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.

Published by

Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 46 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Latterly, web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall. Currently on sabbatical. I am a priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, and I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir.

5 thoughts on “Practical things to do with a microcomputer”

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  2. I remember borrowing this book from the public library, and typing in the capital quiz game from that book. It was saved on cassette.

    When ever I messed with adjustment of the head of the tape recorder, my dad would help me adjusting it back to a position, where all my tapes could be read. He used the tape with this little quiz game to do that.

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