Tiny Basic, Signetics 2650 and a SC/MP: HalfByte’s early days

I am sitting here, banging away on a run of the mill HP Windowsc03742269 computer. It has a decent set of specs for today, but is no match for even a low end gaming PC or a research oriented computer. For the few games I play, the Internet browsing, code writing and Microsoft Office tasks, it works well.  Compare it to the comptuers that I started out with, however, it might as well be a Cray Supercomputer. 

Indeed, this AMD based HP would be the hottest thing in 1974, the year I can remember first ‘using’ a home computer (or, actually, ANY kind of computer.)  Back then, home computers were barely out of science fiction. In fact, that first computer was the Mark 8 ‘mini’ computer first showing up on the pages of Radio-Electronics Magazine.  It was an Intel based 8008 ‘beast’.  It was something that my Dad was working on and, once it got to a bootable point, I was hooked.

mark8_re_coverIf I remember correctly, this thing was a pain in the butt to use. Just to ‘boot’ it up, you had to key in a sequence of sixteen bytes, one bit at a time, on the front panel.  Once they were keyed in, the computer would start.  My Dad had this ‘TV Typewriter’ that we used to talk to the computer. It was, in reality, a Serial based video terminal, but it was new then.  A fellow by the name Don Lancaster designed it. My Dad bought the bare board and built it himself. That’s how things were done, you did not go to a Best Buy and just buy one. No, you built it.

So, this computer couldn’t do much.  My Dad bought something called ‘SCELBI Tiny Basic’ on a paper tape.  He had scrounged (something he was very good at) a paper tape reader and we were able to load this program into the computer. He would painstakingly key in a Tiny Basic program that I could then use.  I was only nine at the time, so programming was not something I thought about, but I was intrigued.

Fast forward a year and my father built another, more powerful, cTinyTrekBasicListingomputer. This one, a sixteen bit behemoth, was based on the Signetics 2650 microprocessor.  Man, this thing was great.  Signetics made them for quite a long time and they special because of their architecture: 16 bit internal, 8 bit bus.  It was unique among a sea of ‘me too’ chips.  More importantly, there was a dynamite version of Tiny Basic for the chip. This is when I started to figure out this programming thing.  It was addictive and started purely by accident.  See, my Dad was an engineer and built a lot of things. But, he was not good at this programming thing.  He, one day, gave me a program listing, the Tiny Basic manual he had printed out and told me to figure out how to get the program listing to work with Tiny Basic.  It was a Lunar Lander game from a very famous (at the time) book: Dave Ahl’s 101 computer games in Basic. I figured out that some statements just would not work, which ones needed small changes and I even figured out how to make some work by making a ‘gosub’ function-which is what I called a subroutine then.  It took me several weeks, but i got the game to work. Then, I found out, that my Dad already had a version that worked and was specifically for that version of Tiny Basic.  At first, I was upset. All that time I wasted.  Something struck me though…I had a blast making it work.  That is what he had hoped would happen. 

It paid off too.

Now, I had the bug in me. I WANTED to figure out and learn this programming stuff.  I started making small programs…mostly code that made Tiny Basic do thing it was not supposed to do. Like string handling and ‘graphics’ by making the cursor move about the screen and ‘drawing’ with ASCII characters.

I also got my very own computer. 

That computer, based on the National Semiconductor SC/MP, had 16k of RAM (quite a bit then) and a version of Tiny Basic called NI/BL.  Nibble, as I called it, was quite sophisticated for its day. Written for control applications (the SC/MP was an industrial controller, much like the ATMEL line of microcontrollers) Nibble was able to directly talk to the hardware, had the DO-UNTIL construct for looping, direct memory addressing, direct serial line addressing and memory management.  The computer also a cursor addressable video terminal and cassette I/O, which required me to write a ‘loader’ application in Nibble.  I could save my code just by typing LIST and pressing record, but I had to write code to load it back because the cassette was too fast for the input routine of Nibble.  I had to read the tape, 128 bytes at a time, poke it into a memory page, wait 1 second, and get more code.  The cassette was controlled by a relay, so I could start and stop it as needed. A 2K program took a couple of minutes to load, but it was much faster than typing.  I eventually had a paper tape reader and punch as well.

