Being a geek


Being a geek in the 70s was not something that you knew was even possible – let alone knowing what it meant.

My earliest electronic gadgets were really radio sets.  I was am still fascinated by the ability to listen to radio chatter on the AM band (before FM happened) and the shortwave frequencies. I had tweaked my mom’s “Sanyo” handheld transistor set much to her chagrin (she could not listen to the radio after I was through it).  That radio allowed me to listen to what I thought were police transmissions or at least transmissions that sounded gibberish but official.  Hey, what does a 11 year old know in 1970?

Then came the calculator revolution around 1974 or so when I was in Secondary Three.  I really wanted a calculator – it was just  too cool a gadget.  But my pocket money was not going to be enough to acquire them.  Fortunately, the Straits Times’ classified section  was running a contest whose prize was a 8-digit calculator.  I wanted that.  Try as I might, but answering and submitting the questions to the contest got me zilch.  Oh bother!

In pre-university one, my math teacher announced that he will be running a computer programming class for those who could a)type,  and b) was good in math.  Not that I could type with anything beyond 3 fingers per hand, but somehow I got selected.  What happened, and this is 1976, was an experience that still holds dear to my heart.

We met on Saturday mornings in school, RI Grange Road, to learn a programming language called BASIC.  With that, we could write programs  to do most anything.  The catch was that the programs had to be hand written in long-hand and then typed into a stand-alone teleprinter.

This teleprinter generated a ticker-tape containing the code.  This tape was then fed into another teleprinter which was “online” and attached to a “Central Processing Unit”.  The CPU stood as tall as a refrigerator and was branded as a Fujitsu (with a subtitle “Donated by the Japanese Government to the Ministry of Education” or something like that).  Wow.  A machine that looked straight out of Star Wars!

The computer center was located at the Monk’s Hill Secondary School campus in Newton.  They had three off-line and one on-line teleprinters – not monitors!  To enter this room, one had to take off ones shoes as if walking into a holy place!

Alas, we did a bunch of coding and a whole lot of typing and retyping after the online teleprinter spat out the syntax errors.  In the end, most of us improved in our typing and being conscientious in writing the code long hand CORRECTLY.  You do not want to have to spin out meters and meters of 132 column paper and spools of ticker-tape! The prized outcomes of all of this effort was the generation of calendars for 1976, 1977 and a whole bunch of ASCII art – mostly inspired portraits of Mona Lisa, Mickey Mouse and the newly Mars-landed Viking spacecraft.

By the end of this computing adventure, which lasted about 6 months, I was finally rewarded with a Casio calculator.  My principal, Philip Liau, finally allowed the use of calculators in class as well as for exams (only for math though – the rest were to be tackled with log tables and slide-rules!).  The S$32 spent on that piece of electronic wizardry was well worth it (I still have it in working condition today).

My geekdom adventures went into a hiatus during most of my national service days.  And it was not until close to ROD in late 1979 early 1980 that the Apple ][s hit Singapore.  I could not afford that and settled for the Ohio Scientific Superboard II – a MOS 6502-based computer complete with 2K of RAM (upgradable to 4K).  For storage, it had an audio out connector to send the data out to a cassette tape player.  A picture of it is at: http://www.old-computers.com/museum/computer.asp?st=1&c=860

It cost me S$680 (in 1980) for the 2K RAM model which had an external power supply, a cable to send the video output to a television screen (via a modulator) and the connectors to the microphone and audio sockets of a cassette player.  The SBII had a in-ROM BASIC interpreter as well as a 6502 assembler.  No three-finger-salutes for this baby – just the “BREAK” key Ma’am! [on the extreme right]

This was my main machine until I got into the Singapore Polytechnic  where as part of my final year project, I had an opportunity to work on school’s newly acquired VAX 780.  The coding done was in FORTRAN 66 as well as on a CBM microcomputer running CP/M and some CP/M-based Fortran compiler (circa 1981/82).

Suffice to say, the rest from then on is history!

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