The Little Computer that Taught Me

The TI 99/4a from Texas Instruments still looks pretty awesome after 32 years!

The personal computer I really wanted to work with back then was the Apple II but as a university student of modest means the big Apple was too much for my bank account to handle. I considered the Commodore VIC-20 and Atari 800, both more popular but they were inferior engines of calculation. The TI 99/4a contained a true 16-bit CPU that might be considered one of the first RISC chips available to home users. But I didn’t know anything about CISC vs RISC or 8 vs 16 bits. I only knew that I could afford it, that it ran BASIC relatively fast, and I could save my programs to cassette tape. I no longer have a TI 99/4a but I still have the matching cassette recorder, which also doubled as an ordinary audio cassette player.

Back then there was a truly great hobbyist computer magazine called COMPUTE! Every month it would contain the source for several BASIC and machine code programs for each of the home computers of the day. I would dutifully type in each program for the TI 99/4a and then modify it beyond recognition. After a few months I started creating my own, original works, that served no other purpose but to amuse me. My TI99/4a started to attract other nerds (I don’t think we had the word hacker back them) and thus began a journey that took me from painting and drawing pictures with brushes and pens to developing real software on serious computer systems.

The simplicity and limitations of the TI 99/4a gave me an advantage that today’s young hackers lack: Focus. There was no question about where to begin and what to begin with. Most importantly I had to type in every line of code myself: No cut and paste (it had not been invented yet) and no code editors with auto complete. All my code was DRY because wet code was too time consuming to type in.