I’m told I am the only person who has no idea how they came to be listed as People’s Computer Company alum. I was involved in computers during the right timeframe so something I did must have got me on the list.
My first hands-on experience related to computers was in high school in the late 1960s. I attended some session or class after school related to programming and I recall learning about punched cards and programming. At the time I was more interested in electronics and I asked if someone could both program and repair computers and was told that wasn’t how it normally worked.
A few years later, I was in the Coast Guard and had a friend who did programming for the Coast Guard and I saw him working with punched cards. In 1975 I was assigned to the Coast Guard Cutter Westwind, an icebreaker. We had an HP DDP-516 computer to process satellite data. It was housed in a 19-inch rack about six feet high. The CPU and memory were in separate removable modules about two feet square and heavy (all discrete components). You could actually look at the schematics and trace them. In fact, I went to a repair class and learned how to repair it. I believe it had 8K of memory. Input was done by paper tape after punching in 17-step octal bootstrap loader (I got good at doing that) on buttons. Output was to a Teletype machine.
One of my co-workers saw my interest in the beast and showed me an ad in 1976 for a Southwest Technical Products Corporation (SWTPC) 6800 microprocessor. This kit was based on the Motorola 6800 microprocessor and used the SS-50 bus (as opposed to the S-100 bus in other machines). Each board (e.g., CPU, memory, I/O) plugged into the bus on the motherboard. Input was done via a separate serial keyboard and output was to a video monitor or through a converter to a TV set. I started building it on the ship and finally got it working in the summer of 1976 while on the ship in Greenland. You could type in basic commands (in machine code) and run them. There was no non-volatile memory (i.e., when the power was turned off, everything was lost). I believe the first version had 2-4K of memory.
I eventually upgraded to 48K of memory and used a cassette tape to save and load programs. A year later I actually acquired a dual floppy drive (360K, 5.25 inch floppies), a terminal, and some “real” software (e.g., a text editor, some games, an assembler). I hung out at the Milwaukee (Wisconsin) Computer Store, buying peripherals and took a class in BASIC.
The SWTPC 6800 used a program called SWTBUG which was a variation of Motorola’s MIKBUG to be the basic operating system. I re-wrote it to do some things I wanted and called it OPEBUG. Programmed and burned my own PROMs. Off course I had connectivity to the outside world; a 300 baud acoustic modem. You dialed the number on the telephone then plugged the handset into the modem cups and it communicated via audio tones. I often tested connections by whistling into the phone to listen to the response.
In 1977 the Coast Guard assigned me to go to the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE). I intended to take communications courses, figuring I was playing with computers enough on my own. But, it turned out the computer classes were more convenient and I eventually got my Associates degree in Computer Engineering Technology. At MSOE we used the ACORN, another 8-bit machine based on the 8800 microprocessor. Its input was via switches (set 1 or 0 for each bit then toggle to enter). Again, no non-volatile memory. One quirk of the 8800 was there was no “stop” to the code. If you had an error in your program it would gobble of all of the memory and wipe out what ever you had entered (by hand). Smart programmers entered a STOP instruction at the end of memory just in case. I wasn’t smart.
In 1978 the Byte Shop of Milwaukee opened just down the street from my apartment. I was there on opening day (the welcome mat was a newspaper on the floor) and started hanging out there. Eventually they hired me part-time. We sold Apple IIs, the Commodore PET (self-contained with a monitor and keyboard but the early keyboard was a membrane, not real keys), the Imsai S-100, and something with a Z-80 processor. Again, non-volatile memory was typically on cassette tape. Interestingly, the less expensive recorders seemed to do better than the expensive ones. Eventually floppy drives entered the market. The big competitor was the Radio Shack TRS-80.
One of our customers special ordered a large computer. It has some sort of weird operating system that produced a “C:” prompt on the screen. When it arrived I noticed it was sitting on its side on the truck. Sure enough, when we opened the box it had been damaged. It took a lot of troubleshooting and a trip back to the manufacturer to eventually get it repaired and delivered to the customer. Shortly afterwards the customer called and said it wouldn’t print. After doing some basic troubleshooting over the phone the store owner and I loaded into the car for the hour-long drive to the customer to try and fix it. (This was a large purchase and a very patient customer!) Shortly after arrival I discovered the paper wasn’t fed into the printer properly, rerouted it, and everything worked.
