My First Computer

Hi, my name is Bruce, and I am a Computer Nerd! I have been a computer nerd for over 50 years, so I will probably always be a computer nerd.

In 1969, as a Senior at Lincoln High School, in Seattle Washington I accepted the challenge of taking a class in Fortran IV. I was also taking what was then called “typing” so I got to use a brand new IBM 029 card punch machine to punch my own programs to submit to the Seattle Public Schools IBM 360/40 in downtown Seattle. I had a great time figuring out how to teach the IBM to do what I wanted, as opposed to what I told it.

I had been one of those typical “under-achievers” in high school, so the big schools weren’t chasing after me, but I got a lot of marketing stuff from smaller schools. I went and interviewed a Computer Programming school, in downtown Seattle, and was not impressed. I ended up signing up at a private school in Lynnwood to become an electronics technician at a price of around $2000, or the same as the new Volkswagen Bug my brother had just bought.

After finishing at CTC Education Systems, I got a job at Tally Corporation, in Kent, repairing paper tape readers, and line printers. After building a little exerciser widget for the paper tape readers I worked on, one of the engineers handed me a data book for the just out Intel 8008, and asked me if I thought it could test those paper tape readers.

WOW! A Whole computer in a tiny little chip! I spent all my spare time, for about two weeks, reading that book! I discovered it wasn’t really a “whole” computer, but it was a good starting point. I decided that the 8008 was not really fast enough to do what we wanted. I think I have since figured out a different way to do what we wanted with the 8008, but long after I left Tally.

It didn’t take me a very long time to get tired of fixing paper tape readers. My brother Bob had moved to Livermore, California to work at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. That was only about 45 minutes from “The Silicon Valley”, the Mecca of the Electronics Industry, where that company Intel was.

I took a couple of days off, and drove to Livermore to visit Bob, and poke around the “valley” a little bit. I applied at Intel, and HP. HP didn’t want to talk to me because they wouldn’t hire someone without at least a two year degree, not some little private school. Intel said “we don’t have a position for you at this time”. I thought that was that. They called back 3 months later, and I had a phone interview with the head of the test engineering department. Intel and I came to an agreement, and I moved in with Bob on Memorial Day weekend, 1973, and started at Intel the next Tuesday.

In my spare time, I started designing all the stuff to go around an 8008 to make my own computer. Intel gave me a chip to encourage me. Eventually the 8080 came out, and it was a much better chip, but I was already heavily into building my 8008, and didn’t accept one when they offered it. The Altair 8800 came out, and the price of the kit was less that the price of the 8080 if you had to buy one.

After a while, I got another job, and the 8008 project foundered. In January 1976, I bought an IMSAI 8080 kit, with 8K bytes of memory and some peripherals. It didn’t work very well when I got it assembled, but having spent 2 years at Intel fixing memory testers, I determined that the memory was bad, so IMSAI swapped it out, and then everything was fine. Bob and I had a great time learning how to use it.

I would occasionally go to a Homebrew Computer Club meeting in Palo Alto on the way home from work, getting home to Livermore pretty late. Bob and I went to the Lawrence Livermore National Labs Computer Club meetings most months. Members would sometimes come over on weekends, and we would play, or I would help them debug their computers.

On one detour to the Homebrew Meeting on the way home from work, I remember Lee Felsenstein reading a letter from Bill Gates accusing most of us of stealing his software. I guess I have to admit that was true.

At that time, the computer cost about $395, before memory and I/O. If you bought an Altair 8800, Altair BASIC cost you $75. If you didn’t own an Altair, Altair wanted $400 for Altair BASIC. There weren’t any Microsoft dealers that we knew of, just the Byte Shops, which were Altair dealers. We and the denizens of the LLNLCC spent many a happy hour figuring out how to get MITS 12K BASIC to run on our IMSAI’s. 12K BASIC would do more stuff, but it was huge and much slower than the smaller version, so I didn’t use it after I got it working.

At another Homebrew meeting, I heard about some new software just coming out, called CP/M, a floppy disk operating system for 8080 machines. That was pretty cool, but disk drives were pretty expensive. Shortly thereafter, the president of the Lawrence Livermore National Labs Computer Club got a request for some help debugging a floppy disk interface to S100 machines like the IMSAI. He said “You should talk to the Sherry Brothers”. That was how I met John Torode.

John Torode, and his wife Patty, lived in Livermore too, and had a company called Digital Systems, that built floppy disk systems out of their house. They actually built the hardware that CP/M first ran on. They wanted to expand into the S100/Altair/IMSAI market, but they didn’t have an S100 machine!

We used my IMSAI to debug Johns S100 interface, and the Sherry Brothers became one of the earliest CP/M users in the Bay Area, as somehow John left one of his machines at our house, in case more debug was needed. Oh man, was this great!

Up till then, we had been using a Tarbell Cassette Tape Interface to load and store programs. The Tarbell really only liked a particular JC Penny portable cassette player, and you had to keep track of where on the tape you had stored a particular program. Soon we had several cassettes of programs like Altair 4K BASIC, Wangs Tiny BASIC, a Star Trek game, and others.

If we wanted to write an assembly language program, we would have to load what we would now call an IDE, or Integrated Development Environment. I think we had something like that from Processor Technology, the SOL computer folks.

CP/M had an assembler, an editor, a debugger, and lots of storage, on the 8″ single density floppy drives we had. Each 8″ floppy could hold a quarter of a million bytes of data! That is like a whole novel of the day. Novels have gotten longer since then.

John Torode and I became friends, and when he was having trouble debugging his Double Density floppy disk controller, I would stop by on the way home, and lend a hand for a while.

I had recently convinced my boss to buy a “logic analyzer” to help us debug our designs. He was pretty reluctant, but he agreed that the first time he tried it, he found a bug he had been looking for for a month. He decided it had paid for itself in that one use.

After work, I would bring the logic analyzer along with me, and John and I would debug his controller, till I was falling asleep. It didn’t take too long with the analyzer before John found his bug, and then he had a double density controller to sell, so the same 8″ floppy could hold half a million bytes.

Using the single density system John had left at my house, I got a copy of the source to Li-Chen Wang’s Palo Alto Tiny BASIC, and started converting it to run on CP/M. Once I had done that, I added a bunch of commands to talk to I/O ports, Memory, and interface to assembly language routines you might add. Between the assembly language source, the listing file, and the object file, it filled a whole single density floppy.

As far as I know, the Sherry Brothers Tiny Basic source I contributed to the Homebrew Computer Club Library is the only computer readable version of Li-Chen Wang’s Palo Alto Tiny BASIC available on the net. It is also the version of BASIC we run on the IMSAI at LCM+L.

All in all, I have many fond memories of using my IMSAI to learn about computers and software. I still have the front panel of mine, but the rest of it didn’t make the trip back from Silicon Valley to the Seattle area. Both of my brothers ended up buying IMSAIs, and you can see my brother Gales in the Museum at REPC in Sodo.