Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The TRS-80 (and…me?) in March 1978

It took me a while to recognize the context of this photograph. Well, I'm still not sure. The person who sent it to me attached a date (1978 March), which allows me to reconstruct a playlist of the popular music of the day as I attempt to recover the memory. That doesn't really help much.

I guess it shows some high school students with a local programmer friend who later moved to Vegas. He is evangelically helping us write a BASIC program for the TRS-80. It seems to be a formula for the calculation of the volume of a cylinder or cone. I don't remember this, but it looks like one of the few meetings of the Science Club which I started. Incidentally, in our first Science Club meeting, investigating ESP, we set up a code which allowed me to appear to claim powerful psychic powers (hint: "What is it now?"=diamond, "What do you think?" = plus, "Now what is it?" = circle, etc.). That mindf_ck had blown them away until we de-briefed them.

The TRS-80 was $400 or so. Accessories could cost much more. We were lucky that the science teacher had the school bought one, probably shortly after this. There were about 2 of us who knew how to use it. I remember writing a little algorithm to calculate the Golden Mean. Another program I wrote searched for and printed prime numbers, indefinitely. Just type RUN and let it go. A video game I wrote had a castle tower with a cannon that fired at an approaching tank. Shots from both followed proper parabolic trajectories (it seemed important) in the 128x48 block screen. Weirdly, the spaces for each letter were also like a "pixel" we could turn on and off. All software we wrote was saved to cassette tape! The BASIC programming software was written by a little company called Micro-Soft, I think. Somewhere out in California two guys named Steve were starting another computer company called "Apple". Apple was considered more expensive but even the TRS-80 could set you back $8000 in some configurations.

Universities were still using punched cards and mainframes. I took a few classes like that. Remember dropping out of a COBOL or FORTRAN class in 1982 when I was broke. I had already switched from astrophysics to computers to sociology before trying some anthropology and deciding on Linguistics and Psychology. I stayed enrolled in Japanese even though I had to drop the other classes I couldn't afford with a part-time job. I remember saying that I would get back into computers when you could get the Library of Congress in a computer the size of a book. I didn't use computers much from the 1980s (except for data entry at work) until 1994.

I don't feel too nostalgic. Actually it makes me feel a little sick. I like the present. I don't often look back so it is strange and interesting to do so. The Java applet TRS-80 emulator link below is awfully interesting, though. I wonder if that would run on a cell phone?

TRS-80 links:

Here are Jeff Vavasour's TRS-80 emulators including ones that let you run TRS-80 BASIC programs in a Java applet in your browser. There's a software library including Lunar Lander (completely text based). This is weird, but it is nice to see 1970s-style BASIC level 1 programming kept alive.

Before writing anything, some of us will need to review the commands.

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