Everything is Bigger in Texas: What Was Your First Computer?

My father got me my first computer for Christmas in 1983. It was a TI-99 4/A. Rather than get me a monitor, he got me a small 13-inch color television to connect to it and that television lasted about ten years. If I looked hard enough I could probably find the home video of me opening those foundation-building gifts that Christmas morning. My cousin also got that same computer that day (he had the voice modulator expansion, however). I never knew anyone with the same machine as us – it felt like we were the only people in the world that had that computer.

By 1984, production of the TI 99 4/A had stopped and Texas Instruments was getting out of the home computer market. The bracketology of the personal home computer market had moved one round closer to the middle but I never felt as though I was missing out on anything. There was no internet, online game stats or cleverly diguised ad-driven social network environments; this was not George Orwell’s 1984. Even removing the filter of 80′s excess, the personal computer market was new and exciting regardless of the your particular type of hardware. When you got something you used it until you yourself got something else, not when the rest of the world told you it was time. I might have wanted a Commodore 64, but I had a Texas Instruments. I was, and still am, proud to say it.

Granted, at the time I was ten years old. Everything is relative.

When I turned up the volume on the TV, I could actually listen to the data move; it had a very real, organic sound.

I loved that computer, though. It had a cassette tape deck connected to it where you would store data. If you ever used one you understand exactly how awesome yet archaic it was. When I turned up the volume on the TV, I could actually listen to the data move; it had a very real, organic sound. But it was slow! One of the first games I had was, for the time, a very complex flight simulator and it would take about ten minutes to load from the cassette tape.

With Texas Instruments having bailed on the consumer market, there was limited fun you could have with their computers. Unless, of course, you were willing to make your own fun.

I learned how to program BASIC at a very young age. Family Computing was a magazine that I treasured. Every month it had a section full of programs that could be hand coded in BASIC. I diligently typed them all in and saved them to the cassette tape. Some of the programs were nothing more than the equivalent of an e-card for each holiday. I specifically remember one that was a Mother’s Day program and I changed to say Grandma’s Day. That was something.

My favorite weapon for fun was a small soft cover book bought from a B. Dalton bookstore in the mall. It was a book of game programs, again to be hand coded in BASIC. Most of these games involved getting a block from one end of the screen to the other. It was nothing terribly exciting, especially by today’s standards, but I had an imagination and I had seen the movie WarGames, so I knew anything was possible.

I would also call 800 numbers to get catalogues sent to the house with the hope that one or two pages would be dedicated to Texas Instruments. I only ended up owning one game cartridge for the TI: Imagic’s Microsurgeon. Like the movies Fantastic Voyage or Inner Space, you controlled a small ship that was sent into the body to alleviate the diseased areas of the body. Considering the graphical capabilities, this was a pretty advanced looking game. It was exciting and fun and I was able to learn something; before that game I had no idea what a spleen was but to this day I still don’t really know its purpose.

I was certainly no boy genius prodigy but I am proud of my humble beginnings (while at the same time trying not to sound too much like the “back in my day” guy). We are a long way from the days of children using books filled code to create things. Now things come ready made in neat and shiny packages. I am certainly not against change, but how far can you grow with a console? Sometimes the ability to be creative and constructive in one way can be lost within the tides of progress and innovation.

Have you seen a television repair shop lately?

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Charles Francis Moran VI, Comic, Gaming
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  • http://www.vhscomic.com/ Bee Tee Dee

    I had one of them thingers with a tape deck, possibly some sort of Tandy model, and a bunch of weird-ass shareware games, including something called Croid (rhymes with Freud!) which was supposed to be a psychoanalyst simulator, seriously. It was basically just an early version of an AI bot, it would ask you questions and then ask follow-up questions based on a key word ("how do you feel about _____?"). And then there was the TRS-80 CoCo, which seemed ALMOST as good as an NES if you didn't know any better… It even had a Mario clone of sorts called Downland, which wasn't as good as SMB but probably better than 90% of early NES titles. There was also a Pinball game with a level editor, you could set it up so the fucker basically played itself. Good times?

  • Stu Horvath

    My first computer was an Apple IIc. The more I think about it, the more I remember playing some really fantastic games on that thing. There was Zork and the rest of the Infocom games, of course, but also Transylvania, one of my all time favorite games and the first to give me nightmares (that werewolf in silhouette was pretty terrifying); Saracen, a Crusades themed puzzle/maze game; the Carmen San Diego games and the Temple of Apshai trilogy. The most painfully frustrating was a game I had called Captain Goodnight and the Islands of Fear. Good luck getting to the second level of that, but it was so awesomely pulpy, I desperately wanted to. We also had a subscription to one of those disk magazines, Uptime or Softdisk. I remember waiting with no small amount of excitement for the new one to come every month.

    I wonder what a IIc goes for on eBay…

  • http://www.donbecker.org Don Becker

    I'm right there with you, Charles. My first computer was a TI-99 4/A as well. No expansion packs, a few games that were obvious rips of arcade games (one was a Space Invaders clone that my mother played constantly – yes, my mom was a gamer Mom), but I spent a fair amount of time writing rudimentary games in BASIC. I think we got ours a little earlier in the product cycle, maybe 1981 or 1982.

    Two fond memories: 1.) My aunt asked me to show my cousin's boy scout troop basic BASIC programming, but then the whole thing turned into a two-hour video game party. 2.) My dad and I soldering together an adapter that would allow us to use our Atari 2600 joysticks with the TI (same 9-pin connector, different schematics). In retrospect, we sure got a lot of mileage out of those Atari joysticks, since they also worked on the C64 that I graduated to in 1983.

    Unrelated thought: I never knew Imagic made games for the TI, let alone Microsurgeon. That game creeped me right the hell out on Intellivision.

  • http://japanesedudegirl.blogspot.com/ Chuck

    The pin out on Atari joysticks seemed to be almost an industry standard for a while there. When I first saw a Nintendo gamepad, and it had that different connector, and extra button, it was like being in the future.

    Imagic had amazing artwork for their cartilages. The Demon Attack one was most bad ass.

  • http://www.maynardfilms.com Michael Sheridan

    My first computer was a Commodore VIC-20 (see it here – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commodore_VIC-20 ) in 1980 or 1981, which consisted of little more than a keyboard. I was 5 or 6 years old. It had cartridges that were connected via wire and aluminum foil (I kid you not!). My brother and I were so excited that Christmas, cuz when we found the box before Dec. 25, we thought it was an Atari.

    We were wrong.

    The first thing we did with it was spend nearly an entire day programming a game, which was a simple maze game. No levels or anything, you simple had to guide a smiley face from the center of the maze to the exit, which I recall was in the lower right hand corner.

    We had it attached to a small black and white television. I remember we used to get a Commodore magazine, and in it every month they had the code for a game you could type into the system. I spent a day typing in the code for a mailman game. I never got it working quite right.