Remembering the home computers of the 1980s


I wanted to share my experiences in home computing in the 1980s. I may not remember it quite right, but I remember it at all. You, I can’t trust to remember my experiences at all. I mean apart from my dad, who tells me he reads these things. But as I remember it, what he would remember is I disappeared into my room for up to 84 hours at a stretch. I’d emerge just because the groceries needed to be put away. And by putting them away myself I could put things in the freezer correctly, unlike everyone else.

Also I could get dibs on the microwave fried chicken. The microwave fried chicken was awful, understand. But it was convenient. Also the thighs would taste weird, which is not to say the same as good. But if I didn’t get away from the computer, someone else might eat that first. I don’t know whether my dad remembers this, but it’s got little to do with my computer experience. It would have looked the same to him if I spent all that time in my room re-reading the Star Trek comic book where the Excalbians went to Space War with the Organians because they were bored.

Big thing to remember is that how you got software was different. There were all these magazines that offered the promise of neat stuff, like, going around riding a dragon. And anyone could play this, if they just typed in six pages of three-column column text and didn’t get too much of it wrong. Then it turned out to be fun for maybe one-fourth the time you spent typing it in. Not everything was games, no. If you had a Commodore 64 you could type in programs that would let you use the graphics and the sound on the Commodore 64. It wouldn’t help you have anything to draw or … sound out. But if you ever thought of something, you were ready. Sometimes we would swap out the ROM version of the computer’s operating system for a RAM copy that was identical, except it didn’t throw a fit if you tried to find the ASCII value of an empty string. There were reasons this was important.

Still, games were great, because the only other software out there was spreadsheets and word processors. It still is, but now the spreadsheets and word processors are in a web browser so annoying ads can flash at you. But if you didn’t want to type in a game, you could get a professionally made game.

Compute! magazine issue #90 cover, showing a watercolor illustration of a kid riding on the shoulder of a large green wyvern, to advertise the text-adventure game The Hermit.
What rational person could resist getting this magazine and typing in the cover program? I mean, the chance to load, run, rename or delete IBM files at the touch of a key? Paradise! Fun fact: you could speed your Atari up to 30% just by tilting it backwards so as many electrons as possible were running downhill.

Thing to understand about computer games back then is that nobody ever bought them. You just … got them … somehow. Not really clear how, or who from. But they came on tape cassettes or on discs that a friend loaned you and that you copied, or that they copied and gave you. There were stores that claimed to sell software, yes. They had welcoming names like Professor Technofriend’s Software Empori-fun. Doesn’t matter. They never sold anything. The top-selling game of the 80s, Broderbund’s Karateka, saw sixteen copies sold in stores. There was never a game for the Amiga that sold. Game companies didn’t even try. They just gave the gold master disc to someone who knew this guy who worked(?) somewhere (??). He’d crack the copy protection and then make a kabillion copies with a fun message on the first screen. Every playground would have copies, although there was only one kid in school who had an Amiga. So that oversaturated the market.

The traded tapes, though, they’d have like 428 games on them. This seems like great value, what with them being free. The drawback is the games were mostly boring. There’d be, like, tic-tac-toe only it’s a grid of four rows and columns. Or Blackjack, except there’s no graphics or placing bets and you can’t do that thing where you split a hand when you’re dealt doubles. You’d just press space and watch numbers come up in a row until someone busted. In hindsight, I don’t know how it is I spent so much time on this. Oh, well, there was a Wheel of Fortune game that was great. It was even better after I memorized all six puzzles and could start solving puzzles after five letters. I typed it in from a magazine.

I know this all sounds ridiculous. But if it weren’t ridiculous we wouldn’t have done it. This is still true.

Statistics Saturday: 80s Computer Magazine Titles, So Far As You Know


  • Pet Finder (1978 – 84)
  • TI Times (from 1982, TImes)
  • CompuMonthly
  • Adam’s Friends
  • bits (1976-86; BITS2000 1986-93)
  • Mo/Demonstrator
  • Save**
  • DigiToday
  • P.O.W.E.R. (1981-84; P.O.W.E.R.plus 84-86)
  • CompuMonthly’s Apple IIGS Galleria
  • Lotus 1-2-3 Gazette
  • Transputer WorkLife
  • baud121
  • CHKin
  • SoftWhys
  • CompuPlus (1980-84; P.O.W.E.R.plus 84-86)
  • Maryland 8 Bit Computer User Group Quarterly (1982?-85?; disputed 87?, possibly M16CUG Quarterly 1989?-??)
  • TRS-81 (1979-81)
  • DigiTomorrow
  • ML Express

Omitted for clarity: Hires and STart which I thought I was making up but turned out to actually exist.

