Tag Archives: assembly

TRS-80 Blacksburg and Pioneering

This quote from from Earles McCaul typifies the experience of many computing pioneers.

“After contacting all the ‘known’ publishing houses and finding nothing suitable, I then contacted The Blacksburg Group. Their immediate response was (paraphrased): “Well if *WE* don’t have it, would *YOU* be interested in writing it?” This unsolicited offer literally floored me.”

Earles shared his story over on David Larsen’s Bugbook blog. The first people to be aware of personal computers were the people who were already adventurous enough to manage to gain access to minicomputers like the PDPs. Groups like the Yuma Computer Club were collections of people who met to talk about, rather than touch, computers. When the first Altairs and such showed up, they were there – and not much else was. There were very few manuals. Even monitors and keyboards weren’t necessarily included, but those were shorter hurdles. Computers that could fit in a car were (trans)portable and a cause for great discussions.

Discussions were great, but to really do anything required scholastic and technical research. Trial and error was the norm. And, as Earles learned, looking for help could get you identified as an expert.

The TRS-80 was the Tandy Radio Shack computer that anyone could buy, if they were in stock.

And what program was Earles McCaul interested in? Assembly – the computer language that lives in the barely decipherable realm between the ones and zeros of machine code and the “high” level codes like BASIC. It was undoubtedly a triumph to claim to “TRS-80 Assembly Language Made Simple”, yet that was his challenge, his book, and his accomplishment.

We encourage you to read his post, and to consider how many other computers, languages, and uses were made useful by people with the authority of “Well if *WE* don’t have it, would *YOU* be interested in writing it?” 

OMSI Watches Computers Grow Up

First, barely a mention. Next, a short meeting or two. Within a few years, labs, field trips, seminars, workshops, and pages of possibilities – and then barely a mention. So went the integration of computers into the psyche of OMSI (Oregon Museum of Science and Industry). OMSI was one of the first organizations in the country, and maybe the world, that paid attention to what many considered a fad. And now, computers don’t generate as much attention because they have been so well integrated that we no longer shine spotlights on them. The people at OMSI helped their members then, and they are helping HCLE now.

HCLE’s founder, Liza Loop, and I are in Portland, Oregon attending the Museums and the Web conference (MW2013). Being within walking distance of OMSI was definitely a bonus.

OMSI was nice enough to let Liza Loop spend hours (I helped a bit) sifting through decades of records. The staff had even found a volunteer to collect newsletters and quarterly catalogs back into the sixties. Then, four of the staff offered their conference table as a temporary work space. Hours later, dozens or hundreds of photos had been taken to document OMSI’s public relationship with computers.

I was intrigued by what I found. Every time we found a mention of computers or programming, especially if education was specified, we took a photo of the page. In the early sixties there was very little. Flip through a lot of aging paper before setting them aside to be photographed. In the seventies, the mentions were more common, once or twice per newsletter, usually for a recurring meeting or class. There were enough pages to photo that it just made more sense to work standing. By the eighties, there were classes for kids and adults. Instead of a 1 1/2 hour class about computers, there were drawn out courses on specific programming languages. Assembly was taught to adults. Graphics programs were taught to five year olds. OMSI - Science Scope newsletter The course listings went on for pages and my camera’s batteries ran out. But I noticed that it didn’t seem to matter. Within a short while there were fewer photos to take. OMSI had ridden the wave from everyone’s a novice, to crowds dividing out of crowds to specialize in programming versus usage versus general interest, to where we are now.

Now, most people use computers without knowing binary math or assembly. Few have to deal with compilers and motherboards. We know the computers won’t work perfectly, but rather than debug and fix, we leave the diagnostics to experts, who may also not know the fundamentals of the situations they are asked to resolve. We rely on trust, perseverance, and sometimes acceptance of imperfections to get the job done. We’re trusting the computers to the point that, from at least one perspective, we’ve put them in control.

We’ve come a long way in a short time.