Ferguson-BigBoard-IBy now, my Dad had a disk drive based Z80 computer and something called ‘CP/M’.  It was a computer made from the ‘furgeson big board’.  The Big Board was very close to the design of modern day motherboards: integrated memory, cpu logic, video terminal and disk controller on one board.  Prior to that, we used the ‘S-100’ bus.  In this setup, the ‘motherboard’ only contained the connectors for the bus itself and no real logic.  Some had a power supply, most did not.  Each piece of the computer was on a separate board.  The Big Board, however, had it all on the SAME board.   It was very cool and was used as the design in the first real ‘personal’ computer from Xerox: the Xerox 820.  I had one.  My dad was able to get the board and built it into a desk, along with two 8 inch disk drives, keyboard, monitor and a printer.  I was set now.  In the interim, I also bought a ZX-81 and got a TRS-80 Color Computer. But, the Xerox is what I did my ‘real’ stuff on and the others were relegated to games or collected dust. 

But…

Before the Xerox 820, my passion was the ZX-81 because I BUILT IT.  zx81adI bought the kit with money got back on my very first income tax refund.  Yep. $99 was sent to Sinclair for the kit.  Wow, I built it and…it did not work.  In looking at my work and the schematic, my Dad figured out that I was missing a resistor…to pull the Z80 reset pin low (I think) which allowed it to start up. I may have that backward, it has been so long. Once I soldered the resistor into place (there was a spot on the board, and it was on the schematic, but it was missing from the parts list and instructions) the Zed Ex came to life. I was thrilled. My Dad, he was unimpressed.  Not sure why, but he always hated Sinclair and anything Uncle Clive ever did. That little computer was awesome. To this day, I wish I still had the six or so that I had (I collected them for a bit, was going to make something great…never did.)  This thing introduced me to wanting to get into electronics more, but that waited until recently with my Arduino stuff.

The TRS-80 Color Computer also grabbed my heart.  I had one well into the late 1990’s or early double 00’s.  I don’t remember when, but I gave it to some kid at a hamfest.  Games, peripherals, the computer, etc.  He was so excited. I hope it inspired him. At any rate, the CoCo introduced me to GUI’s too.  I wrote a couple in Extended Basic.  Went on to write one in assembler, but it sucked.

Looking back, however, I think I was happiest on that 2650 and the SC/MP. They were, comparatively speaking, so basic and so primitive and the things I could do with them. Man, that was exciting. Exciting enough to keep me interested (well, there was that time when I discovered the opposite sex, but that is something for another time…and blog) in pursuing programming as a career.

I look back with much fondness and some sadness as well.  Those were the days when I bonded with my Dad.  Learned quite a bit and was genuinely excited.  Names like Les Soloman, Don Lancaster and Dave Ahl were the ‘rock stars’ of my world.  They were among the founders of the home computer revolution that you never hear about. Sure, I saw Microsoft rise, witnessed Apple’s few innovations (Apple ][, Apple //c) and saw IBM create an entire industry (the Wintel computer) but, more importantly, that time with my Dad and a small number of class mates in high school. Neil, Patrick…you guys rock.  Sadly, though, those computers are history and my Dad…well he is too.

I miss those days.

Advertisements

Happy Birthday, BASIC, you wonderful language you!

I remember when I was ten or so years old. I asked my father a question that changed both of our lives. My Dad was an engineer. He was also what we would consider now to be a nerd. A geek.  Above all, though, he was very smart and he was MY Dad.  He could build anything out of what seemed to be random little bits of stuff.  To a ten year old, it was akin to magic.

So, what was that question?

“Dad, what’s a computer and how does it work?”

He didn’t give me a whole answer right away. If I remember, it was something like ‘a machine that can think, sort of.’ ‘Lets find out.’

Weeks later, he started getting packages. Those packages contained the magic wand, magic dust and … paper. Manuals, to be specific.

Out of those packages, my Dad built the Mark IV Mini-Computer, as written about in Radio-Electronics Magazine.  Now, this computer was primitive, even then. Something like 128 bytes of memory, which he expanded to 1K or something like that.  Anyway, that computer didn’t  answer our question.

So, he built another. And another.  That third computer, based on the Signetics 2650 microprocessor, was THE ticket.  This computer, had lots of memory (4K?) and, most importantly, had a keyboard and tv like screen. Oh, this thing called ‘Tiny Basic’.

