When I was kid, back in the mid-1970s, my notion of a computer was what I saw on Star Trek: a big box with blinking lights which one could address directly and, after it said “Work-ing” and made a lot of clickety-clack punching sounds, it would provide an answer in a nasal female voice (which, in retrospect, I correctly guessed was Majel Barrett, doing double duty as Nurse Chapel).
I thought it would be really cool to have such a thing, and after my parents gave me a red Panasonic cassette recorder for Christmas in 1977, I had an idea: I would make a recording that would have long pauses (during which I’d ask a question), then had clickety-clack sounds, and then – in my own best impression of a nasal computer voice, provide the pre-canned answer.
The idea, of course, was to fool my friends into thinking I had a real computer. I vividly remember showing the machine to my friends, asking questions into the microphone, and having my “computer” think it over and correctly answer the question. What I don’t vividly remember is whether or not they believed it or not. I hadn’t thought of this in decades, but it only took me a moment to find a picture of the exact recorder I used:
Of course, that had a fairly limited amount of appeal.
Around the same time, I’d periodically pop in to the Radio Shack in my home town of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I pictured myself as a science geek, although I never had a natural knack for electronics or soldering. I bought a number of their do-it-yourself kits, and they usually wound up a disaster. Like most boys, I also had one of those 100-in-1 kits, which didn’t require any soldering, and – – like most boys – – I was able to do most of the projects without really bothering to understand how it worked. I just wanted it to do something neat.
Radio Shack upped the ante, however, with something totally new – an Electronic Digital Computer. On the box cover, it showed a woman inspecting a row of powerful computers, and it promised that you could “create your own programs” with this device. Games! Predicting the weather! Computerized medicine! It was all spelled out there. I knew just what I wanted for my birthday.
Well, I was thrilled to get the computer, and I excitedly opened it up. Inside was a thick manual, full of fun projects I could do with my new………..digital computer:
Upon closer inspection, however, it was apparent that what the box contained wasn’t a sophisticated machine ready to program games upon. It was a bunch of plastic parts and metallic clips. At least no soldering was required.
As I laid out the parts, the main body of the computer didn’t exactly conjure up images of unmatched computing power. It looked about as sophisticated as any of the plastic models I built on a regular basis.
It’s obvious to me now that what Radio Shack was selling was a very simple logic kit. There was no microprocessor; no solid state electronics; it was basically just a bunch of wires, lights, springs, and clips that could be shoved together on to a big piece of plastic and, if all went well, act as kind of a do-it-yourself toy.
I can assure you, things didn’t go well. In fact, my most lasting impression of this thing was the (literally) hundreds of sharp, painful, spring-loaded clips that I had to cram into the back of the box kept popping out. I never got this kit to do anything. Not anything at all. Certainly not “predict the weather” or do any of the other promised projects on the box. I felt about as disappointed as any of the millions of kids who bought X-ray glasses from a comic book, hoping to check out nekkid ladies, only to found out it was a worthless piece of crap.
Luckily, this didn’t snuff out my interest in computers for good. There were other, more successful, attempts to come. But I’ll leave that for another time.