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How I Got Into Computers And Programming

One of my main interests is computer technology and especially computer programming. And as so often, there is a story behind how it came to be…

The Beginnings

My interest in computers began when I was a young kid in the 1970s and in hindsight I would say, it all started when my father bought one of the PONG game consoles that had been popular back then. It got me fascinated with video games, arcade machines and the early video game consoles like the Atari VCS and its contemporaries.

As a consequence, my parents bought me a Philips Videopac G7000 gaming console, which I liked for its computer-esque look with its membrane keyboard. Some time later I got a couple of ROM cartridges for it at a clearance sale, amongst which a cartridge named “Videopac 9 Computer Programming” had been. After having it lying around for a while, there was one Saturday (I guess) afternoon I finally tried it out… and this became the day were my interest in programming started.

Although it had ridiculousy limited capabilities (think of one line of eleven characters for all the input and output), the “programming” of this cartridge had been so fascinating to me (still a young boy), that I subsequently wanted to do more with computer programming.

The Home Computer Years

At that time (1980/1981), early home computers already had been around, but they were unaffordable for me. My parents knew that I really wanted a computer and so it was my mother who arranged a vacation job for me. The guy I worked for was one of her former colleagues and he had a computer he was not using anymore, a Sinclair ZX80. So we agreed that the job will be “paid” with this computer instead of money. And, finally, I got my first “real” computer…

On the ZX80, with 1KB RAM (yes, that’s right, one kilobyte), I learned the BASIC programming language and created quite a bunch of programs. But the possibilities were very limited. I remember that, each time there was some computation, the screen turned blank. And since the display memory was within the 1KB RAM, there where fewer display lines available the longer the program was.

So I was looking for a computer with more capabilities and the most promising candidate of that time was the Commodore VIC-20. And again, I had no money to buy one. So I saved all the money I could, but as I got closer to my goal, the VIC-20 already became obsolete and was replaced with Commodore’s famous C64, which was even more expensive. At around the same time, Atari started selling its range of XL home computers and the Atari 600 XL home computer with 16 KB RAM was within what I could afford. So I bought an Atari 600 XL which was on sale, bundled with a Donkey Kong game cartridge and two of the classic Atari joystick controllers…

I used the Atari 600 XL for BASIC programming and to learn the 6502 assembly language and, of course, for playing games. Although later there had been more advanced computers available, like for example the Atari ST, I stayed with the 600 XL for nearly five years. It was great fun using this computer and I can proudly say that I knew almost every single of its memory locations and, still today, remember some of the PEEK and POKE commands.

Early PC Years

While still using the Atari 600 XL, I began my apprenticeship as a management assistant in a wholesale trading company and was finally able to afford my first PC, an Atari PC 3, which was an IBM XT compatible computer with a 8088 processor. You may wonder at this point why I didn’t start an apprenticeship in a somewhat more IT related job. The simple answer is, that there had been only very few oppurtunities in this field and they were out of reach for me at that time.

Anyways, on my fist PC I started with GWBASIC, then learned Turbo Pascal and x86 assembler. I soon upgraded to a custom made PC AT with a 80286 processor and worked on some larger development projects, for example a text editor, an invoicing system with a B+Tree/ISAM database and a management software for a civil protection organization.

Workstation Years

Roughly four years later I became somewhat bored with that kind of projects. I got interested in more creative things like computer graphics and sound and started looking for a computer that had more capabilities in this field than the limited business PCs of that time. I knew that the Commodore Amiga had been the dominant machine in this domain and so I had a closer look at it. And then, at the point of decision, it was a small advertisment in an Amiga magazine that got me moving in a totally different direction.

That advertisment was for Acorn Computers, a british manufacturer that had been fairly unknown on mainland Europe. Intrigued by the RISC processor concept that was used in Acorn computers, by the machine specifications and by the RISC OS operating system, I began looking closer at those machines. I remember that I had been driving almost 800 kilometers to the nearest dealer for Acorn computers. But once I’d seen the machines live, my decision was made. I ordered an Acorn A5000 computer.

With the A5000 I gained knowledge of coding in C, BBC Basic and ARM assembler. And just in case you don’t know: The ARM CPU used in Acorn’s machines is the predecessor of all the ARM CPUs you find in today’s smartphones, embbeded devices and, of course, the Raspberry Pi computers. So, learning assembler on the A5000 had been a really good investment as the knowledge I gained is still valid today.

From Hobby To Profession

Four years later, I switched back to the PC. I can’t remember why exactly I made that switch, but it surely had to to with my job where I got more and more involved in the PC business. Since then I got involved with numerous programming languages, most notably C++, Perl and Python.

Since my apprenticeship I had always been involved with computers in one way or another. I already built networks and custom made PCs, created websites and did consultancy in computer related topics, way before I became a professional system administrator in the late 1990s. Working in this field has always been great fun and I especially like that there is always progress and change and there are constantly new things to learn and explore.

Throughout those years, my programming knowledge has helped me a lot to better understand how systems work. And still today, programming computers is one of my major interests. My current occupation and everyday tasks unfortunately don’t leave much space for large scale programming projects, but every now and then I find the time to hack up small tools and programs in C or Python, mainly for my own use.

And so it is…

…our continuing mission: to seek out knowledge of C, to explore strange unix commands, and to boldly code where no one has man page for.

Happy computing!

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