More Altair memories

Today, we have things like the DVD, the CD and digital downloads that we use to get our software onto our computers.  But, back in the day, we had paper tape, cassettes, the floppy disk if we were fortunate or, most common, our hands.  Yep, we typed in program code, frequently, in order to get our software onto our computers.  The most common ‘typed in’ code were Basic language programs typed in from listings in magazines.  Because BASIC was machine specific, if you did not have that machine, you had to debug the listing in order to get it to work on your computer.  Sometimes, though, the listings were either assembler code or-worse-machine level code. 

I remember my Dad buying a copy of SCELBAL 8080 BASIC for that Altair we had.  He got the package as a paper tape as well as a fully commented assembler listing with the machine code.  Well, we did not have the paper tape reader working, so … we keyed in all 8K of the language.  It took us several DAYS to key in the hex codes.  Unfortunately, we were not the smartest people on the planet and did not frequently save our work that first day.  It was during the summer and the electrical co-op was having supply problems and, well, you get the idea.  We must have started over three times that day before we starting saving what we had keyed in. 

Since the program we were using was just the ‘monitor’ program, my Dad had to improvise with the cassette input and output functions.  He configured it so that the cassette acted as both the screen and keyboard.  Anything displayed on the screen went to the tape on record and on playback, the tape acted as the keyboard.  I remember that my SC/MP based computer worked much the same way, only way slower.

Well after about three days, we had the listing all keyed in and saved…on several tapes.  We did a memory dump and compared it with the listing, correcting typos as we found them.  Finally, we were ready.  ‘G 0100’ was the command to start the BASIC.  It worked!  I can still feel that excitement even though it was nearly thirty years ago.  My Dad had the hardest time getting me away from the computer.  He had recently installed a ‘graphics’ card, so I was busy trying to adapt some code from another magazine to work with this SCELBAL thing and the VDM 100.  I eventually got it to sort of kinda work.  The VDM 100 was not quite a dot-addressable board, but you had full cursor control and lots of special characters that you could ‘glue’ together to make ‘graphics’. 

My first SCELBAL BASIC program, that I wrote, was a Space Invaders like game I called Zap the moon man.  There were two rows of three ‘moon men’ that danced back and forth on the screen.  My cannon was stationary in the middle of the screen, but you could shoot your missile in degrees, right to left, to hit the moon men.  It was not overly fast and could not multitask, so while the missile was drawing, the moon men stood still.  Then, the moon men would move and the missile would stop.  It worked well enough to impress my Dad and the neighbors.  And myself.  I was so excited. 

Over the years, I often wish that I still had a primitive computer like that Altair.  It was a lot of fun and aggravation.  It was slow, compared to the computer I am using now.  And noisy too.  It took minutes to load a program from tape or days to key them in by hand.  But it was a fun time.  And exciting too.  This was all new stuff.

There are times I wish that I still had that same excitement.  I don’t.  Now, it’s a job, a very good job, but still a job.  Hard to get excited over the next flavor of information tracking databases or Lotus Notes.  It pays the bills, though.

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