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More Stories - The Way We Were

The Commodore & the Kaleidoscope
Perhaps you'll have to be at least over thirty to appreciate this tale.

Hubby Floyd studied computers back when there were only four computers in all of Dade County!   In the early '60's one was owned and under-utilized by the land-sales company where he worked.  One was at the local college.  The executives at at the land sales company had no clue whatever as to what a computer could do for them.  The "computer geeks", isolated in a frigid room that housed the monster computer, busily changing tubes as they burned out and keeping the surroundings operating-room clean, looked blank when asked how the computer could benefit company operations.  Floyd went to school on his veteran's benefits and company time to finish his business administration degree and learn computers.  He then worked liaison between the execs and and geeks, translating ideas, limitations and requirements.  Eventually he did the same for another company.

In the seventies I had an office and warehouse for Fuller Brush, working directly for the Area Manager, Fernando Hurtado, as he worked his way up to Regional Manager.  I kept the records in ledgers and on a HUGE Rolodex. In 1980 his manual typewriter broke down and so did my old electric Royal, so he bought me a word processor, no disks and just a limited memory.  But it was certainly superior in every way to a plain typewriter, especially for a typist who, when typing, often resorts to language my daughter doesn't want the grandchildren to hear..... 

In 1982 Floyd and I decided to get a computer for the business.  Tubes were now replaced by transistors, although IBM's early desktops were only for the wealthy and large companies.  We got a Commodore 64.  Why was it called "64"?  Because that's all the bytes of memory it had.  To give you a idea, here's an "enlightening" explanation from my son Mark, comparing it with our present Athlon 650 MHz with 258 megabytes of memory: (update: later I had a Pentium II  hyperthreaded, built to specs by Compac, and the MHz and memory are off the I have one with 12 gigs of memory and a HUGE hard drive.):

"Because it is in base2 (binary) one K is actually 2^10 or 1024 (base ten) and one Meg is 1024 times one K (2^20 or 1048576).  So 64K of memory holds 65,536 bytes and 256 Megs holds 268,435,456 bytes (4,096 times as much).  I hope that this helps."

Sure!  I'll go along with that.  Especially since I only understood the part in italics...

There was no hard drive on a Commodore.  One purchased a "keyboard" that had the mini-memory inside, and a separate floppy drive that used an actual floppy, flexible disk about 5" in diameter.  These disks were a bit on the delicate side, nothing like today's 3-1/2" stiff disks or the Iomega ones.  There was no monitor; one had to plug it into a TV.  We bought a specially made 14" color TV/monitor from Sears' scratch and dent for a third of the usual price.  All its adjustments were manual and picky, but we got used to it.

We tried a couple of sales programs and databases and they were for the birds.  So we bought "Superbase", which provided a language structure, and built our own program.   Let me tell you:  when you deal with that little memory, you learn to program very compactly and make snippets of instructions work for several different things.

Next problem:  some operations took too much space and memory, and  we also needed some way to back up our data.  So we got another floppy drive and piggy-backed them.   Then another computer with a single drive.  From time to time a floppy would go bad.  Floyd would go into the disk, find the point of error, and manually correct the electronic language, which looked like cartoon cuss words. ( Probably left over from when I was last typing something.)

Both we ourselves and our manager had been at the top of our respective levels for several years when the company sent someone down to sit and watch me work all day as I zipped discs in and out when customers or reps called.  She shook her head in disbelief and I've no idea what she reported to Fuller.

One day a neighbor came in, and as we were chatting, we began to smell smoke.  Suddenly she began to back off, pointing and shouting "Look, look!"  One of the piggybacked floppy drives had gone into meltdown.  It didn't hurt the computer itself any, but gave us all a good scare until we got everything unplugged. 

With this near-disaster under our belt, Floyd getting tired of constantly repairing raw data on the floppies, and the price of IBM compatible computers coming down, we decided to get a "real" computer.  We had one built for about $2,300, a 286.  I seem to remember it was only 133 MHz in speed.  It did less than a fraction of what today's computers do.   Fuller's management, incredibly impressed, gave a used IBM about the same size to one of my managers who had just set up an office and warehouse in the next county, and they also provided him with Dbase III.  After looking over a number of options, we decided Dbase was the best choice of database structure, bought it, and rewrote the program we still use today.   It took several months for all the data to be transferred, and we were off and running.

