From Humble Beginnings

While reading my dad’s journal, I was reminded about a toy I got once for Christmas. It was called a Jimmy Jet. It was a mockup of a fighter jet cockpit. There was a display screen and a steering wheel. There was a throttle that made the engine noise rev up and wind down. There were two plastic missiles mounted on top that you shot by pulling a lever. I found several videos about it on You Tube. There was also an unrelated poem by Shel Silverstein called Jimmy Jet and His TV Set.

I had forgotten all about the Jimmy Jet. I even forgot what it was exactly until I Googled it. But as I watched the video of it in action it became clear to me that this was when I fell in love with gadgets. In subsequent years I tinkered with guitar amplifiers, radios, and old TV sets. I took electronics in high school. And when Popular Electronics had a cover feature on the Altair 8800 personal computer I was smitten with gear lust.

I got my first taste of computer programming on an educational time sharing system named Plato. There were two terminals in a room in the library at Southern Illinois University (SIU) Carbondale. They were connected by phone lines to a mainframe in Champaign. The system was programmed in a language called Tutor, a name inspired by the educational orientation of the system.

Tutor was influenced by a number of early computer languages. It was organized in units that corresponded with display pages. The display was made from glowing orange dots on a brown background. You could draw line graphics on the display or you could position text at any given place on the display. The text characters were user programmable so I created a special character set to animate a cat walking across the screen.

My next experience with computers was when I took the basic computer class at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. It was 1976 and they were using a computer trainer built to work like a DEC PDP-8. Each computer had a teletype for a console with a paper tape punch/reader to store and load programs. I loved programming in machine language. We wrote the programs on paper, translated the instruction names into numerical codes by hand, and then punched them into paper tape to load into the computer.

By this time, I was totally hooked on computers. I subscribed to Byte magazine to learn about all the new personal computers that were coming on the market. There were articles about how to build add ons for your computer, how to program it, and even how to build it from scratch. I never had the money or skill to build a computer totally from scratch.

The next computer I was exposed to was the Burroughs 5000 minicomputer that served as the launch control computer of the Pershing Missile system. We learned how that system worked, circuit by circuit, board by board. By the time we were through, we knew how digital computers worked, inside and out.

When I got out of the Army, I got a job as a computer technician and programmer at a little startup in Alabaster, Alabama. They specialized in adapting personal computers for business use. Unfortunately, their knowledge of computers far exceeded their business acumen.