BCUG’s 25th Anniversary Countdown
By Fred Kagel, Club Historian

The early format of the club’s 3rd Friday of month meeting started with an informal gathering of some 30 or 40 people crowded in and around the Electronics Lab classroom about a half-hour before the main meeting. The lab provided workbenches, tables and plenty of electrical outlets, which was convenient for members to bring their systems to the meeting — and many did. Also present were lots of kids. It was a nice father and son thing, this computer craze. After all, many of the original programs for the TRS-80 were games, and who better to play games than were the kids. But actually, the kids were very bright kids and their computer interests went well beyond just playing the games. These kids knew game playing strategies, but they also knew about memory locations and how to make copies of cassette programs. Today, many of these kids, I am told, are still in the computer field (author’s note: please have these grown-up kids contact me via email below).

The main meeting was focused on sharing tidbits of news and information, latest bargains, prices, sources for hardware, and mostly random access on problems, problems, and more problems. One of the first word processors, the Electric Pencil, was a favorite of the club. At one meeting, George Somers demonstrated a hacked (modified) routine to enable a simple thing we take for granted today, line centering. Source code was readily available to be able to do things like that. Sharing code was the rule not the exception, or at least we thought of it as "sharing" at the time.

The original TRS-80 came with 4K of RAM and BASIC built into ROMs, so when you turned on the machine you had an instant operating system. Unfortunately, you had nothing else! No programs, no accessories, just a "READY" prompt. You could program in BASIC and then save your program to cassette tape or load a program.

An ordinary cassette player was the initial I/O at an amazing speed of 500 bps. Everyone seemed to agree that the cassette tape was one of the most infuriating things about the early days. The data transfer was so dependent on the getting the volume control, yep the volume control, just right. Oh, yeh, there was also a visual cue that data was transferring. Two asterisks, affectionately called Bert and Ernie by a 7 year-old, would blink as the data was being transferred. Nothing was more aggravating than to load a tape forever and ever, but then forget to adjust the volume control. Worse yet, Bert or Ernie would get stuck and stop blinking. The volume was critical.

"We were always one step ahead of Radio Shack," proudly stated Dave Kelly. When I had a problem with programs not loading, I took the cassette recorder back to Radio Shack and told them it wouldn’t work. The Radio Shack people said, ‘It works fine. We a put a cassette in and it plays nice music!’"

Bob Buus and Dave Kelly built black boxes that contained a meter to indicate good cassette saves and cassette loads. Dave recounted a story of a guy to whom he sold a cassette meter for five dollars. He bumped into the guy at a computer show three years later. "‘You know, Dave, it doesn’t work anymore’ — like what does he want from me after three years and five bucks!"

The TRS-80 came with Level I BASIC. Radio Shack later provided Level II ROMs and a conversion tape to go from Level I to Level II BASIC. You ask, "What is the difference?" Try programming with just two string variables and one array variable — that was the difference! Burke Mawby recently recalled that the little Timex Sinclair had a more powerful BASIC than the other BASICs of its day. He, too, needed more advance routines for running his business. ANYTHING was more advanced!

The screen displayed two text modes: 64 and 32-characters per line. Remember RAY? "Who the hell was RAY?" bellowed Kelly. Once again, if the volume sensitivity of the Level II conversion tape wasn’t just right, the system went into the 32-characters per-line mode, so "READY" became "RAY" — get it?

We all know how sensitive a computer is to static electricity, line voltage, but who examines cold or oxidized soldering joints these days? We did! Jeff Baumwell remembered the dreaded reboot. "You’d be in the middle of a program and wham! I never got gold plugs. Vince Fabricatore had an asbestos cleaner to clean the cable connectors." Others remembered using an ordinary pencil eraser to clean off the oxide build up.

Cassette programs came in BASIC, which you could run from a prompt, or came as machine language programs which required entering into the SYSTEM and running directly from a memory location. Jeff stood out as "The Collector." It was his job, his living, — really, or so the story goes. Jeff used to come to the meetings with a briefcase loaded with programs on cassette. "One meeting I brought a fake pair of handcuffs and attached them to the briefcase," laughed Jeff.

You could always depend on Jeff. "Hey Jeff, you got ________? "Yeh, I got _____ and I also got _____. It’s better." With program disks, if you had a 3.2 version, Jeff had 4.2. "It really was my job! I was one of the original Beta testers for Lotus 1-2-3."

"‘Pirates’ was a dirty word," Clay remembered. "That’s what we were. But there was also a fascination with PRINT ‘CLAY’ one thousand times. David Lien’s book was the best book out there to learn programming. After all, I was fairly old to learn to program. Once, in Cherry Hill, Earl Bach and I went down there in a snowstorm to a Radio Shack seminar. I took along some programs I was working on thinking I’d get some answers. We had the whole place to ourselves. I showed some of the Radio Shack people my listing — all twelve feet of it! ‘Will you take a look at this?’ they announced to others. ‘How would you like to list your program in our Applications Book?’ I get calls from all over the world, and I also still get letters with checks dropping out."

The next installment digs further into the talented and influential members of the club: programmers, technical gurus, educational leaders, authors, and contest winners.

Compiled and excerpted by Fred Kagel from conversations in 1986 with Dave Kelly, Jack Miller, Clay Adams, Vince Fabricatore, Jeff Baumwell, and in 2003 with Burke Mawby. Fred may be contacted at fkagel@optonline.net to add your own recollections. Please use subject: BCUG 25th Anniversary.