Tag Archives: Basic

Preserving My TRS-80 Likes Me

Things really were simpler then, at least when the topic is computing and the era was before 1980. One document in our catalog (item #1030) is,

My TRS-80 Likes Me – When I teach kids how to use it!, by Bob Albrecht.


The eight page document is “a resource guide for the elementary teacher.” Within those eight pages are example programs, fundamental computing concepts, and a playful attitude. Similar guides are possible now, but their instructions are likely to be layered on browsers, apps, and operating systems. Back then it was: boot the machine, type the code and RUN. But the guide also taught more fundamental concepts, as well as setting a tone and culture that encouraged kids to play and learn.

We’re preserving such documents so researchers and the curious can study and recall an era that redefined the way we learn.

The programs were all in BASIC. He prefaced the text with a disclosure:

“IMPORTANT NOTICE! I am not saying that the TRS-80 is the best computer for a// purposes. I am not saying the TRS-80 is the best overall educational computer. I am saying that I think the TRS-80 is the best computer that I have used (so far) to teach elementary school children, grades 4, 5 and 6, how to understand and enjoy BASIC.”

Programs start with four lines, grow to over a dozen, and end with one program that has three dozen lines. Elementary school students learned to print their name, but also how to write games and create graphics for the screen. 

At the time (1979), BASIC had been available for about 16 years. There were advocates for programming languages like FORTRAN, and for limiting classes to college students and graduates; but Bob knew younger people could learn to program, too.

As he wrote:

Why not? They control the future; so, let them control the computer, the tool of the future; give your kids this tool: let them shape it in ways unknown to us. Then stand back and enjoy!!”

One lesson that helps illustrate the fundamentals that had to be taught were “Tell them about the prompt(> ) and the cursor(-).” Cursors continue, but > prompts are hidden behind those layers described above.

Starting with such simple lessons is logical, but the more important lesson may be the attitude.

“Let the kids do all the hands-on stuff. Be patient- let them make mistakes, correct their own mistakes. and above all, encourage them to EXPERIMENT!”
“Now the fun begins.””

There may only be eight pages, but there’s enough in them to provide insights into history.

Bob Albrecht didn’t do all of the work. As he said in an interview we posted earlier, “people like Gerald Brown and Mary Jo did such a beautiful job of pasting it up, laying it out,…” The story behind the group effort leads to People’s Computer Company (our previous post), the Whole Earth Catalog, and about 32 more books on BASIC published as recently as 1996.

History is a network. Documents influence other documents. Contributors contribute in more than one place, and unintentionally inspire others. There’s enough to explore whether you’re interested in early educational technology, BASIC, the TRS-80, creative hand-produced publications, or a community that mixed programming with wine tasting and Greek dancing. (Read Interview with Bob Albrecht by Jon Cappetta for more.)

Preserving such documents for researchers and the curious is why we’re creating our virtual museum. Even one edition, like this one, can provide a cornerstone from which to build broader research projects and histories. Tell us where it leads you.

Why Computers In The Classroom

Why computers in the classroom? That question is rarely asked today. Many other questions are asked. Which computers? When and how can computers be used? But it is part of modern life that computers will be in the room. Even places dense with information and things to study, like libraries and museums, have found that keeping out smartphones, tablets, and soon wearable tech is too disruptive. Getting everyone to turn off their devices takes more convincing than just saying, “Turn it off.”

November 1975 was the era after “how many classrooms per computer” and before “are students allowed to use their own (BYOD)”. The people at People’s Computer Company asked the right question at the right time.

Scroll through the PCC edition

People’s Computer Company

recently scanned and added to Stanford’s Digital Repository. Stop at page 28 (after skimming past pages that have layouts with high levels of innovation.)

“I believe that most teachers are overwhelmed by the dilemma of what to present to their students. They are aware that their material will be used by more students more often and they conclude that it must be prepared with a proportionate increase in care. In addition, the teacher is a learner on each new machine and often hesitates to step down to the role of classmate.” – Liza Loop

That quote from Liza Loop (founder of HCLE) could be copied and pasted into today’s debates. Evidently, we haven’t made much progress in the last few decades, despite the billions that have flowed to improving hardware and software. (And on certain days after certain upgrades that’s debateable too.)

