Sunday, 13 January 2008

How I Got My Start In Computing

The news that one of the designers of the BBC Micro Computer had been given a CBE in the New Years Honours list got me reminiscing about how I got started with computers.

I had my first computer, a Dragon (I've no idea if it was the 32 or 64 kilobyte version) for about a week. It wasn't actually mine but rather it belonged to my cousin Andrew. My Dad borrowed a bunch of Queen LP's from him (including the rather fantastic Flash Gordon) and in the box with the records was the Dragon. I honestly don't remember much about this computer other that it came with a version of BASIC and I remember writing my first "Hello World" program and being intrigued by the fact that I could control the computer, albeit in a limited way.

The first computer I actually owned was an Acorn Electron that was a Christmas present (shared with my brother). The Electron was a fantastic computer and had some brilliant games given it's rather limited 16K of RAM. The Electron was the computer on which I learnt to program. There was a brilliant magazine "Acorn User" (other Sheffield University graduates might find the contents page from Issue 12 interesting) that had program listings for you to type in (usually for small games) which gave me lots of examples to work from. One of the most interesting pages was the "10 Liners" -- programs that were at most 10 lines long, which often included really useful tricks to keep the length of the program down and hence fit more into memory. I have no idea what the first useful thing I coded was but I do remember the first time I altered someone else program.

With some games you could actually get at the source code which opened up all sorts of interesting possibilities. Over the years I made a number of modifications but the first one that was successful was changing the speed of thr evil gorilla in Killer Gorilla. Killer Gorilla was a version of Donkey Kong for the Electron and I simply found and changed the value of the variable that controlled the speed of the gorilla. In fact I was so successful that the gorilla hardly moved at all, although when I got to somewhere around level 30 I reached the stack level of the electron and the game crashed with (I think) a GOSUB error!

The Electron was eventually replaced by a BBC Model B with a double sided 80 track 5 1/4 inch floppy disk drive. Only when you have loaded programs from audio cassettes can you truly appreciate how much of a step forward floppy disks actually were. The Model B and Electron were mostly compatible with each other and so I continued to play the same games and tinker with the same programming ideas for a number of years until the PC became more popular in schools and homes.

Why not take a stroll down memory lane, grab a BBC emulator and then have a look for your favourite games of yesteryear.

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