I received a Christmas gift in fourth grade that profoundly impacted my career path and thus the rest of my life. That gift was a VTech PowerPad Plus “pre-computer.” While just a toy, the PowerPad line of products from the late 1980s and early 1990s were functioning computers that featured, among a handful of educational games, a functioning BASIC interpreter. For the uninitiated, BASIC is an computer programming language designed to be simple, versatile, and for learning. Exploring BASIC on that spartan machine ignited a passion for technology and programming in me that burns to this day.
When personal computers were released in the ’70s and ’80s they usually came with BASIC built in. I was first introduced to the computer when I was 13 or 14 and visited family in Tennessee one summer with my grandparents. My uncle had a TRS-80 Color Computer, and when you turned it on, you were created with this:
I have no idea what was so alluring to me at the time, but I dug in and learned BASIC from the book that my uncle had. This was the middle of the summer, and my uncle had a pool, but I spent most of the time hunched over the keyboard learning BASIC. And, without any way of saving my files, I was writing out most of the code also on paper so I could re-type it if the computer was shut off.
Very primitive today, but it started me on the path of educational technology. Without this exposure, I don’t know if I would have become so involved with technology today.
So, what inspires the future technologists today? Some will say it’s Scratch, others will say Minecraft. I will say both and neither. For one thing, the computer has become to ubiquitous. In the 80’s, people would spend thousands of dollars on something that did very little (but had immense potential). Today we have $40 tablets and computers that are almost expendable.
Along with the advances in technology comes the expectations that computer projects should have this professional polish to them. In the 80s, the limited graphics and sounds leveled the playing field, allowing one person to create a good looking masterpiece.
What is needed is something like what is described in the article. An online development environment that would allow the next generation to become fascinated with how things work, and the wonder that computer programming is.
I still program for my Atari 800XL, but I view it as puzzle solving. How do I get the computer to do what I want?
And when I succeed, I’m back at my uncle’s in Tennessee proudly displaying my latest creation.