Dean Anthony Gratton
A Nostalgic Journey and a Question for You
I was reminiscing with the wife the other evening about my technology journey and, Sarah and I were both amazed at how technology has progressed so fast in such a relatively short period. So, this got me thinking: I conjectured that if, whilst at school, someone had told me that I would be using a small tablet device as thin as a rich tea biscuit to work on, to research on, to communicate with others across the globe and to play super-realistic graphic-intensive games, I would have deemed them completely insane and their notion to have been nothing more than science fiction. Today the fantasy has become a reality and the device in question? Well, naturally I’m referring to my Apple iPad Air 2 and its ever increasing capabilities.
The A, B, C and Ds of animation
But let’s rewind a few decades and explore this evolution further. As a young software engineer in the late 1980s based in Cardiff, South Wales, I was working for a gaming company, where graphics were created in a very crude and early WordPerfect document format. In fact, I created graphics with just four colours, which were represented using a combination of the letters ‘A,’ ‘B,’ ‘C’ and ‘D’. I would then ‘flash’ my graphics or images into an EEPROM (e-squared PROM) so that my software, also located in a separate EEPROM on the motherboard, could reference them when needed. To animate an object, I would first draw it, then ‘undraw’ it and, finally, redraw it again in its new position – this process was repeated until the ‘animation’ was complete (hence the early gaming flicker we all experienced); nonetheless, it was amazing stuff back then! I was also working with touch screen technology, albeit in a primitive form, unlike today’s modern experience. My touch screen then was made up of a very fine, hair-like copper mesh, where vertical hairs were over-laid with horizontal hairs which, when touched, would allude to the corresponding position on the monitor – as I said it was crude, but it worked!
With the memories flooding back I began reminiscing about these past experiences with the wife, I started to ponder on the impact that my initial contact with a computer and with technology in general for that matter had had on my life. Okay, I’m of the 80s generation – the time when we were introduced as newbie ‘tech’ consumers to an exciting world of new technology. Some of you may recall the ZX81, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, BBC Micro B and the Vic20 – 8-bit computing at its best, although at that time Sarah recalled choosing the Vic 20 for its early gaming capabilities.
Welcome Microsoft DOS 3.x
At school, I used a BBC Micro B experimenting with and developing ‘teletext’-like applications and I also used a software programming language called CESIL. I would hand-write (yes, hand-write) my source code, which was then sent off to a centre to be processed. You see, paper then was the only Integrated Development Environment (IDE)! Anyway, a week or so later I would receive, more often than not, a ‘bug’ report and would re-write my source code, correcting my mistakes, and finally submitting it again for reprocessing – a little tedious perhaps, but it was all I knew.
Later, at college I had access to a Unix-based platform, called the Perkin-Elmer – it was the size of a washing machine and was, I discovered, incredibly easy to hack, despite our lecturer reminding us to log out of our sessions. There was also a rather clunky computer, which was allocated to each student and would allow us to access the Unix machine. It was also during this period in my life that I was introduced to a ‘PC’ for the first time. It used MS-DOS 3.x and enabled me to develop my first ‘professional’ software application in BASIC called ‘Touch Typing’ which the college had commissioned me to develop for their secretarial students. I later taught myself Pascal, COBOL (don’t ask) and C, which led me to securing my first software engineering role in Cardiff.
My first ‘Hello world’ app
But all this started at 14 so let’s hit the rewind button again!
I was at Duncan and Rita’s house – friends of my parents who they would regularly visit to catch up over a drink or two, or three. Anyway, whilst there and feeling bored by their adult banter, my eyes wondered around the room. I couldn’t help but notice a small blue-grey(ish) box sitting proudly in front of their TV. It had a series of buttons that were laid out symmetrically on its surface. I later learned that these symmetrical buttons were in fact a keyboard! Now, why would I be curious? Well, as a child I always had a strange fascination about how things worked and, on that fateful day, curiosity got the better of me and I asked Duncan and Rita’s son, Michael “What’s that?” Michael answered, “A computer.” “Oh, a computer” I replied with a sense of, “I knew that” but, of course, I had no idea what it was and why it had a tape recorder connected to it. I was brimming with excitement and eager to understand more. Michael was into electronics and all things circuitry and he agreed that I could visit every Sunday afternoon to learn how to use it.
So, that’s how it all began: Every Sunday I would religiously visit Michael and he pretty much left me to it. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was playing with some BASIC-esque applications, you know, developing that classic, “Hello world!” ‘app,’ but it wasn’t until college and university where I was completely immersed into the technology journey that would lead me here today – and it’s certainly not over!
It’s all become second nature
It’s Christmas this month and my nostalgic journey of past conjecture has had me fondly reminiscing about my parents and how they purchased the same computer as Michael’s as a Christmas gift for me – it was an Oric 1 48K. I later learned it had cost over £100 which, in those days, was an extraordinary amount of money for my parents to find. I was oh-so excited when I unwrapped my Christmas day gift, tuning in my small portable Black and White TV to receive the computer display and seeing it prompt that magic word: “Ready” – it was evidently awaiting my first instruction and I couldn’t help just stare at it in awe as I immersed myself in new possibilities. It was love at first ‘byte’ (so to speak) and I found myself, looking around to make sure no-one else was watching and whispering gently to my new friend: “Hello you.”
Nowadays, it’s just wonderful how we have become so accustomed and acclimatized to our smartphones, tablets or laptops; reaching for them as if they are an old and reliable friends who have always been there. This once brave new world has become one in which we have begun to truly connect with technology.
So I want to ask the question and I hope you’ll confide in me the way I have with you. Please tell me “what was your first computer and how did your technology journey start?” A future article idea has been sown but I need your input to bring it to fruition.
Until next time…
I guess we’re all gearing up for Christmas and the New Year and, rightly so! But I can’t help wonder what 2015 will bring. In fact, I have read numerous stories surrounding the much over-hyped Machine-to-Machine (M2M), the Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, and now 5G! Yes, the next generation cellular technology is apparently on the way, even though some of us are still awaiting the arrival of 4G to our area. Anyway, there is one supposition that I think will ring true in 2015 and that’s the ‘connected car’. I will look at this next month, or perhaps I should say next year!
Have a fabulous Christmas and an unforgettable New Year – and this is where a mulled-wine seeking Dr G signs off.
Originally published in Technically Speaking.