Everything There Is To Say About Programming A Computer In The 80s


The earliest personal computers begged you to program them. Or they would, except the earliest personal computers weren’t sophisticated enough to do that. They’d print out a line like ‘OK’ and hope you picked up the hint. It wasn’t much to go on. It was like the computer wanted to say “WhatEVER”, except the computers didn’t have enough memory to be snide. Please remember back then it was spiffy that the computer had sixteen colors, three of which were grey. Anyway there was fun with programming.

You could write your own programs. These programs would print out the word ‘POOP’ and then repeat forever, filling the whole screen. This took under a second and then continued until you got bored. If you became a more advanced programmer, you’d add spaces to the end of ‘POOP’. This way as the screen scrolled you saw lines fluttering around instead of a long, static, column. This was less boring. Some of us got the chance to be forced to use Logo in school. This was a graphics programming language that let you draw a square. If you were an advanced Logo programmer, you could draw a square and then another square at an angle. Sometimes computer magazines would run an article about the language PILOT, which was a hoax.

If you didn’t want to write your own language there were magazines with programs you could type in. I mean computer magazines. Well, maybe there were computer programs you could type in from, like, Tiger Beat or Family Knitting ’83. I never checked. Maybe I am prejudging the situation. Anyone with specific information otherwise I ask to write in to Mister Food care of your local TV station.

But the type-in programs were great. You could flip open the magazine, set it in front of your computer, and then have the magazine close right back up again. Oh, there’s an ad on the back cover for some game that’s like Wheel of Fortune except all the contestants are aliens. I’m sure the graphics looked as great as the advertisement’s airbrushed art, only with more grey. Well, you flip open the magazine again, weight the edges down with some other magazines, and get to typing! It would be hundreds, maybe thousands, of lines, but that’s all right. If you typed anything wrong it would only make the entire thing not work at all.

Some of the magazines tried to help you out. They came up with these automatic proofreader programs. This make a little checksum appear each time you enter a line. The magazine listed what the right checksums were. So when they didn’t match you could complain the automatic proofreader was broken. I know what you’re thinking: since you had to type in the automatic proofreader how did you know you got that right? We didn’t. We had to hope. In hindsight we probably should have spent more of the decade crying.

You didn’t have to type programs in. You could load them in from a storage medium. Trouble is the storage medium we had was cassette tapes. For short programs it was faster to type them in again. For long programs it was faster to hold your computer up to the night sky and let cosmic rays randomly trip memory cells into the right patterns.

The typing could get to be fun. In like 1987 I typed in SpeedScript 3.2. It was a word processor that included advanced features. If you ended a paragraph by hitting shift-return, it put in a return, a blank line, and a tab to get the next paragraph off to a rousing start. I’ve spent the last 32 years looking for another word processor that would do this for me. It had other features, I assume.

A couple months later I found the magazine with SpeedScript 1.0, a worse version. And spent an afternoon typing that in because, hey, what else am I going to do? Not crush my median nerve against the carpal tunnel? But it was all worth it: after typing in SpeedScript 1.0 I could see for myself that it was kind of like SpeedScript 3.2, but not as good. I think it still had the shift-return thing, though. And I know what you’re all wondering: Wait, where was SpeedScript 2.0? I’ve spent 32 years fuming about that.

But don’t think all this typing didn’t have lasting effects, even if I haven’t yet completely destroyed my wrists. To this day, when I open a program and then close it right away I think about if this were 1988. I’d have had to spend like eighty minutes typing in that program and I just threw it away, only the modern version of it was good at its job except for the shift-return thing. Then I feel guilty.

So to summarize, I understand why everybody treated me like that in middle school.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

8 thoughts on “Everything There Is To Say About Programming A Computer In The 80s”

  1. Ah memories! Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

    Although, in my day we didn’t have fancy languages like Logo or PILOT. All I had was assembly language, and I was damned fortunate to have even that much. The guy in the office next to mine had to program in binary using toggle switches. He eventually became bipolar and might have turned out to be a complete zero, but he managed to get his act together and become one of the good ones. As for me, I spent the 80s looking for memory leaks and stack overflow problems. I’m still looking, though the urgency has diminished greatly.

    Great post! Thanks for sharing it with us old-timers.

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    1. I’m glad you enjoyed and that you were able to think of some fun old times.

      Now, I really wanted to get into assembly language for the Commodore 64 but — this is true — the one ML compiler that ever ran in a magazine I saw I typed in, and somehow, got it wrong. In that freaky weird way that the automatic proofreader missed, so I had a compiler that just didn’t work. I kept thinking, well, one of these days I’ll just have to re-type the compiler in and there’s no chance I’ll make such a freak error a second time. And then I never did get around t oit.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I always lusted after a Commodore 64 (it was delusion to lust after a Commodore 128). But, alas, by the time I’d saved up the money they were as obsolete as a Palm Pilot. I have been on the technology treadmill ever since, trying to keep up with the ever-changing technology landscape.

        Anyway, you should dust off the old Commodore 64 and try retyping in that compiler. Who knows? The second time may be the charm. Or, alternatively, surely there is a Commodore 64 emulator that runs on a PC out there somewhere. Could be hours of fun for the entire family. (Or not)

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        1. You know, I do still have my Commodore 128. When last used, the video chip was a little screwed up, in that the character font was gibberish. But I’d typed in a program that swapped out to a user-defined font, and set that on a self-booting disc, so I could start up and get things usable. I’m … not sure which disc that was now, but fortunately, they all have labels on them. They’re all blank, but they have labels.

          Running through an emulator might be the better use of my time.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Perhaps, but there is just something about good old-fashioned hardware that pleases the senses in ways that an emulator can’t. I’d vote for resurrecting the real Commodore 128, but that’s just me.

          Either way, I hope you have loads of fun! Be sure to post the results.

          And you’re quite right: everything should have a blank label on it. Otherwise it’s just chaos.

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        3. Might be worth it. There’s something in those old-fashioned keyboards that modern ones just don’t match. That would be Commodore’s very funny ideas about quality control and manufacturing processes.

          Liked by 1 person

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