A Self Made Programmer

It has been a little over forty years since I first programmed a computer. I learned how to program by reading a book about it. The computer was a large timesharing system called Plato. The language was called Tutor. It was an apt name for a language intended to empower teachers to create Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI). Looking back I can say that the language was influenced by Fortran and BASIC. It included some features that were not available in any of the languages of that era. In particular it had a facility for posing an essay question which the machine graded by looking for relevant phrases that the author deemed central to the question posed.

I had been lusting after a personal computer for several years before I obtained access to Plato at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale where I was studying Cinema and Photography. I had an aptitude for math and science but a passion for making movies. I had read the article in Popular Electronics about the Altair 8800 personal computer kit. It’s six hundred dollar price was totally out of my means. Little did I know that the darn thing would do nothing without further investment in input output devices and serial cards. It was a real money sink but it was so alluring.

When I needed a job to support my new family, I joined the Army on the condition that I get the longest training available in the Army in computer repair. I correctly assumed that the longer the school was, the more they would teach us. Sure enough, they taught us to program a trainer that was loosely based on the PDP-8 in assembly language. Then they took us circuit by circuit, subsystem by subsystem, through the Burroughs mini computer that was the launch control computer for the Pershing missile.

While I was in school I started reading Byte magazine. It had articles that described both software and hardware that people were building in the exciting new hobby of personal computing. I read it with a passion. But when all was said and done it was like reading about bowling. Something was lost in the translation.

I spent two years in Germany. I drooled over the personal computers in the shop windows there but they still were more expensive than I could afford. A friend in my company bought a computer kit. It was what I would call a second generation personal computer. It had an 8080 microprocessor but it also had a keyboard and video generator. You hooked it up to a TV and it displayed text on the TV. I didn’t get to program it much. I don’t think I ever got a program running on it. But it was better than just reading about it.

When I got back from Germany, Commodore was selling the Pet computer, Radio Shack was selling the TRS-80, and Apple was selling the Apple II computer. It would be several more years before I would have my own computer but I found jobs programming until then. Mostly in BASIC. Always self taught.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.