Raised, in part, by Radio Shack

Update: Thanks BoingBoing for linking. My lil’ sister writes in to say, “you forgot to mention that you never let your little sister play your video games and she used to cry” and now she’s a corporate lawyer. Thanks also to CrunchGear and MakeZine for linking in.

I appreciated Wired’s homage to the Radio Shack of old (The Lost Tribes of Radio Shack Apr. 2010). While too young to be a true DIY maker, I was, in part, raised by Radio Shack.

At a family party at age 10 or 11 in 1981, I saw my first TRS-80 Model I and met a teen programmer who showed me the version of Asteroids that he wrote in assembly. From that time on, I bugged my mom to get me a computer.

It took several months but having convinced her of the education benefits, she finally relented. She bought me a TRS-80 Model III with a cassette tape drive.

trs-80 model3

From that point on, I spent a lot of time hanging out at two different Radio Shack stores: the one at 2011 Westwood Blvd (it’s still there) and another (I think) at 8500 Wilshire (no longer there).

The Westwood Store

Initially, I hung out at the Westwood shack where retail sales clerks Mickey and Ivan let me try out pretty much all the TRS-80 software. I’m really not sure why they tolerated me spending so much time there.

Here, I discovered Leo Christopherson‘s Dancing Demon and his later gems Duel-n-Droids and Voyage of the Valkyrie. Christopherson was the maestro animator and game programmer of the TRS-80. He made that box and its rectangular pixels dance and sing.

Christopherson would poke graphic characters and assembly code into RAM into his lines of basic code so that listing out his code would create this amazing scrolling, jumping mysterious illegible puzzle of basic commands and graphics. Voyage of the Valkyrie was most amazing to me – winged flying creatures, video game action and an incredible soundtrack.

I was happy to learn that Christopherson’s still programming using Dark Basic Pro, a advanced version of Basic for game programmers.

I used to live for each year’s Radio Shack computer catalog.

TRS-DOS and the Wilshire Store

Eventually, I parlayed $600 in horse race winnings (my Dad picked and placed a good exacta bet for me at Hollywood Park) and about $600 in sales from my entire baseball card collection to upgrade my computer to have a 5 1/4″ floppy drive. Yes, $1200 for an internal floppy drive. It turned out to be a good investment if you count my later time at Microsoft.

After taking an assembly language class at the Wilshire Radio Shack store (I was the only teenager enrolled), I started hanging out there. I was shocked and saddened to hear from my employee-friend Chuck that Ivan had committed suicide – it was not something I was able to understand at that age.

At one point, Chuck paid me $10/hr (a fortune) to manually re-type the entire contents of private investigator Gavin De Becker‘s client database. Chuck set up two Model II computers side by side and I manually moved his entire database from (I think) Profile Plus to (I think) DBase. Basically, it was a catalog of all the psychos tracking his clients such as President Reagan (prior to his election) as well as a lot of code names, e.g. I think Reagan’s was Pigskin. The Model II used 8″ floppies.

Another fellow traveler hanging out at Chuck’s store was the child star, Josh Milrad, from Beastmaster. I was impressed with his filmography but couldn’t take him seriously because he had a TRS-80 Color Computer. Luckily, he wore actual clothes at Radio Shack.

The Z-80 and 80 Micro 

Eventually, I upgraded the RAM of my TRS-80 from 16 KB to 48 KB (KB, not MB or GB, BillG used to write really tight code). I’m still kind of amazed I didn’t break the thing.

By 1985, after some additional Z-80 assembly tutoring, I won first place in 80 Micro’s Young Programmer Contest’s 12-14 year old category for a multi-screen graphical drawing program and received an honorable mention for a Castle Wolfenstein clone. Both programs were written in assembly.

I always was confused by the hi-res sine curves on the cover of my model III manual (kind of like this) – the basic Model III lo-res graphics actually couldn’t do this. At some point, I added in the hi-resolution add-on board for the Model III but there wasn’t much software for it.

Hat tips also to Big Five Software … Asteroids, Meteor Mission II and making my TRS-80 speak with Defense Command.

Eventually, mom bought me an Apple IIe but I never got the hang of 3 register 6502 assembly to the degree of expertise I had with the Z-80.

I went on to get a B.S. in ComSci at RPI and to spend 8 years in program management at Microsoft.

Thanks Mickey, Ivan, Chuck and Radio Shack! And, thanks for Wired for this blast from the past.

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