This is a #ThrowbackThursday post, an informal bit of fun enjoyed by museum and library types because we have so much access to so much material. Yet, it is poignant to come across such a timeless passage while looking for images of dragons (common throughout PCC) and FORTRAN Man (an action hero based on a programming language with a sidekick called BASIC.)

We certainly do need to look back to see where we are going, and at least for this one passage, it seems that to pick up the pace we’ll have to do something differently.


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?” 

Archives To Connect – Eldon Berg

What have you stored, collected, and privately archived? Much of the pioneering work that invented ways to include computers and computing in the classroom was inspired by necessity. Little of it was documented, and most of those documents were printed on non-archival material.

We’re happy to find someone who has saved the work they did in the early computer era, and especially pleased when they’ve digitized and uploaded their collection. Eldon Berg has done that with his work. In particular, his Periodical Guide for Computerists contains lists of articles organized by topic and publication, and includes titles and page numbers. That may seem dry, but such a reference is wonderfully valuable to anyone researching the then state-of-the-art. The files are even searchable, so terms like BASIC can be queried.

The entry of computers into the classroom means educators everywhere had to find new ways to teach. Newsletters, support groups, even informal correspondence chronicled some of the work. Eldon Berg’s periodical isn’t limited to education, but by putting it online he enables researchers to access the pieces they need.

Eldon Berg is not alone. Many such personal archives exist. One of HCLE’s tasks is to connect with them to create a scholarly foundation of information that extends beyond the reach of any one archive. There will be a lot of reformatting, but the value is worth it.

If you have such a storehouse, collection, or archive and want to be included, send us a note. We’re glad we found Eldon. We look forward to finding you.

HCLE Pioneer – Bob Albrecht

HCLE wants to do what we can to honor the people who pioneered the use of computing in learning and education. Our wiki has an expanding list, and within each entry we intend to expand their stories. We’ve only just begun, and we invite you to participate.

Bob Albrecht helped start People’s Computer Company:
It happened on a nice day in the summer of 1972, probably while enjoying drinking beer with friends at Pete’s Harbor. An idea: Wouldn’t it be nice to start a periodical about personal access to computers for learners, teachers, anyone? As the beer dwindled, the idea grew.

wrote or coauthored 30+ books, including many beginner’s books about Basic

It is people like Bob that we hope to learn from, and to bring to light for those who haven’t been aware of what it took to introduce computers and computing to classrooms and students.

Bob’s an extraordinary example because he actually documented and published his insights. Thousands more tackled similar issues, but didn’t create companies, or write newsletters, articles, and books. We at least have Bob’s lessons, and even his newsletter’s motto:
Computers are mostly
used against people instead of for people
used to control people instead of to free them.
Time to change all of that.

Check out the image of the newsletter’s cover. We have it over on our wiki.

Bob’s work continues and has evolved, but the themes of making computers meet the needs of people. What’s not to like about a work called, “Play Together, Learn Together”?

We’re glad to see such people in the world, and thank them for their efforts.

Want more? Head over to our wiki. That’s what it is there for. Got something to add? Good. That’s why we made it a wiki.

Paul Trafford and His Sinclair ZX81

We were lucky enough to meet Paul Trafford at the Museums and the Web 2013 conference in Portland, OR earlier this year. We were also lucky enough to find his story, posted by him.

“Like many of my generation, I owe my first steps to Sir Clive Sincliar: initially, I started with a Sinclair ZX81, which my parents kindly bought for me for Christmas. With 1K of RAM, I was limited in what I could develop, though I was able to validate UK VAT registration numbers! Nevertheless, it was enough to introduce me to a new world and I could write my first programs – in Sinclair’s implementation of BASIC.”

It is amazing what a person can do, and learn, with 1K of RAM – if it is the right person.

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.