Oldskooler Ramblings

the unlikely child born of the home computer wars

Family Computing

Posted by Trixter on November 22, 2011

Today’s post over on Vintage Computing and Gaming’s Retro Scan Of The Week covered the magazine Family Computing, one of the lesser-known personal computing magazines of the 1980s, which brought back a memory that I think is important to share.  Normally I’d write a lot of historical info about Family Computing Magazine itself, but not today.  This post is less about Family Computing and more about how a simple choice my father made shaped my life.

In 1983, having started using the Apple IIs at my school for word processing and simple programming with LOGO, I became quite interested in computers and really wanted one, but our family didn’t have a lot of money at the time and couldn’t afford one, even a C64. My father was sympathetic to how I felt, and as a small consolation bought me a subscription to Family Computing Magazine. It turned out that the magazine subscription was just as valuable a gift as the computer I wanted. Whenever it arrived, I read it cover to cover in 2-3 hours, absorbing everything in that magazine and learning about every system on the market as well as what kinds of software and hardware were available for them.  More importantly, I also learned what other people were using their computers to accomplish, far beyond a simple checkbook balance or playing a game.  And for those specialized tasks, they were often writing their own software in BASIC.

That’s a nice memory, but not a life-changing one.  What changed my life, specifically, was the combination of three things:  My desire to use a computer + not actually owning one + the BASIC listings in every Family Computing magazine.  Every mag had a few BASIC programs that did various things, usually a utility program, a simple game, and some “mystery” program that displayed or printed some graphic or message and you had to run the code to see what it was.  They were written in Applesoft BASIC, with diffs for other computers of the time (usually Atari 8-bit, C64, TRS-80, and TI 99/4A were represented, with later diffs for Spectrum and PCjr’s sound and graphics).  Because we didn’t own a computer, I would spend hours tracing through the BASIC listings in my head to “run” them to see what they did.  Sometimes I had a pad next to me to jot down notes, as I couldn’t juggle more than 5-6 variables at a time. For the “mystery” programs that output graphics, I would plot the output on graph paper.  Each program was a puzzle to solve.  My brain became an emulator.

Dad saw me spend hours reading each magazine, and going over older ones, so he found a way to save monthly for a computer.  A little over a year later, he surprised the family with an AT&T PC 6300, which he was able to get at a discount because he worked at AT&T at the time. I nearly exploded, and barreled through that machine with a purpose.  I used that computer just as long as I read Family Computing, both until roughly 1989.

Today, I program in 8088 assembler for fun.  It calms me down.

Thank you, Joey Latimer, for writing all those BASIC programs, and thank you Dad, for a simple act of empathy.

One Response to “Family Computing”

  1. Oh wow, that reminds of when I used to do something similar with a book called something like “20 Games for the BBC Micro” – drawing 8×8 grids on paper and converting decimal byte values from the DATA statements to binary to plot the character definitions.

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