Our new computer had two hard drives, in case one failed, and when I backed up the week's data, I'd set it running and go play pool up at the corner for a couple of hours.  I didn't feel so bad about this lengthy operation when Floyd's brother, an expert at Honeywell, told us about people whose programming was so inefficient that it took two days to back up their week's sales data.  I understand there's many companies that close down operations and set their computers to running for half the night to process and back up the day's work.  Believe me, if their programmers had learned to program on a Commodore 64, they'd be able to do it in a fraction of the time!

At this point I prepared to throw out the Commodore.  Hubby objected violently.  He got attached to things, and was sure we'd need it some day.  I finally kept one floppy drive and one computer/keyboard, taking it home shortly before Christmas. 

One day soon after, idly looking through a Commodore magazine, I saw a Basic program to make a simple "kaleidoscope".  That looked interesting.  Hubby had bought a small, pinkish-white artificial Christmas tree that he really admired, something I considered so ugly I refused to decorate it, nor would our son Mark.  Daughter Cathy put a few bulbs and ornaments on it so Floyd wouldn't feel bad.  On impulse, my contribution to the holiday spirit was to program the Commodore as a kaleidoscope and put its "monitor" under the tree.   It had about 20 different "scenes", which it repeated endlessly.  "That's boring," I thought, so I made it stop about every third minute, display a primitive "Christmas card" and greeting, and tinkle out Jingle Bells.   We weren't home much, but when we were, someone always turned it on.  I began to climb the walls every time it played Jingle Bells.  As Christmas sales began to wind down, I had more time to tinker, so I got out my trusty battery-run portable transistor calculator (a marvelous invention that did away with the tiresome clank, clank of handle-driven monster adding-machines), and did some figuring and planning.  Eventually I had a kaleidoscope which would change once a second, and go for 20 minutes before it would repeat the pattern.  Every five minutes it stopped, flashed a different greeting and played a Christmas carol, one of perhaps seven or eight different ones each in relay. 

Eventually did we throw out the Commodore?  No.  He remained in the attic.  Every time we dragged everything out (once a decade?) and sorted through it, I tried to discard the thing and Floyd rescued it.  He called it, nostalgically, "our first computer", while I call it "the doorstop".

As for the Sears TV/monitor, believe it or not, we still had it and used it for over a decade.    About once a year I had to tinker with about thirty different adjustments to realign the colors, frames and so on, and it worked perfectly - as a television. 

I consider Floyd and myself most fortunate in having been there at the beginning, as most of our generation is either struggling with new technology or in outright denial.  But be careful not to under-estimate us as a class.  Son Mark forwarded this post I found amusing:

From: "Liam Hemmings"
Date: Thu, 21 Feb 2002 12:10:21
Subject: Old folks - a word of caution for younger readers
My father is like many divorced and is now remarrying.  Anyway I met his girlfriend's folks a while ago.  Her dad is old, a bit deaf and dodders about on dodgy knees.
I was playing with my PDA at one point, and the old fella comes to have a look.  Stupidly I begin to explain the thing in Seuss-like terms.
It turns out that her dad, Nick, was one Alan Turing's assistants..... he was involved in turning some of the problems associated with radar into assets on Baby, a very early computer in Manchester... he can still program in numerous source codes which as a mathematician he finds a bit limiting.

A lot of the rest went over my head.

Keep in mind: these marvelous games and tools young people and businesses presently use didn't spring forth fully developed as manna from the Gods.  Our generation, the one that preceded it and the one that followed were responsible.  We did it.

If you're under thirty, it's your job to take it and run with it.  But just run in the right direction, please.  Stay flexible; there's greater, more marvelous (and more dangerous) things to come.  And remember that eventually your kids and grandkids will probably think you are an old-fashioned codger and under-estimate you.  Be prepared!

Want to see a more sophisticated toy than my Commodore's musical kaleidoscope?  Found this one in Recipe du Jour's great newsletter.  Remember those cardboard tubes with mirrors and bits of colored glass?  I think I got one every Christmas when I was a kid.  Here's an electronic kaleidoscope.  Show the little ones.  Have fun. 

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