Saturday, August 09, 2008

Learning to Program Computers...

My first tryst with computers happened some time in 1987. I don't remember the exact date, but that was when I first saw a computer. Or rather, saw something which someone told me was a computer. In fact it was a lot of computers - I was on a visit to the computer laboratory that our school had recently opened for high school students. I was still in middle school and hence not officially allowed to attend the computer programming course. Still the computer lab was such a sight. Still remember staring at the rows of Texas Instruments microcomputers in the laboratory without knowing that some day, I would be using computers every day and that too as a full time profession.

I had already been introduced into the basics of computer programming by Rajesh Soman, a good friend of mine, who was lucky enough to own an Apple IIc in those days. I knew that we could assign values to variables and do basic arithmetic with those variables. But other than that, I did not know anything else about computing or programming.

Here is a picture of Apple IIc:
Coming back to the computer lab, I was staring at rows of Texas Instruments TI 99/4A home computers. Here is an image of TI 99/4A:
You can read more about TI99/4A here.

I had to wait till April 1988, when I finally got a chance to join the computer lab at school (Christ Nagar English High School) and start learning computer programming. By that time, our school had acquired two BBC Micro computers which were more powerful than the TI 99/4As. The BBC microcomputer - Model B, supported disc drives - 5.22 inch floppy disc drives and were much faster than loading programs than the TI 99/4 which used tape drives. The BBC Microcomputer also had more powerful graphics - 8 modes; Mode 0 to Mode 7, with Mode 7 supporting the then popular tele-text graphics character set. My first programming teacher was Thomas Mani Sir. He was very patient in explaining the nuances of programming to all 10 of us who joined the first batch to program the BBC Model B computers. I still remember the whole class finding it a bit tough to get to grips with the notion of for-loops.
Here are some of the specifications of BBC Model B:
  • Manufacturer: Acorn
  • Processor: 6502A
  • Speed: 2 MHz
  • RAM: 32 KB
  • ROM: 32 KB
  • Sound: 3 channels plus noise
  • Keyboard type: Typewriter-style
  • Number of keys: 74
  • Dimensions: 409 x 358 x 78 (mm)
  • Weight: 3700 grams
  • 8 bit parallel port
  • 8 bit I/O port
  • RS423 serial interface(5 pin "diamond" DIN)
  • Cassette interface(7 pin DIN)
  • Composite video output(BNC)
  • RF interface
  • 4 12 bit analogue input channels
And this is what a BBC Model B looks like:
Here is the Wikipedia entry for BBC Model B.

So far, I have covered about my use of computers till about 1990. Moving ahead, I went on to program IBM PCs, PC/XTs, PC/ATs, all of them running MS-DOS [with those monitors (displaying green or amber or white coloured text ) or VDUs - Visual Display Units - as they used to be called then] and applications like Harvard Presentation Graphics, dBase, etc., I will detail that transition and also to Windows 3.11 (the first version of Windows I had a chance to work on, along with Novell Netware) and beyond. I will write in detail about those some time soon. For now, I am taking a big leap forward to the current scenario in 2008, where I now have close to 12 years experience as a Software Engineer in domains ranging from software development, project management, business analysis, software requirements management and software quality assurance, and had a chance to work in different cities like Bangalore, New York, Princeton, Singapore, Dubai, Lausanne, Zurich and now back home to Trivandrum, where I did most of my education. I hope to write about current technology trends. One of the reasons that prompted me to take this 'fast forward' was an answer that I posted in a forum recently, in response to a question about technology choices for 2009. The next post in this blog is that answer. But I will definitely try and fill in as much as possible about what happened between 1990 and 2008. 

~ Sunish


Deepak Uthaman said...

Great post Sunish.. reminds me of those days.. when I used to dream of owning a computer!!


Sunish said...

Thanks for the comment, Deepak. Planning to write more, all the way upto Pentium Core 2 Duo :-). Still struggling to find my old notebooks which contains details of moving up from BEEB Model B to IBM PCs, Windows 3.11 and beyond...

Prime said...

I miss the BBC Micro.

Anonymous said...

Your write up was nice... very nice! In fact BBC Micro was the first computer I laid my hands on, in the 80's... as Prime said, "I miss the BBC Micro." Any technical detail you want on the SCL's "Unicorn" BBC Micro (which most of the Indian schools had at that time, including mine, and yours I presume), I have its original Manual.

Rahul Leslie

Sunish said...

Thanks, Rahul. The CLASS [Computer Literacy and Studies in Schools] project, which was the first organized effort towards introduction of computers into our schools, and BBC Micro were instrumental in bringing computers within the reach of school students since 1984-85.

Jayadev said...

Good one, Sunish

Sunish Sugathan said...

Thanks a lot, Jayadevji.