” filled our screen.

home computing texas instruments

Kaleido program – 32 Basic Programs for the TI-99/4A

Finally, we finished writing the last line and were able to make it run. Colors burst onto the screen, yellow, green, red and blue. All of our hard work had paid off, we had made magic. We didn’t know how we did it, or how it worked, but we learned that you could tell the computer to do something and it would. At age 6 I was introduced to programming. Before age 8 I wrote my first lines of code but would be another 5 years before I was taught how it worked by my 7th grade computer science teacher.

I’d like to say that I kept writing BASIC and DOS programs beginning at that point but it wouldn’t be true. What I did figure out was how to hack Sim City to start with $100 million in the bank, and to set my wagons to level 99 defense in Civilization. After that, it was just us playing the games. I continued on like this for several years, the DotCom bubble arrived and people started making websites, I used them but didn’t make them.

It wasn’t until 2002 while in journalism school that I started writing code again. I was introduced to HTML and JavaScript and then to Flash as a means to create multimedia presentations for the web. All of a sudden I was a web developer. And after graduating with a degree in photojournalism I found myself gainfully employed as a developer while my fellow classmates struggled, going from job to job at newspapers.

My parents didn’t know it back then, but they gave me a huge boost to what I’ve made my career. Had it not been for the Texas Instruments home computer, and the IBM desktop we bought a couple years later, I would not have been prepared to jump into learning web development. I might have gone back to school a few years later to become a nurse (I know someone who actually did that). Instead, I was led into a world of code, databases, and servers. A world where we can design experiences so that interacting with technology feels natural, as though you’d always known how to use it. Most importantly, I learned that anyone can be taught how to use a computer to produce something amazing, even if they are only copying the code from a book.