Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Thirty years ago: entering the computer age

Thirty years ago I got my first computer.

It was a NewBrain, which I had seen demonstrated at an exhibition of educational technology, Instructa 82, in Johannesburg. Quite a lot of microcomputers were on show there, and the most popular micro computers in those days were the Sinclair ZX 81, Atari, and the Commodore VIC 20, which I’d also read about in computer magazines.

I’d never heard of the NewBrain before I saw it demonstrated, but it seemed to have a better specification than most of the other computers at the show, and also claimed to be expandable.

It had 32k of RAM, which was enormous for those days, and a built in one-line display. It could also be connected to a TV, for a full-screen display, and programs and data could be stored using an ordinary cassette tape recorder.

The guy from the agents who sold them in South Africa delivered it to our house in Melmoth, Zululand, and we began to play with it, and so entered the computer age, and a different way of doing things.

I was interested in computers mainly because I thought they had potential for recording family history. We’d been interested in family history and genealogy for about 8 years, and had accumulated enough material in files to make it difficult to remember what we had and where we had found it. It seemed to me that computers would be ideal for keeping track of such things, but until the advent of microcomputers such things were only available to medium and large businesses. I began reading computer magazines to see what was possbible. And the NewBrain, with its capacity for expansion, seemed to be the best starting point. It had lots of ways of connecting to other computers.

To begin with we just tried to learn how it worked, using its built-in BASIC programming language. There were a couple of elementary game programs listed in the manual, and we invented a few more. One of the things we did was to do random PEEKs and POKEs to different memory locations, and then ran the program to see how long it ran before it crashed, and what appeared on the screen in the meantime. I suppose it was the equivalent of giving the computer an epileptic fit. Since the BASIC was in ROM it could not harm the machine, and all one needed to do was to switch it off and on again to start again. But that is not something to try on a computer with a hard disk — it might do permanent damage.

The expanded NewBrain, with disk controler and memory expansion sitting behind the main box, a proper monitor (not just a TV screen) and the two floppy-disk enclosures on the right.

Eventually we expanded the NewBrain — there were two other boxes, about the same size as the original box, which plugged into the back of it, and sat on top of each other — a memory expansion module and a disk drive controller. The memory expansion module expanded the memory to about 128k, and the disk drive controller enabled us to connect two 180k mini-floppy disk drives. It used the CP/M DOS, which was quite popular in those days.

The main problem was that just about every brand of micro-computer had its own way of formatting floppy disks, and so disks that were formatted in one make of machine could not be read or written to in another. I read in computer magazines about a genealgy program for microcomputers, called Roots/M, but one could not get it on NewBrain format disks.

Eventually I got a database program called Superfile which ran on the NewBrain, which was quite versatile, and enabled me to do some useful work. For me, databases are the most useful app, and the ability to put information into the computer and get it to spit it out again has been the thing that has made the biggest difference in my life.

The trouble with the NewBrain was that it was expensive. The two floppy disk drives cost over R1000 each, which is about R10000 in today’s money. Now you can get a couple of 2 Terabyte drives for the same price, in today’s money.

But the NewBrain got us started, and long after we had replaced it with more powerful computers our children asked if we could get it out of the cupboard so they could play with it, and learn BASIC programming. So it was an aid to computer literacy as well. And there is something sad about the progress that has been made, too. Nowadays, with GUIs like Windows, Gnome and KDE, there is virtually nothing useful that one can accomplish by tinkering around with amateur programming. Except that I think it might be worthwhile trying to learn to do something with AWK. It might just be possible to have some fun and do something useful with it as we did with BASIC thirty years ago.

One other thing astounded me.

We still have our NewBrain. It’s stashed away in a cupboard somewhere, but it would be a bit of a schlepp to get it out to take a photo of it to illustrate this post. So I took a chance and did a Google search for a picture of a NewBrain, without much hope of finding one. But it popped up immediately, and I found that not only are there pictures of them on the web, but some people actually still use the things, and write software for them, and there is even a NewBrain emulator for running on other computers. So if you want to know more about the NewBrain, you can look here and here.

There was also a rather nice game for the NewBrain. It was written by the South African distributors, Avisa, and they spent almost as much time writing the copy protection module as they did on the game itself. The game was called Mazeland and it came on a copy-protected cassette tape. One had to travel down a maze through various levels battling ever more powerful monsters. There was a similar game for MS DOS computers, called Rogue, but Mazeland was better. We never actually finished it, because someone nicked our tape recorder with the cassette still in it. One of the most powerful monsters we encountered was called a Nothingness, and it would say things like, “The Nothingness has hit you 238.984506 times”. It needed more imagination than the graphics-intensive games of today.

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