In July of 2010, I was enjoying the afternoon by the water at a theme park with my wife and son when I got a phone call from my mom back in England. My grandfather, she told me, was dying. The news punched me in the chest. I knew his health had been declining, but he had never been willing to play the part of the wizened old man, hunched and feeble. He had asked to see us all, she told me. This threw me, the confusion distracting me from my rising grief. It wasn't because we had fallen out and hadn't seen each other for several years, but because he and my grandmother lived in a tiny island in the South Atlantic, accessible only by an infrequent Royal Mail ship from the UK. I was in the US.
My mom elaborated: my grandmother was offering to pay for us to visit as quickly as we could. If we wanted to go, we would have to leave in a few days, fly to England, take a Royal Air Force flight to Ascension Island, and spend a week on a ship to Saint Helena. We'd be able to stay there for about two weeks, after which we'd pick up the ship again to sail to South Africa, from where we could fly commercially back to the UK, and then fly back to the US. It would be a lot to organize — late-booked cabins on a ship, connecting flights, entry permits — but remarkably it happened.
The trip is a story for another time, but it gave me cause to reflect on the influence my grandfather had had during my upbringing. As a teacher, he believed strongly in the value of a good education. He taught in a local high school, and was often able to borrow for the weekend one of their computers. I have a vague notion that the first one might have been one of the Apple II models, but I have my doubts about that as they were not common in the UK. Regardless, what I remember clearly is the BBC Micro, that most British of home computers. As a four-year-old, I would sit on a piano stool in his study, raised to the level of the keyboard by a cushion. I remember playing the educational games he brought, learning to operate the computer well enough to load my favourites from cassette and 5¼" floppy.
Before long, I was old enough to read and write well enough to start looking at the books that came with the computer. Several of them had programs to type in, and I did so, marveling at the idea that I was in some way commanding this device. Characteristically for a computer of its time, it came with a version of the BASIC programming language: BBC BASIC, something with which I would become extremely well acquainted. Turning the computer on would result in the iconic beeee-beep! tone, followed by a BASIC prompt with a beckoning flashing cursor. No longer content to Shift-Break to boot a game, many of my computing sessions now began with this:
> AUTO 10 _
AUTO command was my notification that I was going to enter a new program, and the BASIC interpreter would respond by prompting me with the first line number. At first, my grandfather would leave me to type in a program and return to see the result, be that a working program or a syntax error. Later, he would encourage me to change the program, to deviate from the instructions. I did this without hesitation, relishing the feeling of exploration. I wouldn't realise it for another decade, but this was classic hacker mentality.
It was probably inevitable that I would soon be given one of my own, as my family understood the value of it, not just as an educational tool, but as an entertaining hobby. It was a humble setup: a BBC Micro hooked up to a cassette player and a black-and-white TV, but it was now a permanent fixture in my life rather than a weekend treat.
It's important to understand that the Beeb, as we called it, was ubiquitous in the UK at this time. Launched at the end of 1981 as part of the BBC's computer literacy project, they could be found in every British school. It was the star of several BBC television programmers: The Computer Programme, Making the Most of the Micro, and Micro Live. Hundreds of books were published, as well as several long-lived magazines. It was no surprise, then, that my home town had a computer club frequented by several other BBC Micro owners. My grandfather would take me and my cousin, who, at nearly two years older than me, was following a similar path. I recall always being the youngest person there, the members all being adults. But, as adults, they had been able to sink varying amounts of their disposable incoming into this hobby (it was there that I would eventually see my first hard disk drive, or Winchester drive as it was known then, with an astonishing capacity of about 10MB). Piracy was rife, although we neither called it that nor felt any guilt or shame about it. Tapes and floppies were copied freely, and even copies of commercial ROMs were burned by those who owned EPROM programmers and ultra-violet erasers. I was given some of these, and even at the risk of exposing them to damaging sunlight, I couldn't help peeling back the sticker and marveling at impossibly intricate silicon chip inside. For me, this was never about ripping anyone off; I just wanted more things to explore and learn about. But as much as the computer club exposed me to software and technology, none of the members showed much interest in programming.
Self-educationWhen it came to learning the art of programming, all I had was books and magazines. There was no Internet, as the UK didn't even decide to abandon the European X.25 standard in favour of the Internet protocol suite until the end of the 1980s, and I had never heard of bulletin board systems. Besides, even if I had owned a modem, we wouldn't have been able to afford the phone calls — expensive in comparison to Americans enjoying free local calls — and we didn't even have our own phone until some years later. (I remember the frequent walks with my mom to the nearest phone box whenever we needed to call someone.) But what I lacked in tuition, I made up for in motivation.
In part 2: BBC BASIC