After some weeks, we both stopped attending the Writer’s Workshop, but stayed friends. Dennis’s family were back around Chicago and had done very well in the metal fabrication business. Therefore, Dennis had joined the peace corps, became a photographer and writer, and drove a cab.
One day he confided in me that he’d invented the Cabdriver Philosophy of Life. Stated briefly, it was: “People come into your life. People go out of your life. You go round and round and see some things, and then the ride is over.” Not bad, all things considered, it seemed to me.
But I mention Dennis because of his odd habit.
Dennis was forever doing good, in this way. He read voraciously, and whenever he found something perhaps of interest to a friend, he’d clip it and mail it. Dennis had a lot of friends, so he must have been pretty busy. I myself got dozens of clippings over the years.
But this one said, “Whirr …”
It was a three-paragraph story in a box, and started out asking: “What’s about the size of a breadbox, can do thousands of calculations per second, and costs a few hundred dollars?”
The answer was the new crew of “micro-computers”. It seems that a company in New Mexico had taken an advanced calculator chip and realized that it had all the parts of a functioning computer. By adding memory and circuitry for display and typing, the Altair was born, followed by the Imsai, the SWP, and others.
The article said that you could see these computers in Berkeley on University Drive, at a store cleverly named The Computer Store. In those days I was postering Berkeley for my fledgeling business, the Thumbtack Bugle, so I parked my motorcycle outside, and went in.
Yup, there were some boxes about the size of bread boxes, with switches and blinken-lights. Completely incomprehensible; completely fascinating. A rotund fellow in a beard and overalls pointed things out to me, and then I bought copies of Byte magazine, and Kilobaud magazine. Byte. Hmmm. Kilobaud. Hmmm.
Hastening to a coffee-house across from the Co-op I devoured the magazines from cover to cover. The articles made little sense, but the ads weren’t too bad. For example, the Apple computer was then a single board, selling for $666. All you had to do was add a case, power supply, keyboard, and display monitor. Hmmm.
Somehow I learned that up at Lawrence Livermore Lab, in the Berkeley Hills, was a science museum where kids could play on the computer, so I motorcycled up there with a book on BASIC, and started learning how to print “Hello, World!” on the screen. Oddly, it wasn’t very difficult, which perhaps explains the large number of 11-year-old boys typing alongside me.
Somehow I learned that down in Silicon Valley, there was an organization that worked similarly, except that you could call in from your house to work on the computer. I motored down, and met Doug F. He was a thin, long-haired, brilliant, nerdy fellow who ran the computer, always and forever dressed in jeans and a t-shirt picturing a heavy-metal band.
Following Doug’s guidelines, I bought a teletype and a modem, which then meant a big box with two foam cups into which you stuck the telephone receiver. With this teletype in the closet, I started programming. I got a sorting program typed in, and set it to sorting 300 names. On this speedy time-sharing computer, it took fourteen hours.
But by then, I’d decided that I must have my own computer. The magazines were starting to make sense, and I settled on a Cromemco, which was very powerful. It was also expensive, so I got it in a kit, and Doug said he’d assemble it for me, which was good because I didn’t know how to solder. I raised part of the money from Henry, a local philanthropist I’d met once when interviewing for a bookkeeping job.
The assembly seemed to take forever, and if I nudged Doug, he’d exclaim, “Don’t go sweating on me!” Doug was eccentric, showing up at odd times. One day he said there would be a great sneak preview, so we walked up the next block to see what turned out to be the world premier of Star Wars. His job at that time was programming government computers so that satellites could determine whether a farmer’s fields in Russia were growing wheat or alfalfa.
Finally, the computer was ready. It was a large black box, sitting on a table in my tiny apartment. Doug plugged in the teletype, and tapped a few times on the carriage return. It began typing.
“Hello,” it said.