From tiny acorns, giant oak trees grow. Likewise, seemingly trivial events and items can affect our lives.
As a kid, I had been interested in computers for a while. I think it must have postdated the appearance of the Altair 8800, which debuted in Popular Electronics in 1974 (I would have been ten or so then), but I do recall reading articles about the COSMAC ELF computer in 1976 and 1977. Quite frankly, I don’t have the faintest clue why they attracted me. Perhaps it was just the idea that you could display a picture of the Enterprise on your TV screen (in horrendously blocky black and white), and that it wasn’t absolutely impossible to imagine that I could earn enough money to build one. Some interest in this old computer still exists, you can build a version of that old ELF with lots of upgrades. Seems like fun. But I digress. Constantly.
My first computer would actually be signficantly more powerful. In December of 1980, all of my savings from a year of yard work was pooled with some additional funds that Mom kicked in as a Christmas gift, and on December 24th, I got my first computer: an Atari 400 with 16k of memory, and a BASIC cartridge.
I didn’t even have a storage device. It would take a few more months until I saved enough money to get one of the Atari 410 tape drives. I began to plunk along with BASIC, writing programs to do simple things like adding numbers, and changing the color of the screen. I also got a copy of Star Raiders. And I began to wonder, why were the BASIC programs that I was writing so… pitiful, compared to what was possible. I had begun to read articles from the computing literature of the day that hinted at things like “player-missile graphics”, and I knew a tiny bit about machine code.
This all changed with game called “Shoot”, published in Compute! Here’s a link to the article. It was like having a pocket watch, and knowing what the time was, but then one day levering the back of the watch open, and revealing the mechanisms inside. It was the source code to a game that was simple, yet clearly beyond what I was accomplishing with my forays into BASIC programming. It had the complete assembly code, available for inspection. I dutifully typed in the code, and played the game for ten minutes or so. But the real game was the code! Reading it over and over again, I learned a lot. I experimented more. I got the Atari Assembler cartridge, and then ultimately got MAC/65, a much more powerful macro assembler. I experimented. Tweaked. Hacked. Learned. And it never really stopped. Thanks to Compute! and John Palevich.