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My Learning Curve


Oh Randy! Dave's computer wants to know if yours can come out and play Star Trek?

My First Micro

As best I can recall, I purchased my first microcomputer system in April of 1976 (or was it 1977?). At the time I lived outside of Fairbanks, Alaska but traveled back to Dallas, Texas, my original home, every few months to take care of family business there. It was in Dallas that I met Dave Wilson, the owner and manager of one of the first, if not the first, microcomputer retail stores in Dallas, The Micro Store. I'll talk more about Dave later but here is what I ended up buying - full assembled - to take back to Alaska:

bulletVector Graphics Vector 1 chassis, 8080A CPU board and system monitor/PROM board
bulletThree 8K static RAM boards for a total of 32K memory (originally ordered with just two Processor Technology 8K boards but added another 8K board of a make I don't remember before taking delivery
bulletA Processor Technology 3P+S serial and parallel I/O board
bulletiCOM FD3700 dual 8" floppy drives and interface board
bulletiCOM FDOS disk operating system
bulletLear Siegler ADM-3A display terminal
bulletBASIC ETC - a BASIC language authored in part by Dave Wilson which would run under the iCOM disk operating system

I did not feel confident enough to build any of the components of this original system, so the cost was not cheap, especially full assembled and tested - more than $6000. This may have included some other accessories and almost certainly some books and magazines, that I don't remember now, but it was a very significant investment.

I packed it all up after a few days of playing with it in Dallas and put it onto an airliner as luggage and returned home to Fairbanks. I quickly found out I had one of the more sophisticated and powerful micro systems in the area. This was great except it meant there was no one to turn to for help as I learned to use it. So began the steep learning curve, which, I suppose, has never ended to this day.

My First Kit

Once I had mastered (!) the basic operations of my new system, I was eager to add to it. However, it seemed that many of the more interesting boards and things were generally available only as kits. I also found out quickly that owning a pair of rare and pricey floppy disk drives didn't mean you could buy software on compatible floppy disks. NO - most software was sold on cassettes, which were the more affordable form of mass storage used by lesser micro systems than my own.

Well then, why not get my feet wet buy building an audio cassette I/O board? Based on some discussions with Dave in Dallas and my own experience with the Processor Technology I/O board I already owned, and taking into account the popularity of their Computer Users Tape System (CUTS or sometimes CUTER) and its supported formats, I purchased a CUTS kit. I was surprised how relatively easy it was to assemble the kit, having had a little experience soldering - but the real fun was trying to decipher some parts of the assembly instructions!

Finally, the kit was finished and basic tests indicated that it was actually working, however, the software to allow it to read and write programs and data to and from a tape recorder was provided only on punched paper tape (which would be fine if I had a teletype or paper tape reader - but I didn't then) and secondly, as a printed listing of the program in 8080 assembly language. Having no choice, I spent several days typing in and correcting the source code for the tape program from a copy of the company newsletter, ACCESS - constantly running it through the assembler and going back to fix the numerous typos and other errors I managed to insert. After a good bit of work, I finally got it to run and was able to save it onto a floppy disk for future use in reading new software.

That First OS

I really should say a few things about operating systems back then. Basically, you were lucky if you got one at all! Of course, if you did have floppy disks, there was a primitive disk operating system (DOS - egad, is that where it came from!) but if not, you had at best, a "system monitor" program in a ROM (Read Only Memory) which allowed you to enter and display the contents of memory and usually, perform basic tape reads and writes to load programs to/from audio cassettes.

My iCOM FDOS was rather primitive, although I didn't realize it then, as it did not reclaim and reuse space from deleted files on the floppy, unless you specifically issued a "Pack" command to do so. I plan to include some of the documentation about my iCOM disk subsystem and FDOS, as time allows. When I do, I'll link to it from here.

More Soon...

I'll continue the story, if you care - or even if you don't - when I get more time. Thanks for dropping by and listening to my ramblings. I hope they have been either interesting or amusing. Randy


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