1979-10-06 | Memory | Micro Slow
Prior to fall of '79, the only computers I had used were dumb terminals with acoustic couplers. I would play craps, Hammurabi, wumpus, and Star Trek. In '76 my dad tried to get me to do queries on the computer on the weekends. It was a Pick OS, so the queries were kind of like SQL of today. I didn't think it was very interesting. I remember seeing the Altair 8800 on the cover of Popular Electronics, but I had no idea what it was, nor had any interest. I was more interested in tromping through the woods, riding motorcycles and horses, and generally exploring.
I was quite interested in electronics, though. I was inspired by Chariots of the Gods, and wanted to build a radio that could hear the signals of aliens. I asked my dad about it, and he gave me his old scout book that had instructions for a cat whisker radio. I took that and rummaged around the junk drawer full of screws and random parts, trying to find something that looked like what I saw in the picture. I tried to build the radio with a brass plate and a wire touching it. It didn't work, of course, but my dad took me down to Radio Shack and knew enough to ask the guy for a diode. I tried with that for awhile, it still didn't work, and we then bought a full radio kit that was packaged in a little box with instructions. I tried to get that to work for awhile too. My dad told me I needed to have a good antenna, so I strung up around the trees next to our house. This also failed, so dad figured maybe it was because I had just twisted the wires together rather than solder. Dad helped me solder, but he had a large iron that was more for soldering metal. The radio never did work.
A few months after the radio failure, I used the money I made babysitting and mowing lawns to purchase a Radio Shack 200 in 1 kit. It had springs that would pinch wires connecting the transistors, resistors and capacitors together. I remember being frustrated by all of the explanations. I didn't care how the transistor worked. I just wanted to build the circuit that sounded like a bird chirping. I remember making an alarm circuit with a photo-cell. I set it up in the front yard with a flashlight shining across the grass at night, and me and my brothers and sisters would play a game where we would try and jump over the light beam.
In 1970 or so, my dad won a large console TV with a stereo for selling computers at Honewell that finally died in 1976. He said I could take it apart. This levelled me up a bit on electronics. I pulled every part. I wired the big speaker to my clock radio to supposedly make better sound. I still wasn't soldering. I just twisted the wires to the back of the speaker. Mostly, though, I spent my time wandering around the woods, riding bikes and horses, an climbing trees. I remember I would climb quite high in fir trees. I would pick the biggest tree I could find and climb until the branches started breaking under my weight. I would stop and just look out from the tree. I spent hours in the woods.
We moved to the ranch in '77. Increasingly I would tinker with electronics. I would check out books from the library that had different circuit examples. There was a pipe factory nearby that had shut down that my friend Matt lived next to. He showed me where there were electronic control panels with electronic parts, as well as a hillside where people would dump their old TVs. We would rummage around and gather parts.
In junior high, kids would give me broken radios, because they knew I was an electronics nerd. A turning point for me was when I read an article on an LED chaser project in Popular Electronics. It used a CMOS 4017 decade counter. The digital electronics made more sense to me. I would peruse large parts catalogs of TTL chips, hunting for recipes. My dad liked to go out on the boat with the family, but mostly I was bored. Once I decided I would build an electronic game to bring on a weekend boat trip so I had something to do. I took the plastic container for a socket set and put a toggle switch on each side. I created a debounce circuit for each switch (probably a set/reset circuit with 7400 NAND gates) and hooked each up to the up or down count on a 74193 counter with a 74154 that would increment the LED on the socket set containers up or down. I called it tug-of-war, and each player would just toggle their switch back and forth to increment or decrement the LEDs towards their end. When the LED got to 0 or 15 it would disable the toggle switches and that person would be the winner.
I took some of the ideas from tug-of-war, and started a bigger project. I decided to build my own Space Invaders game. It would have a digital counter at the top and a grid of LEDs representing the aliens. I would use a similar approach to the tug-of-war, but instead of just a line I would have multiple lines and detect when a scrolling shot hit the invaders and they cascaded down the 2-D grid. Microcontrollers looked very interesting to me. They appeared to do much of what I was trying to do with the Space Invaders game as far as detecting collisions. I sent in a card for an old Intel microcontroller (likely the MCS-48), but all I got was a letter back saying that manual didn't exist anymore.
I took an electonics class in high school in my sophomore year. Sunn had encouraged me to take the class, even thought it was normally only offered to juniors and seniors. The teacher, Mr. Kochel, brought in a 6800 development system with hexadecimal digit display and a keypad. He presented it to me like it was a rare golden chalice. I didn't get it, though. I read the manual about entering machine code, and nothing clicked. I had no idea what it was for, or why it was interesting. Both my math teacher and Mr. Kochel also brought in their own personal Commodore computers. Again, I had no idea why it was interesting.
On the shelf in the electronics class were technical reference manuals for different microprocessors and microcontrollers. I remember taking the AMD 2900 book home so I had something to read on the boat. I remember my dad was on the bow when we were anchored somewhere, and I was all excited about how bit-slice worked, how you could create a faster computer by a smaller instruction set. I showed him the pages in the reference manual, but he was puzzled by my focus in the setting. Why was I reading this while on a boat in the San Juan Islands? Thinking back, I don't think I really understood the books.. I just knew there was something interesting there. I read other books, including the MCS-48. I spent months pouring over them, trying to learn through osmosis, flooding myself with stuff that I didn't really understand but knowing that there was something fabulous on the other side, something that I knew would be fascinating and useful. I also remember getting the Z-80 Bug Books. I carried those around with me everywhere the following year. I remember bringing them with me to the Grand Canyon on a school trip a few weeks after I first met Sean on the hay ride.
After close to two years reading about microprocessors and microcontrollers, I finally got it enough to start my Z-80 homebrew computer project. I built a hexadecimal keypad first, that addressed 16 bits address with 8 bits data. I mounted it in a file case from an office supply store that Sunn took me to, next to a record store in a strip mall in Auburn. I bought Doobie Brothers Greatest Hits, there, as well as my own copy of Steve Martin, Wild and Crazy Guy. I also mounted two "super strip" breadboards in the top of the box.
I didn't completely understand buss states at this time. I also didn't fully understand about using decoupling capacitors. I remember showing my prototyped CPU with memory to my dad, and how I could program it, but it would skip digits when advancing, so, for instance, if you pushed a C, it would enter a hexadecimal C in bits 5-8 and 9-12. Also, when I passed my hand over the wires it would act all wonky... the lights would flicker. This was because the bus was tri-state, and it was essentially an open wire that would float to 0 or 1 depending on if my hand was over it.
I picked it up again in the cabin in 1984, put it away again until 1989, and finally built this boot loader.
This progression is similar to my interest in ontologies during the last year. I see a similar pattern where I am very excited about it, and pour myself into reading all about it, and sharing what I found out. It is fascinating, and I know there is something incredibly useful and profound behind it, but much of my effort has been naive. The advantage, now, is there are some crossover efforts like key-value pairs and analysis that somewhat translate to triples and machine learning.radio_shack computers sunn dad electronics chariots_of_the_gods ontologies
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