OMSI does pioneering work; and, they save their history. By building HCLE’s archive and database with such resources, we’ll be able to better understand how people and organizations adapt to rapid change. Rapid change is now the norm. Looking back at the history of computing in learning and education it becomes obvious that we, as a society, passed through phases; and, that we’ll pass through similar phases in other fields.

OMSI and HCLE use the past to help others adapt to the future. I thank OMSI for their help. They’ve provided a wonderful example of how a few documents can provide rich insights. We worked through dozens of folders. The HCLE collection contains about ten thousand artifacts. We know that many times that is out there in corporate archives, people’s garages, and even in other museums. Many are only stored in people’s minds. We look forward to your stores and stories being added to the HCLE database, and we look forward to the experts who will know the right questions to ask of such a resource.

For now, I’m glad I found some spare batteries, and that leafing through so many old records refreshes my memories of learning FORTRAN, the first time I used a terminal instead of punch cards, and why I was so glad that inkjet printers were so much quieter than the chatter of fan fold and dot matrix.

Building A Computing Education Museum

There’s an irony and an everyday lesson in building a virtual museum for how computers and computing became part of learning and education. Almost every step requires learning, and it requires a style of learning that didn’t exist prior to computers – which is yet another reason for a museum that saves the lessons from that transition.

I’m not a computer expert, nor am I a neophyte. I’m a geezer geek, someone who was an expert but whose specific expertise faded in importance with each software and hardware cycle. Want someone to program Fortran IV from punch cards? How about a bit of assembly code on a Harris via tape? Okay, yes, I use real computers with monitors, keyboards, and disk drives; but, soon they may give way to virtual displays, virtual keyboards, and cloud memory. The only way any of us maintain our computer skills is from usage and a reliance on Help menus, user forums, and a lot of trial and error. Those learning skills are accepted, usually grudgingly, as part of our normal routine.

Decades ago, the normal routine for learning a skill was: listen to lectures, do homework, maybe experiment in a lab, take tests, and wait for an authority figure to decree a verdict on at least pass or fail. On-the-job training existed for the hand crafts, but the rest was book learned first and exercised later. It was a model that worked for centuries. It worked because change was slow.

Computers changed all of that. In the pioneering years, computers were custom built by hand, probably by the people that would become the programmers. They had no reference books. Eventually, the computers became products that could be bought, delivered, and installed – and even had user manuals, but the programming was unique and frequently poorly documented. By the 1970’s and 1980’s stability came to hardware and software, at least enough to allow teachers to arrange classes about computers and eventually used computers for classes. But, it didn’t end there.

Now, we expect hardware to become obsolete within a few years and software upgrades to be delivered every few months. Very few take classes to manage the changes or new features. The upgrades include self-paced tours, which can’t convey all of the changes, just a few the producer wants to emphasize. We train ourselves by experimenting when our previous techniques fail. We scroll through menus hunting for remembered commands, hoping they haven’t been renamed. Calls for Help via social media may be more useful than perusing a Support web site. And the changes continue.

That self-learning describes most tasks in building a Virtual Museum. Our sites span this blog, a wiki, Facebook, Google Drive, Google+, Google Hangouts, Twitter, and the general suite of programs we use for the normal basic office functions. No conference call is immune from at least one digression as someone tries to find a file or a function or an operation. (My camera’s little green “On” light continues to glow after our meeting this morning and I can’t figure out how to turn it off without rebooting.)

Our acceptance of the self-learning task may not be apparent to anyone who entered school after 1990. I am glad I witnessed the transition, if for no other reason than I can appreciate the paradigm shifting changes that faced the pioneering teachers. No one told them how this would turn out. They helped define what to teach in-person and what can be taught by computer.

When Machines Teach by Arnold Keller

Their work is the core of what we will save with the Virtual Museum. How they dealt with transition, how students accepted the new environment, and how we all live and learn differently now will finally have a home.

I’ll be blogging more about the process and progress of how the museum is being built. For now, we’re established those footholds and foundations in this blog, our wiki, and our newborn social media platform. Each has been a learning experience. Each is an opportunity for you to watch what we’re doing and for you to share your stories and contributions. Stay tuned. There’s a lot more to come.