I grew up in a household of modest means. Though my father often brought home smaller gadgets and tech tools, a costly purchase like a computer or game console was beyond our budget. And so I used to sit and listen to elementary school friends boast about their shiny new Ataris or Commodores, knowing we couldn’t afford such luxuries. Then it happened — a last-minute ticket in a church holiday raffle sent me home with my very own Radio Shack Tandy TRS-80 Color Computer.
I remember my dad unboxing the 8-bit goodness, hooking up the myriad cables to the television, and I sat in awe, dreaming of all the brilliant things I would do on this machine. Not that my little pre-pubescent self could’ve imagined anything remotely hackerish — see War Games, 1983 — but I fantasized about writing the great American novel or drafting an international treaty for world peace. Okay, fine, really all I wanted to do was brag about my new computer at school the next day. Sounds measly now, but that floppy drive and 64k memory were very respectable at the time, and I was hot to spout off about it.
Those early days were exciting. I looked at that big clunky typewriter-style keyboard as if it held secrets. It was a modern form of mysticism, no doubt about it, and as a thoroughly modern kid, I sat at its altar trying to learn how to cast spells. Unfortunately, with just youthful enthusiasm but no training at all, the most I could do was play Blackjack, Pacman and Berzerk. And that’s just what I did, right after school, in the evenings and on the weekends. Even if I wanted to do something more productive, I couldn’t — we didn’t have a compatible serial printer, so homework was out of the question.
It didn’t take long for my older brother to start sniffing around. And for a long time, I was bitter about him hogging the computer. In hindsight, however, I think it was for the best. Years later, he wound up getting a computer engineering degree from Boston University, and I like to think I and my raffle prize had something to do with that. Indeed, I believe that old TRS-80 was the first piece of hardware he ever took apart.
The computer was a few years old by this point, and it had been collecting dust in the back of our closet. It was a pattern that was destined to repeat itself over and over again throughout the course of my life — shiny new thing, obsession and over-use, then relegation to the tech graveyard in the hallway cubby. But when it came to this computer, something very noteworthy happened.
I had never seen the inside of any electronics before. I was mesmerized, watching my brother perform his tech surgery and amazed at how those soldered circuits and boards were responsible for all those many hours of fun. I couldn’t believe that human beings were able to design something so complex, and yet so embraceable and entertaining. Of course, I was still too young to articulate that — I vaguely recall uttering something like, “Whoa, cool” — but I distinctly remember being blown away and wanting to know more. Looking back, I only now realize what a crucial time that was. It was the moment that ignited a lifelong curiosity and forever turned me into a tech fan.
In some ways, I wish I hadn’t won the TRS-80 in a raffle because I just don’t know who to thank for this enormous gift. Is it that church? The sponsor? Fate? I don’t know, but I will always be grateful.