Is heat a catalyst for nostalgia? Last weeks’ heatwave seems to prove that it might well be. Being stuck at home at an arm’s length from the AC did brought-up some souvenirs. I was in Manama when I’ve put my hands for the first time on a computer! If I had to pick a single event that made me fell for computers some 35 years ago, I would simply say “777”. Let’s be clear, this has nothing to do with Boeing’s wide-body jetliner. But instead with the 777th issue of the French magazine Science & Vie I was reading avidly when I was a kid (think about it as the equivalent of PopSci in the US).
In less than four pages, the author of the paper that transformed my kid life depicted a mindboggling near future. And I was daydreaming – ok drawling is more accurate – of a chocolate bar sized computer that I could carry everywhere I go! (Literally, the paper’s title was Les ordinateurs tablettes de chocolat). Of course, my only exposure to computers at the time was what sci-fi novels and TV series depicted. Equipped with such a powerful tool in my pocket, the universe was at reach – and all my questions would be answered in a jiffy. I let you imagine the magnitude of my disappointment when after a year of heavy lobbying with my parents, I unboxed my very own Sharp PC-1211, the first pocket computer programmable in BASIC language. So just to make it clear, if you never used a PC-1211, reflect on these amazing stats (this was in 1980): 4-bit CPU, a whopping 1424 bytes to continuously memory to store programs and data (yes, this is barely more than 1KB!). The machine was pretty cool though – with its characteristic brushed aluminum finish, a real QWERTY keyboard, 200 hours of battery-powered operations and a beautiful yellow LCD display (one full line of 24 characters). I remember keying in one by one the sample programs shipped with the computer and spending hours to run them, varying the inputs and trying to guess what the output might be. And I had the time to guess because paced at 256 kHz, there is no way you could break any speed record (maybe the power off one :-)).
The applications manual – as well as the instruction manual – was quite remarkable, but to me, it was like drinking from a fire hydrant. The disappointment really came from the fact that computers are dumb! And my PC-1211 was a true role model regarding that attribute! So I had to accept the fact that computers were not these omniscient and omnipotent devices I was dreaming of. But rather advanced calculators you can teach some simple tricks. As time was going, I got back into the saddle and learned to love these remarkable machines. A few years later, when I described to my perplex French teacher why one would spend hours playing with a calculator, I remember saying that “as soon as I had a machine and a source of power, only my imagination was the limit to what I could do!” I still believe today that this is true, and I learned it with my beloved Sharp PC-1211.