As a member of Generation X, I grew up in a time when consumer products were making the transition from Analog to Digital.

This was a time when the Stereos of our parents often included a Turntable and Eight Tracks slot, while the Boom Boxes we bought were equipped with dual Audio Cassette players.

Many of us continued to stay with those inexpensive analog devices long after digital Compact Discs were released for the simple reason that CDs and CD players were priced at a premium.

That, and many of us had extensive audio cassette libraries, some created after unwittingly signing up for the Columbia House Penny Deals.

We were also the first generation of kids able to play Arcade Games at home on our Televisions, with the release of the first game consoles by Magnavox, Mattel, Coleco, and Atari.

Two original Atari VCS (2600) boxes from Shawn's collection

Another new and popular product released during this time was the first generation of Personal Computers from companies like Sinclair, Apple, Commodore, Radio Shack, and Texas Instruments. It was on PC's like these that many Gen Xers discovered they had a passion for programming.

I still remember my older brother's excitement of saving up for and buying a Sinclair ZX81 computer, and my mother coming home with a brand new TI-99/4A. As for me, my first personal computer was the Commodore VIC-20 which initially cost $300 ($830 today) but was quickly discounted due to the fierce competition.

A Commodore VIC-20 Box, front and back, from Shawn's collection

It was on my VIC-20 that I learned to write my first lines of code thanks to the extremely well done user manual which shipped in every box.

Commodore VIC-20 User Manual from Shawn's collection

Some of my first programs were inspired by the movie War Games, which hit theaters in 1983. Since there was no game based on the movie, I decided to write my own “suite” of games like those found in the movie.

This lead me to code my first video game from scratch, which was Tic-Tac-Toe. In my version you played against the computer, and once my coding was finished the best you could hope for was a tie. This exercise was a tremendous learning experience for a young teenage geek, one which I had some many “a-ha moments.”

While Shawn's original VIC-20 was fried when lightning hit his phone line, this model is the exact same vintage as his original.

After completing Tic-Tac-Toe, I then skipped all the other games found in the movie and jumped right into trying to code the Global Thermonuclear War game. Unfortunately, this is where I ultimately got stuck, but not due to a programming problem.

For some reason, my data storage device (a Commodore Cassette Drive) would not reliably save any program over ~14K. So after a couple of multi-hour coding sessions we're lost to failed saves, I threw in the towel on my goal of gaming world dominance.

Shawn's goal of producing the game Global Thermonuclear War ended when his program got too big to save onto cassette tape using a Datassette unit like the one in this picture,

Another program I wrote that was inspired by War Games is probably something I shouldn't have done (or talk about.)

At the time my 14 year old self thought it might be cool to try and hack into some local computers to see what they had… but out of a totally innocent sense of curiosity of course.

Since I already owned a VICMODEM, which was an affordable direct connect modem (a modem that plugs directly into a phone line, unlike the acoustic modem used in War Games,) I sat down and began writing code to have my VIC-20 start calling every phone number in our local area.

Image from OldComputr.com – click image to learn more

By this point I had already learned that even most in-state calls were “long distance toll calls,” after having to work off several very large phone bills my parents had received.

So I made sure my program only called phone numbers in my local prefix, using a For Next loop that would dial each phone number (i.e. 555-0001, 555-0002, etc) and if someone picked up would save the first 30 characters that were returned.

When a person would pickup the phone and say “hello,” the result was a lot of random “garbage” characters. But when a BBS, Business, or other computer picked up, a nice set of formatted characters would be returned, and those were the numbers I'd try and reconnect to after school.

My VIC-20 was also the first machine I went “online” with. Back in the early 80's there were three major online services: CompuServe, Prodigy, and American Online (AOL.)

Over the years I tried all three, starting with CompuServe, then Prodigy, and finally (like most other online Americans) I ended up on AOL for the simple reason that they had the most content gear to the general public.

This was at a time when the internet didn't have much in the way of content for the average person, in part because the graphical web browser wasn't even invented until the year 1990.

In the end, it was my modem's direct connection to the phone line that killed off my original VIC-20. A power surge from a nearby lightning strike rendered it inoperable.

But the good news was that by that time prices of the new and improved Commodore 64 had come way down, and since it could use the same peripherals as the VIC-20 (all of which survived,) it was a straight forward migration.

Having spent so much time programming in my youth, when it was time to go to college I decided to focus more on the hands-on side by going for a degree in Electronics.

The degree program I enrolled in covered everything from the basics of electricity and Ohm's law, to creating circuits with Resistors, Capacitors, Transistors, etc., through programming Micro-Computers using Machine Code.

In hindsight, it was the prefect mix of theory and hands-on to prepare me for my first job in Industrial Automation and working with PLCs.

Note: If you've enjoyed this article and would like to see me continue this series please let me know! In the next article in this series I'd focus on using and programming my first PLC.

Sincerely,

Shawn Tierney
Automation Instructor and Blogger

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