I graduated from MSOE in 1979 with a BSEET and was transferred to the Coast Guard District Office in Cleveland, OH. The big stir upon my arrival was the availability of the Wang. Essentially it was a terminal size word processor connected to a CPU (back in the computer center) via cables. It basically did word processing though I learned to program it in BASIC (and taught a couple classes) and did some simple arithmetic. I was sent to the word processing class but by the time I went to class I had been using it for two weeks and just skimmed through the self-paced instruction. The instructor caught me trying to implement macros at the end of the first day and said if I was doing that I didn’t belong in the class so I never returned.
In the early 1980s the Coast Guard started acquiring general-purpose microprocessors. The system chosen was made by Convergent Technologies and used a BTOS or CTOS operating system. The systems were sold to the Coast Guard by a company called C3 and were typically called “the C3” though the proper term was Standard Terminal. I was fortunate enough to be allowed to obtain and play with an early unit in Cleveland. I asked the installer about a device in the cabinet and he told me it was something for factory testing. Later learned it was the modem. These beasts used eight-inch floppies (still no hard drive) and were primarily used for word processing. I quickly learned the system and was sent to various other places in the region to help others get their systems going.
In 1982 I received orders to go to a loran station in Italy. I called the folks who were controlling the Standard Terminal distribution in Headquarters and asked if they had considered sending any to loran stations. The response was, “No, Don, you are not getting one for Lampedusa.” By the time I got to Europe the folks there were talking computers for the loran stations. I helped to fuel the fire and offered to be a guinea pig. Apple IIs were being considered which suited me as I had mine with me. However, in the spring of 1983 Osborne computers were acquired and one arrived at Lampedusa.
In the fall of 1983 I was assigned to Coast Guard Headquarters. Wangs were still commonly used but it was not long before each of us got our “own” Standard Terminal. E-Mail was in its infancy and I recall sending E-Mail and then running over to the recipient to see it received. The Standard Terminals were typically networked together to a central “Master Workstation”. Master Workstations connected to others via modem. Setting up communications with another unit involved exchanging modem numbers and addresses and programming each Master Workstation. Some machines, Application Workstations, did not even have there own processing capabilities but were just terminals slaved to a Master. There was even a program to emulate MS-DOS so you could run some DOS programs on it.
About 1985 I got tired of fussing with the SWTPC 6800 and the Apple II and acquired my first “IBM compatible” computer. It used the 8088, ran at 6 or 8 MHz (selectable), had 640K of memory, and a 10 MB hard drive. What more could a person want?
In 1987 I was transferred to a new unit in California. Since we were new we had the opportunity to acquire the latest version of the Standard Terminal. No longer a desk-sized unit, this version’s peripherals were in “slices” about the size of a lunch box. Each slice attached to the next one so you could add peripherals, memory, etc. in a row to expand the capabilities.
I returned to Coast Guard Headquarters in 1991. In 1992 we got permission to buy an IBM compatible computer so we could use “standard” software in the office and bought an early 486. I was still using my 8088 at home but also had a Coast Guard Standard Terminal at home to do my Coast Guard work. My method of transferring data was to remove the hard drive slice (about the size of a lunch box, weighed about 15 pounds) and take it back and forth in a bag. It worked.
In 1993 I retired from the Coast Guard and started with a commercial company. They were just in the process of getting 486 computers so my first one was a noisy 286. At home I was constantly fighting a space problem on my 10 MB drive so I bought my own 486, 33 MHz, 8 MB memory, 200 MB hard drive. What more could a person want?
In 1996 it was a 166 MHz, 16 MB memory, and 2 GB machine. In 2000 it was an 866 MHz, 96 MB memory, 10 GB. Zip drive, CD-ROM, CD-RW. I’m now running a home network with three computers (four when my laptop is on) and a cable modem. What more could a person want?
Donald R. Opedal