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I was Newly Digital

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This article is over 17 years old. It's possible that the information you read below isn't current.

It started with a Texas Instruments TI-99/4a computer. We had to drive 85 miles to Computerland in Reno to get it because to the stores in our small town didn’t sell so much as a Pong machine. I don’t remember much about the store except I didn’t understand why we were there and like any kid, I hated shopping and wanted to leave. But then my dad carried out the big box with the cool pictures on the side and my excitement started to grow.

My friends Shane and David each had an Atari 2600. We would play Breakout, Pitfall, and other games. The games were interesting, but the graphics quality was lacking. Since the local grocery store had an Asteroids arcade game, I knew it was possible to have games where ships looked like ships instead of square blocks. One look in the bag of game cartridges held by my dad showed me I was right. There were space games that had real space ships. Cars that had wheels. I couldn’t wait to get home and try it out.

At home Dad hooked the computer up to the TV and showed me how to work it. Flip this switch to change the TV input from antenna to the computer. Put in the cartridge, turn on the power. We played Parsec, Tombstone City, Alpiner, and Car Wars for hours. Dad had gotten the TI speech synthesizer module, and our games actually talked to us. My friend’s Ataris had never done that.

After a few months of using the TI-99 as a game system I started to read the books that came with the computer. What else could this thing do? What I discovered is that the keyboard had a purpose beyond typing in my initials for game high scores. I could type in a few strangly-worded phrases and the computer would draw lines on the screen and make sounds. It was my first introduction to programming, and I loved it. The only thing that kept me from writing more complex BASIC programs was that the computer had no storage at all. Once the computer was turned off, my work was gone forever.

Sure, I’d try to keep it alive by leaving the computer on for days at a time, but it wasn’t a practical solution. Sometimes the power would fail. Sometimes a well-meaning parent would notice the computer had been left on and would turn it off. Whatever the cause, the result was always the same. Hours poured into creating a simple game or teaching the computer to sing a melody were gone.

Eventually we got a casette tape drive so I could store my programs and save my place in Tunnels of Doom or Adventure. My prgrams grew in size, no longer constrained to how much I could type in one sitting. With rural power outages, I quickly learned the value of saving my work, first on the tape drive and later on the floppy disks of the school computers.

A lot of the fundamentals of my computing life and career can be traced back to my time with the TI computer. Save your work, plan what you are going to build before you start to work and test it when you are done. In other words, measure twice, cut once.

May 31, 2003 5:16 PM

Adam, Cool project. Thanks for arranging it. Though after reading your entry and the others, I'm really feeling my age. Most, but not all, of my contemporaries have stopped using computers except for email or casual browsing. Why is that? What is it about getting older that keeps people from playing with machines? And I wonder if the same will happen to your and Pirillo's generation?

Brad Choate
May 31, 2003 7:28 PM

I could have practically cut and pasted your entry for mine. I also grew up in a small, rural town. And an hour-and-a-half from our Computerland (were there any other PC store chains back then?).

Trackback from
June 1, 2003 5:13 AM

Newly Digital

Excerpt: An essay about my early digital experiences. Warning: dripping with personal nostalgia.

June 1, 2003 9:34 AM

Thanks for setting up this project. :) These stories are great; yours is kind of like mine (what else does this thing do?) How come there aren't any women on your list of eleven? (Not bitching, just curious)

Adam Kalsey
June 1, 2003 10:37 AM

I've been asked that a couple of times. Why are there no women, and why is everyone from the US? First, everyone's not from the US. Dan James and Steven Garrity are from Canada and Anders Jacobsen is from Europe. As for women, it wasn't a conscious decision on my part to exclude women. I wanted to keep the initial list small so that it would be a bit easier to organize. There were lots of people that I wanted to hear from, but I needed a manageable list. That's why I set up TrackBack -- so that people could add their own stories. I realize that I don't know all the interesting people on the Web and I couldn't invite them all personally. Instead I opened up an invitation to all the world, so that interesting people would find me.

Roger Benningfield
June 2, 2003 8:15 AM

I wish I could find my old 99/4A... I'm a packrat, so it seems strange that I would have gotten rid of it. It's probably sitting in an ancient box somewhere, under a stack of a dozen other boxes, deep within the recesses of a storage building at my dad's house. Geez. Now I'm depressed. :)

Adam Kalsey
June 2, 2003 8:21 AM

You can get your hands on one for about $10 through eBay.

October 10, 2004 8:27 PM

Wow, you had a computer similar, if not exactly like my first one (hooks up to the TV, had to save via tape -- which I didn't have, best for playing games.) I still have it, sadly enough. This is an interesting feature... I think I'll type up my experiences with the machine (even if you posted this a year ago, and most likely isn't going to notice it).

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