I Helped Start This Mess

Rated PG

It was 1982. The computer wars were on. IBM had released its first, expensive PC. What was to become Apple had released the Commodore 64. Atari had their 400 and 800. Hewlett Packard had a huge box they consider to be a portable PC. Yeah, right.

I got my first computer, an Atari 400. A 4k machine. That’s right, four-thousand bytes. Your digital watch has more power in it. No hard drive, but I did have a cassette-tape drive. I learned to program in BASIC. Then I got a modem. It was a whopper, traveling at 12k. Don’t you dare grumble about internet speeds these days.

In 1984 and 1985 the computer war was still on, but it was starting to shake out some of the odd balls. Apple had become Apple and released the Apple II e, the Commodore 64 all but dead. IBM’s big white box was becoming common place, even in small businesses. To keep up, Atari released the 800XE. Essentially two 64k computers in one box. It wasn’t multitasking, but it was getting close.

I purchased an 800XE, and a mod-chip that allowed me to turn the second 64k bank into a RAM DRIVE. I obtained four Tandy 5 and 1/4 inch floppy drives and two modified Atari floppy drives, and a 56k modem. I was flying with over five-megs of drive space, at the fastest speed the phone company would allow.

It wasn’t enough that I had this stuff. I was going to do something with it. Some software, some work, and in April 1985, I launched – da-da-da! Atariship Enterprises. Okay, it is a lame name. But what did you expect from a geek?

For those who don’t know, which is probably most of you, before there was the Internet there was a series of open computers called BBSes. BBS stands for Bulletin Board System. People like me, nerds in colleges, university departments, and quite frankly the military, put computers onto open phone lines.

You had to know where they were. You had to have the phone number and have your computer dial them up. Once dialed the computer would automatically answer and link you into that answering computer’s software. The software allowed for the simple exchange of text – ASCII. Oh, but what you can do with ASCII. Messages, sure. That is where the idea of THREADS began. And you could type directly with the SysOp (the System Operator). We call it Chat now.

With carefully crafted ASCII characters you can play Tic-Tac-Toe or Battleship or Minesweeper. Yep, we had games. Lousy, but still games nonetheless.

One thing that I liked to do with my Atari back then was to draw. I had a tablet, a precursor to a Bamboo or other drawing tablets. With 64k machines you could get a whopping four colors at a time, with pixels the size of gravel. But if you were crafty and placed your colors next to each other in the right way, you could create the illusion of more colors and smooth out the blocky, pixilated look to some degree.

My favorite was drawing cartoon characters. The flat colors lent themselves well to the computer’s capabilities. George Jetson and his boy, Elroy. Thundar the Barbarian (hated him, but my ex love him, so…). Astro Boy. And of course I had to do some Star Trek characters. It was harder to take real life characters and translate them with any quality due to the computer’s limitations. But I did do a really nice Mr. Spock with his Vulcan Onk in the background.

In addition to messaging and chatting and games, it was possible on this crude, pre-internet system, to transmit files. There were some considerations. Was the file in a format that your computer could read? If the file was, let’s say a game written for a Commodore 64, then only Commodore 64’s could use it. As such, it was common for BBSes to either be computer specific (hence Atariship Enterprises) or for them to provide computer specific divisions on their systems.

Text and pictures however, were generally universal. Pictures, such as the graphics that I created, could not be displayed on the BBS itself. But a user could call in, download the file, disconnect, load their graphic software and then look at the picture – you could only do one thing at a time back then.

I posted my pictures on my BBS of course. One day I got a message from one of the regular users of my system. It was a very excited text. “OH MAN. You won’t believe the cool pic I downloaded from California. I just uploaded it to you. Check it out when you can.”

It was my drawing of Mr. Spock. My little drawing had crawled its way out of South Carolina, all the way across the country and back again, not through some constantly connected system like we have today. It had to be picked up by a user, who then dialed a new phone number and handed it off to that user, who then dialed a new phone number and handed it off, and so on.

Three years later Al Gore made some statement that everyone teases him about. That he somehow started, “The Information Superhighway,” which later became the Internet.

Bullshit. I helped start this mess!

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