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.

How I Overcame The Face In My Room


M J Wright was writing about the tendency of people to see patterns where there aren’t any. It’s put me in mind of something from back in my days as a teenage boy. I also spent my nights as a teenage boy, back then. It seemed the best use of my time. But you should bear in mind that as a teenage boy, I was nevertheless a teenage boy, so my judgement was bad. I don’t mean it was the kind of bad judgement that leads to stories which include non-metaphorical uses of the word “plummet”, or leave one barred from joining a military service or entering any Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips ever. My judgement was an ordinary, low-level sort of bad.

For example, I would spend hours typing in the programs listed in Compute!’s Gazette for the Commodore 64. See, back then a major draw for computer magazines was they’d give you the code for programs to do stuff like play versions of Arkanoid but with worse graphics and no sound. All you had to do was type in hundreds of two- or three-digit binary codes perfectly. Compute!’s Gazette was a really special magazine, because it insisted on putting an exclamation point just before the apostrophe s. I just know that offended copy editors, back when there were copy editors.

The work-to-play ratio got a lot better about a year after I got a Commodore 64 that was basically fine but some of the keys were wrong. That’s because I finally got a Datasette. This was a tape recorder optimized for use by the Commodore 64 by having a plug the right shape for it. So I could finally type in a program once and then re-use it sometime later. I know this doesn’t sound like much now, but remember the times. It was an era when the computer had sixteen colors, and three of them were grey.

Sometimes I’d even use them. Not necessarily. I once spent an evening typing in the code for the word processor SpeedScript 1.0, even though I had already typed in SpeedScript 3.2. Why would I do this? Well, I had the magazine with the code for SpeedScript 1.0 in it and it was just sitting there waiting for someone to type it in. And it wasn’t like my wrists could be expected to pick up a repetitive strain injury on their own. As I say, I was a teenaged boy.

Anyway. I had a small television set with rabbit-ear antennas in my bedroom. I hung aluminum foil on the ends of the ears to improve the reception a tiny bit. Mostly I wanted the thrill of having rabbit-ear antennas with panes of aluminum foil on the ends. I thought that made it more rabbit-ear antenna-y. Remember, teenaged boy.

One night I noticed that, through the light from outside, one of the sheets of foil had a clear human face in it. I realize I know what face, too: it was pretty obviously Destro, from G.I.Joe. And this annoyed me because I knew if I tried to draw a face it wouldn’t be anywhere near so well-formed as that. I never tried drawing Destro much. I did, some, in making my own awful comics. I had wanted to point out ways that minor procedural changes would have allowed many of Cobra’s evil schemes succeed. But I figured out drawing comics was easier if I just drew landscapes, word balloons, and explosions. The people could be skipped. And eventually I figured out that I had no responsibility for correcting Cobra’s blunders.

Still, this aluminium-foil Destro was there every night, teasing me. All my powers and slight concentration couldn’t do a face nearly as realistic or as expressive as this thing created by breezes and fiddling with the antenna. It wasn’t all I thought about in bed, but it was something to nag at me every night.

So finally one day I crumpled up the foil and flattened it out again. This eliminated the face for good, and I can draw a better Destro that that, I assume. I think this was the right thing to do, but remember, I was that teenaged boy.

I know what this has you all wondering. Of course I never typed in SpeedScript 2.0, because that was only offered as a special bonus to people who bought the Compute!’s Gazette Disk. So far as I know there was never anything for the public to type in.

Statistics Saturday: Why There’s Not Commodore Computers Anymore


Among the problems, 'some of the keys are wrong', 'computer was on fire', 'was actually a papier-mâché box containing a modest number of irked but mellow bees'. Commodore had problems.
These results are for the main computers although the results were pretty similar for people buying disc drives, Datasettes, or printers.

I must say that as a Commodore 64 owner from way back it pains me to admit this, but, boy were they kind of a dodgy outfit. Also technically speaking my Commodore 64 was basically fine although some of the keys were wrong, but not in really important ways. Years later some of the ROM chips broke, but they were ones I could fix in software.

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