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The pre-PC era

I can't remember when I first heard the word "computer", but if we look at the topic in a somewhat broader sense I do remember my first contact with a device that did compute. Numbers, to be precise. It was on Christmas, and I remember I went to elementary school. I'm not sure about the year though, but it was the early '70. One of the presents under the Christmas tree was given to my older brother and me, because it was so expensive. It turned out to be a bulky black box that my brother recognized as a "pocket calculator".

While I was still trying to imagine a pocket large enough to hold this box (the pockets on boy's pants were small back then), my dad turned it on and it showed a magic red glow - LEDs, as we know now. I believe it was a Texas Instruments calculator, quite simple, but it could do impressive things. E.g. you could turn the display upside down and type funny words. After two hours the fun was over because the battery was empty.


Slow progress

While we were investing at least the purchase sum of the calculator in new batteries, progress in terms of computing wasn't exactly impressive (or so I thought. My opinion would have been different if Bell Labs had been across the street, but they weren't). Calculators became more affordable, and the LCD displays meant the batteries would last a lot longer. Finally I got my own TI-35 calculator for use at school.

It lasted a few years until I found out the hard way that LCD displays are not shockproof. The upside was that it got hold of the polarizing filter that covers each LCD display (the change when a segment is switched on or off is only visible under polarized light). It was a nice tool for looking at crystals under the microscope and do other funny things. We also found out that by changing the position of the polarizer you could switch any calculator display into a white-on-black mode. Way cool

As a replacement I had to buy one of these "scientific" calculators that have more functions than anyone would ever need (regardless, it was mandatory for the pubescent psyche to have more functions available than the bench neighbour). It looked impressive and actually still works today. This one is not a TI, but a no-name from the German retailer "Quelle", something like "Sears" in the US.


A quantum leap

While my friends were fiddling with useless toys like the Sinclair or Commodore C64 computers that started to spring up back then, I wanted to get my hands at a real fascinating calculator: A Hewlett-Packard programmable calculator. I used to work for a few hours per week after school, so eventually I had the enormous sum handy that would buy me a HP-41 CX (yes, the one with built-in timer and function/memory modules) along with that even more fascinating card reader. I had seen similar calculators at a friend's home and just had to have one too.

This was when I got introduced into the magic of computer programming. Just tell that little box what to do, and it would do so repeatedly without moaning and groaning. I was taking an advanced math course back then in school, and programming numeric math methods was fun and helped me solve part of my homework.

Don't get me wrong - this was not about cheating. Until then I had had pretty good success with a somewhat non-systematic approach to math. I had some gut feeling how a problem was to solve, and by rearranging stuff on the paper in a semi-intelligent fashion I usually got where I had to get to. But programming my HP tought me something important: If you understand a method well enough to teach it to a stupid calculator, divided into tiny steps, you really understand that method. So I acquired a more systematic approach to math as a result of my HP hacking. Math was my best subject in the final exams although I was done in less than half the available time in the written exam.

Just before the final exam I also enjoyed a course in informatics. This was an entry-level introduction into computer programming using some funny Commodore BASIC consoles (the ones with tape drives to store your programs). While this course didn't add much to my understanding of programming, it at least taught me another language, namely BASIC.

I didn't see any needs to upgrade my data processing equipment for the first two years that I attended university, but then something unforeseeable happened - my personal pc era started.