I was hooked.  I eagerly soaked in all I could about this ‘Tiny Basic.’  I quickly learned that there were LOTS of Tiny Basics and even something just called ‘BASIC.’  So, what was this ‘BASIC’?

Simply put, BASIC was (well, IS) a computer programming language. And, during the 1970’s, it was pretty much the only way someone like myself could interact with the computer. It was easy to learn and use. I was typing in programs from my Dad’s books and magazine, having to alter them to work with the primitive version I had to use.  One day, I decided to start writing my own.  Finally, we had our answer. Collectively, we figured out what these computers were and what one could do with them. My Dad tackled the hardware, I tackled the software and, in the process, laid the foundation for my career.

And, it was all because of BASIC.

BASIC, developed in 1964 at Dartmouth University by John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz. BASIC was designed for teaching the fundamentals of programming and to make the computer more accessible to non-programmer types.  It slowly grew out of Dartmouth and, by 1970, had spread all over the country.  It gained so much popularity, that it caught the eye and wrath of many professional who held it high in disdain. No matter, the genie was out of the bottle.

In the early 1970’s, when microprocessors became affordable and home computers took off, others were writing dialects of the language to run on these tiny machines.  The most notable being Micro-Soft Basic, co-developed by Bill Gates and Paul Allen and sold by MITS for the Altair computer. Unfortunately, it was priced so high that a black market for the language began, prompting a whiny ‘don’t copy our software’ letter from Bill Gates.  Whiny, but necessary. Software piracy was a huge deal at the time.

Around 1975-76, another dialect of the language came out and this one was affordable. Tiny Basic was a grass roots effort to develop the language so that it would work in very small memory footprints and on pretty much any computer.  Numerous version were released by companies and individuals.  Tom Pittman’s Tiny Basic was probably the most notable, followed by Lawrence Livermore Labs.  Oh, and the one that Steve Wozniak wrote for the Apple ][.

Kemeny and Kurtz hated the versions of their language for microcomputers, especially those of the ‘Tiny’ variety and anything out of Micro-Soft.  See, Micro-Soft, soon to be Microsoft, supplied a version of the language for pretty much all of the big commercial home computers: Apple, Atari, Tandy, Commodore, TI, Mattel and more.  Kemeny and Kurtz wanted to reel it back in with ‘True Basic’. Unfortunately, they discovered it was not that easy to do.

As time went on, however, the language grew and became a powerhouse for professional developers thanks to the efforts of Microsoft.

Microsoft included QBasic in its DOS product. They also had QuickBasic, which could compile code into true executables. For professional development, they had the Professional Development System, sort of a forerunner to todays Visual Studio product, only it was DOS based and character mode.

In the early nineties, they introduced Visual Basic, a Windows programming environment.  Shortly afterwards, Visual Basic for MSDOS was released. I had the opportunity to develop with this version for about two years. It was such a difference from what I was used to: object oriented and event driven. Suddenly, I had to think in terms of USER control of the application and not vice-versa.  It really opened my eyes as to how truly interactive computers could be.  Its overlapping text mode windows, mouse and relational database allowed me to create some really nice front end software for the video rental chain that employed me. It was a treat.

VBDOS didn’t live long.  Time and technology quickly outdated it.  VB for Windows evolved.  VB6 became THE development platform.  VB.NET was the future. Or, so we thought.

Microsoft’s run in with Sun Microsystems over Java led to the creation of C#: a modern programming language that was modeled after java with roots in C.  Interesting combo, but it wasn’t going to go anywhere. Microsoft was just trying to rattle Sun’s chains. That was my thinking. Boy, was I wrong.  Soon, the call for C# was on the rise while VB waned.

While BASIC no longer has the draw or the need, it is still there.  There’s a growing rank of people who are using as a hobby language again.  VBScript and VBA continue to dominate in the scripting arena. You really cannot beat it to do quick, repetitive tasks. It is great for automating mundane things.

And, Tiny Basic has made a come back of sorts. It is used on microcontrollers like the BasicStamp, Arduino and the PIC family of controllers.

While many probably wished it had died fifty years ago on May 1, it is far from death. In fact, this post is a celebration of not only its birthday, but the life it gave to an entire industry and its active future. 

I can’t say how much I owe this terrific language, it is truly immense. My life has been driven by many things, but I’d say BASIC was right up there with my parents and family as the most influential thing in my life.

Happy Birthday, BASIC!