When computers lived in the janitor’s closet
I started school at a pretty exciting time in the history of computers. They were about to transition from being a tool for hobbyists, researchers, and the military to being something that could be brought into schools and even homes.
After finishing third grade, I took a summer school course in computer programming at the Junior High. It was the first one the school district had ever offered. I took a magic course the same summer, but the computer class was all I really remember. The class shared a single terminal that was wired into a mainframe somewhere. It was my first exposure to any kind of computer like we think of them today.
I’ve tried to figure out what computer system we may have used. I found a picture of an HP terminal that dates from that era that seems vaguely familiar to me. Argonne National Laboratory was nearby and they had deep relationships with local schools. It’s possible we were doing some time-sharing on one of their systems.
I definitely recall that it used the BASIC programming language.
I remember thinking that computers must have all the answers, right? I wanted to write a program that would allow me to ask arbitrary questions, and then the computer would give me the answer.
The instructor told me I had to program the questions ahead of time. This seemed like allowing the computer to cheat. And then I had to program in the answers too. I was quite disillusioned. My first program was one where I’d ask for the size of a baseball field, and the computer would tell me. It was always right because I told it the answer beforehand!
Even though I didn’t completely understand computers yet, I wanted one. Since I was obviously the star pupil, the instructor gave me a copy of Creative Computing magazine, which I still have today. The word “BASIC” appeared in the issue 261 times. It was a big deal back then.
This magazine turned my interest into an obsession.
The summer school instructor was right. That fall, when I started fourth grade, our school got their first ever personal computers. Although they were from Bell & Howell, they were actually just re-branded Apple II Plus computers. They came only in a sexy black color. It’s an interesting story. They were the first computers to make a significant appearance in schools, and back then, you were very lucky if your school had one.
The computers were put on carts and shuttled around to various classrooms. They were stored in the janitor’s closet when they weren’t in use! Three years later, there was a whole computer lab in my Junior High, but back then, it was two sinister black carts with black computers on them.
At first, they were making an appearance maybe once a day in classes. I wanted to spend more time with them, especially on my own. I was told to ask the librarian and I could “check out” one of the computers just like a library book.
After the last class, I’d corner the librarian, and she’d walk me to the janitor’s closet to unlock it. I’d wheel one of the black beauties to the library and goof around with it until the school closed down for the night. One of my most vivid memories is a game from Apple called Lemonade Stand.
It was effectively a lesson in small business economics masquerading as a game. You can even play it in a web browser today.
Aside from some games, I remember reading the manuals that came with the computer cover to cover. I’m one of those weird people that read manuals. The library had some computer magazines, including Creative Computing, and that’s where I continued to learn BASIC. I started by transcribing programs from the magazine and running them. Then, I’d modify them and eventually write my own.
I was the only one that ever used the computers after school for quite a long time. The librarian eventually grew weary of hiking to the janitor’s closet twice a day, so she gave me a spare key.
One day I was wheeling one of the quite expensive computers out of the closet. Including display and floppy drives, I estimate a cost of $10,000 for each system (in today’s dollars). A teacher I didn’t know confronted me as I zoomed down the hallway. She was not pleased! She dragged me to the principal’s office.
Mr Michalek, the principal, was a great guy who knew all the students, not just those in trouble. So, the teacher dragged me in front of him. When Mr Michalek saw me, he laughed and said “whatever he did, it’s fine, don’t worry about it”.
Just over 20 years later, I started at Apple.