In the past, a parent or grandparent might clamber down from an attic room, clutching a dusty box. From that box, sections of slightly rusty model railway track, electric engines and a transformer that smelt distressingly like an electrical fire would be produced and a rainy afternoon would be spent trying to get a train running while battling the waning interest of children. Today, the middle-aged parent’s train-set equivalent is the retro (or ‘old’) home computer, with the same aim of engaging equally disinterested offspring, coupled with some Pythonesque “kids today!” rose-tinted nostalgia.
My first computer was a Texas Instruments 99/4a (a.k.a. TI99/4a), purchased by my father on the recommendation of an IT expert in his office. TI discontinued the thing the day after my father bought it (or so it seemed to 11 year-old me) and I soon (a) had to learn programming, as the supply of software rapidly dried up and (b) grew to detest this IT expert.
Built to military grade specification, the 99/4a is a hefty bit of kit and I added a Peripheral Expansion Box with its mighty 32 kilobytes of memory and 90 kilobyte 5 ¼ inch floppy disk. So heavy was this item, that it broke the MFI computer desk on which it was perched. 30 years before Eben Upton and the Raspberry Pi Foundation began trying to get school children interested in programming again, I was churning out text adventures and fighting with some of the more peculiar limitations (no more than 4 sprites on a line) of the 1980’s idea of cutting edge hardware. This was the decade that gave us neon leg-warmers after all.
While having not been troubled by exposure to an electrical supply for the best part of 25 years, my collection of Texas Instruments gear had been home to some birds and possibly a family of inquisitive mice. Once I had cleared the detritus, I was slightly nervous about applying power. I imagined, at best a blue spark and a puff of smoke and at worst… nothing. I was therefore delighted to see the below after plugging the console into a television:
Now I know how Dr Frankenstein felt when the monster arose from the slab. Except he didn’t have to explain to a confused child why the pictures on the front of the games boxes bore very little resemblance to the colourful blocks on the screen.
Do you have a bit of computing history languishing in a loft or a cupboard? Perhaps it’s time to see if it was as much fun as you remember or finally consign the non-functioning lump of plastic to a landfill, along with all those Atari 2600 games…