Practical things to do with a microcomputer

Scan of a book called Practical Things To Do with a Microcomputer

I love clearing up. Look what I found! Above is a scan of the first section of a book called Practical Things To Do with a Microcomputer by Judy Tatchell and Nick Cutler (Usborne Publishing, London, 1983). This is the first ever book about computers that I ever owned.

Back in 1983 (when I was 11) this book was packed with magic and potential and lovely computery goodness. Although it was entirely illustrated (not a photo to be seen) it still showed me pieces of equipment (peripherals I’d learn to call them) that I could only dream of, like thermal printers, robots, and acoustic couplers. Can you believe that there was also a section teaching you how to solder!

Chances are that you have a microcomputer; chances are that you are using it just now to read this blog. But what else do you use your PC for? E-mail, Web browsing, writing documents, playing games. Ever done any programming? That’s the difference between you and the youngster of 1983, they were forever programming. As this book opens:

The first thing most people do with a home computer is type in programs from its manual or from magazines.

The first thing most people do. The first thing most people do is type in programs! That’s put most modern computer users firmly in their place.

You never overhear conversations these days like,

“Have you played the latest Grand Theft Auto: Vice City add-on?”
“No, I’ve been too busy trying to write a device driver for the Red Hat Linux distribution using the binary language of moisture evaporators.”

The book goes on:

here are lots of other things you can do with a computer, though, and these two pages show some of the extra equipment you can buy to make it do different things.

Here’s what they had on offer:

  • Disk drive: a disk drive stores programs on “floppy disks”. It works faster and can store more than a cassette recorder, but is also more expensive.
  • Printer: a printer is useful for printing copies of programs to keep or give to friends, or for printing out a program you are trying to correct.
  • Light pen: you can use a light pen for computer graphics, as you can draw directly on the screen with it.
  • Controlling robots: you can use a computer to control a robot arm which picks things up, or a “turtle” which explores a room or draws pictures. You plug it into the socket called the user port, or input/output port. If your computer does not have one of these, you might be able to buy one.
  • Sending messages: you can send programs and information between computers over the telephone lines, using an acoustic coupler, or modem, to connect the computer to the telephone system. You can also receive information from a databank or computer club in this way.

Much of the rest of the book was an extended lesson in BASIC, one of the most popular translated computing languages of the 1980s. Chances are if you’ve owned a Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, BBC B Micro, Dragon 32, Oric 1, or similar then you will have at one time spent half a day typing in seven pages of closely typed BASIC and Machine Code from a magazine, only to find that it doesn’t run, and then the cassette deck has got jammed so you can’t save your work, and it’s tea time, and Knight Rider is about to come on, and there is a fight between your sibblings who want to watch TV but they can’t because your computer is plugged into the telly as you’re trying to debug 300 lines of code that look like:

DATA 255, 255, 255, 255, 254, 255, 254, 0
DATA 255, 255, 255, 255, 254, 255, 254, 0
DATA 253, 253, 255, 255, 254, 255, 254, 0
DATA 255, 255, 255, 255, 254, 255, 254, 0
DATA 253, 253, 255, 255, 254, 255, 254, 0

That’s 300 lines of code that look almost exactly the same, but because there is no Ctrl+C to copy and Ctrl+V to paste on the Commodore 64 you have to type out each and every line. Line after line after line.

I never did build that robot. Or the “bitswitch” keypad. Or the binary display project. Because, funnily enough I wasn’t allowed near a soldering iron, one page tutorial or not. Instead I just looked at the illustrations and dreamed of the day that I would own a thermal printer and an acoustic coupler.

Freecycle Network

The Freecycle Network

I can’t believe I’ve not blogged about Freecycle yet. Freecycle is great.

What is Freecycle?

The Freecycle Network was started nearly three years ago in the USA to promote waste reduction and save things being needlessly sent to landfills. It has since spread across the globe. There are now groups in countries from Argentina to Turkey, Venezuela to Australia. Here is a list of Freecycle groups in the UK; there are LOADS!

The FreecycleEdinburgh group is managed on a Yahoo! Groups site. And it couldn’t be easier to use.


When you want to find a new home for something — whether it’s a chair, a fax machine, piano, or an old door — you simply send an e-mail offering it to members of the local Freecycle group.

So for example, this evening I posted this e-mail to the Freecycle group:

OFFER: Ikea futon sofa bed (Drum Brae)

We have an Ikea futon sofa bed that we no longer need. We bought it at the Edinburgh Ikea in 2001 or 2002. It has been used very little, and then mostly as a sofa. It’s in pretty good condition.

It was slept on for one night by the writer and TV presenter Danny Wallace, if that helps tip the balance towards you claiming it!

Width: 140cm (55″)
Depth: 84cm (33″)
Height: 73cm (29″)

Width: 140cm (55″)
Length: 200cm (78.5″)

Silver tubular metal frame
Dark Orange mattress that ties onto the frame (see photo).

The mattress is in need of a little cleaning as it’s had a few things accidentally spilled on it, but it’s in pretty good nick.

To COLLECT from Drum Brae, before Thursday if possible, as the removals men come in on Friday. We could possibly deliver, depending on location.

Within 30 minutes of my posting that e-mail someone had claimed it. And just after 21:30 this evening they turned up at the door in their Rover 25, and remarkably managed to squeeze it into the back and drove off with it, for (hopefully) a good night’s sleep.

To let other Freecycle members know that the sofabed had been taken I posted an e-mail to the group again saying simply:

TAKEN: Ikea futon sofa bed (Drum Brae)


It really is as simple as that. So far, in the last couple of days I’ve managed to get rid of:

  • 1 x Futon sofabed
  • 1 x Dell Optiplex 450/MX (486 DX2 50MHz) computer
  • 1 x HP DeskJet 400 printer
  • 1 x Computer keyboard (unused)
  • 1 x Proxim ORiNOCO Silver 802.11b Wireless Card (64-bit WEP only)
  • 1 x pile of unused computer cables (15-pin to 9-pin, etc.)
  • 1 x box of old Commodore 64 games and books
  • 1 x pair of Grundig bookcase speakers
  • 1 x Nokia 6100 accessories

The people that took the sofabed and old Dell PC told me that they have recently been rehoused having been homeless for some time. It’s so good that they could benefit from our impending move. The Commodore 64 games and books are being split between a couple of retro gamers and programmers. The speakers were claimed and picked up today by someone. The rest have still to be picked up.

I’m just so glad that our trip to our local Civic Amenity Site this afternoon was taking only boxes of recycling (paper, glass, aluminium, packaging) and things that could genuinely not be of any use to anyone, regardless of how creative they might be; or in the case of our old, very dodgy 14″ SVGA monitor might be recycled elsewhere.

I encourage you to check out Freecycle. You might find a happy home for something that you never use. You might find something that you want too. But you have to be quick — my old Dell 486 was claimed within 60 seconds of my having posted about it.