My first computer

Photograph of early-1980s Apple 2e microcomputer

From time to time I may decide to write in response to one of the WordPress daily prompts. This is one of those times.

Image credit: Bilby, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1981, five years after I graduated from college with a degree in journalism (with a radio-TV-film major), I took a job with the local school district as a media technician with a grant-funded project called The Media Literacy Project (MLP). The federal grant that supported the project’s work in the district still had a year or two left in it, so I knew there was a chance that it might be a short-lived job, but I was ready for a change, and I was ready to apply some of what I trained for in college.

The MLP’s purpose was to educate teachers, students, and parents in the ways that various forms of media can be used to communicate, in both positive and negative ways. The project addressed issues with commercial advertising, political ads and propaganda, and how to evaluate the truth of media-communicated information. This was before the advent of social media, email, and the Web, so the main media sources were newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and film. The project also provided instruction for students and teachers concerning how to utilize various forms of media in their school work and teaching.

My job was to do graphic design of materials for the project, to lay out the project’s monthly newsletter, and to produce various kinds of instructional media. In some cases, I put workshops together on specific media-related topics. I was also responsible for photography, videography and in some cases, working with students and teachers to help them develop media-use skills.

One other component of our mission was to advance the use of micro computing technology and software in the district. We maintained a large library of educational software and copied and distributed floppy disks to teachers. We had a computer in our office, but aside from using it to test and copy software, we didn’t use it much. It was a black Bell & Howell branded Apple ][+ computer.

The computer fascinated me. Once I figured out how to use it for disk copying and such, I ventured into learning how to write programs for it in Applesoft BASIC. I asked my supervisor if I could take the computer home on weekends, and she was happy to allow it, and encouraged me to learn as much as I could.

Once I was comfortable programming in BASIC, I decided to take some coursework at night at the university to learn a bit more about computing and computer programming. The first language I learned there was Pascal, which I liked very much, so I went on to study FORTRAN (which I was ambivalent about) and COBOL (which I loathed) and eventually C (which opened up a much bigger world and also introduced me to the Unix operating system). At the office, I discovered that we had an Apple Pascal compiler program, so I worked with that for a while, but soon my interest shifted to programming in assembly language.

The Apple ][+ had a system monitor through which one could interact with the microprocessor more directly, but eventually I bought a symbolic assembler program that allowed me to move beyond entering values in hexadecimal code to defining symbolic variables and such. By this time I was buying books on Apple programming and assembly language and purchasing software utility programs for myself that I could use when I borrowed the computer on weekends.

My programming skills quickly advanced to the point at which I was being asked to write small programs for the project–mostly little utility programs for one task or another–and at one point one of the teachers who worked in the Chapter I Math program inquired about whether I could do some revisions to a diagnostic testing program that had been written by a programmer that worked in the administration office for the district. He had put a BASIC program together that worked, more or less, but they needed some changes made, and he didn’t want to work on it any more, so I agreed to take a look.

Around this time (spring of 1982) I was thinking about buying a computer of my own, and the prospect of working on this project was the impetus I needed to go ahead and jump in. I envisioned that there might be other freelance programming opportunities, and I somehow sensed that my future was going to be tied to computing in one way or another. The only problem was that I didn’t have the full $2300 it was going to take to get one of the new Apple //e computers with a monitor and a disk drive, and that price was a discounted educational price. My fiancé agreed to help me with the money, and the deal was done. I went to the supplier in Topeka where the district purchased all of their microcomputers, and walked out with several big boxes of technology.

To say that I didn’t get much sleep over the next few months is an understatement–there were nights when I was so deeply engaged in learning and programming and reading and tinkering with code that I arrived at work the next day having slept only a couple of hours. (That actually happened often enough that it became a problem, and I had to back off on the late-night work a bit.)

Before long I was writing code pretty much every day, sometimes for work, sometimes for fun. I did take on the Chapter I Math diagnostic testing programming gig, and quickly realized that the code was so poorly-written that there was no way I could modify it to do the things the Chapter I teacher wanted. So I decided to re-write the program, and to convert it from a text-only environment to a graphics environment, where the computer was in graphics mode all the time, and text was written to the screen as a graphic object (back in the day, text and graphics were two different modes, and it took a lot of programming gymnastics to overcome that). I created a whole suite of subroutines that handed a hierarchical menu system, dealt with writing text on the graphics screen, and created various math-related images on the screen in the diagnostic questions that required them. I also wrote an editor program that made it easy for teachers who used the program to edit the database of questions and images and answers. The biggest challenge was to write the assembly code that was necessary to drive a card-reader that was used to score the tests. The Chapter I Math program had purchased a card-reader that could be used to read specially-made answer cards, where the student blacked-in a circle with a #2 pencil to indicate their choice in a multiple-choice question. But the previous programmer never implemented that feature in the program, and there was literally no one in the district who had a clue how to make it work.

My experience with writing assembly language code came in handy in this instance, because the key to making the card reader work was to create an assembly language program to serve as a driver. It took several weeks, but I finally made it work.

When I was finished with it, the program occupied a set of about ten floppy disks (in those days, a floppy disk held about 140 kilobytes of information). The program code itself was on one disk, the editor program was on another, and the rest of the disks were mostly database disks for the different kinds of tests and grade levels. The district used that code for several years.

I went on to write a lot of code on that machine, and once I wrote a little graphics utility program and an article to go with it and sold it to one of the Apple software magazines–the ones that actually printed an entire code listing that people could type in for themselves. And all of the experience I had with that Apple //e helped me land a job at the university computer center, which launched a very interesting career in computing and technology and wide-area networking.

I can’t remember what I did with my old Apple //e, but I’d sure love to have one to play with in my old age. Among the other things that that computer did for me, it also turned me into a total Apple fan boy, and I would definitely be embarrassed to list all of the Apple devices I have owned from that day in the spring of ’82 to today.

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