06-My Early Days with Computers


I caught the computer bug early on. I took a night class where they told us about mainframes and Basic programming and showed us punch cards. We got to write our own little programs with these punch cards. My first try was much too complicated. I figured out later that Dungeons and Dragons was not the best model for a first attempt at programming. This exposure, however, satisfied some of the creative itch.

I lusted after the very, very early computer models. I used to go into Eatons Department Store and stare at them, watching them, learning a little bit. I learned to program a loop, so the screen would say, endlessly, ‘Hi, I’m a machine” or “Hello World”. It was a big thrill to give that first command and see it obeyed.

These early models were sold where they had the calculators and I would hang around and look but I wasn’t ready to buy yet. I really wanted something called an Exidy Sorcerer which was sold at a little start-up store on Queen Street East, in Toronto, Ontario.

I was being downsized from my job with an insurance company, so I took a portion of my retirement funds and studied on getting my first computer.

There was a man called Harold who was the driving force behind the local shortwave listeners club here in Toronto (ODXA). He knew technology and he was a very practical man. I trusted his judgment. Whatever he was going to buy, I was going to buy. So I watched and I listened and wrote him emails and made a general nuisance of myself. Then, I got exactly what he got, an Apple II+ early Apple clone. I’m glad I did. It was one of the best investments I ever made. Apple did not turn out to be the model most businesses chose but every job I got thereafter was based on my knowledge of computers. Even knowing just a little bit about the new technology went a long, long way in those early days.

With the Apple, I got my feet wet. I used to go to the Apple User group meetings held in a big high school auditorium. This auditorium would be pretty well filled by computer hobbyists, the early adopters of the technology. Floppy disc sales were at the back of the hall. I would study the list of programs and games available and buy. These were on 5 1/2″ floppy discs, of course.

Eventually, I ended up running the telecommunications SIG (Special Interest Group) We met at a local library. They let us run a long extension cable, after hours, from their phone to our 1200 baud modem in the meeting room computer. We could get online, thus proving that we could. There wasn’t as much to do then online as there is now but, hey, we were there.

I also got involved in early Unix and attended a local group called ‘Unix Unanimous’. Yes, you heard that right. Unix Unanimous was the name of the group. I also got involved with Usenet and a very kind man from Unix Unanimous, Bruce, helped me to get started. I had by then segued over to the Amiga, an early multitasking computer with excellent graphics for the times. It had a Unix flavour. With Bruce’s help I was able to set up my own Newsgroup. The first in Toronto to do this on an Amiga 500, a big deal in those times.

I upgraded my computers about every 3 years. I joined an Amiga user group and later ended up running this at the 519 Church Community Centre in Toronto. Popular with a small group of loyal fans, this group was called ABUG. I scoured the Internet for public domain programs to demo at this group. Like most such groups, it was a hands-on Show-and-Tell kind of production. In the meantime, at work, I had learned to use the AES Word Processor/Computer.

AES Data successfully marketed its brand of word processors worldwide until its demise in the mid-1980s. It was a true office machine and organizations, such as medium-sized law firms, could afford an AES. The AES machine could be learned and operated by secretarial staff which was a big deal. These were big clunky machines. The printers were extremely noisy and had heavy plastic covers to mute the noise so you could hear yourself talk during a print job. They broke down a lot. Technicians used to come in regularly about every two weeks and patch them up. Later on, I learned to run a few simple CP/M command line instructions on the AES Data machine.

Later, I wrote a very bad novel in CP/M’s Wordstar.

A law office hired me as a temp because I had some computer background. That first AES job was a baptism of fire. Had to figure everything out myself but, thereafter, the AES machine was my meal ticket, as a temp at Environment Canada and later as a temp and then full-time employee with Industry Canada. As computers grew, so did I until I trained myself to create websites and I ended my career as a Webmaster.

wavy line

© Sonia Brock 2005