Burn In 7: DJ Adams

This is the eighth entry in the O’Reilly Radar series about how alpha geeks got into computers. DJ Adams is a Jabber and SAP hacker, O’Reilly author, and OSCON speaker.

DJ Adams’s Story

School was where I first discovered computers. It was 1977 or 1978,
and our school initially had a teletype with a dialup connection to a
minicomputer at Manchester University. There wasn’t any computing on
the curriculum; the device was just there to use if you were
interested. I didn’t really get a look-in because it was constantly in
use by sixth-formers and I was a lowly first year. However a short
time later the school took delivery of a PDP-11 from Systime, along
with two or three VDU terminals (built from steel) and some
paper-based terminals (one with a thermal printer and funky cassette
mechanisms for local storage). I remember we also had some Hazeltine
1421 terminals – how I remember those details I do not know.

The Systime system ran CP/M, and any schoolboy who wanted one could
get an account and spend time in the terminal room learning to program
BASIC PLUS, and using system utilities like PIP. We even had disk
quotas to take care of, and lots of other timesharing and multi-user
stuff to learn about.

The first program I typed in and ran was “guess the roll of the dice”.
*I* *was* *hooked*. Mornings before school, breaktimes, dinnertime,
after school, you’d likely find me and a handful of other social
misfits in the terminal room.

A year or three later the school chemistry department took delivery of
a Commodore PET. It was a bit strange, and none of us was really
interested because it sat on its own in the corner of the lab and …
didn’t seem to do much. We’d been spoiled by the fascinating multiuser
CP/M experience. Similarly, a Sinclair ZX81 arrived in the terminal
room, along with an old TV for a display. After a short while it was
mostly used as a football or a missile. We looked down our noses at it
from our PDP-11 cathedral.

Of course, to feed the addiction, I spent my pocket money on computer
magazines – “Byte”, “Computing Today” and “Your Computer” were
regulars with me. I still have a few copies from the late 1970s. Byte
was way out there, and had great writers; I remember Steve Ciarcia
(and his ‘Circuit Cellar’, most of which I never properly understood),
and Jerry Pournelle, a sort of forerunner of Dave Winer – *extremely*
annoying but popular with the masses nevertheless. Of course, Byte was
where I also got to know and learn from one of my all-time heroes Jon
Udell. Byte – where did you go?

My first personal computer was an Acorn Atom. My parents bought it for
me for passing my ‘O’ levels (my Grandma had tried to persuade me to
choose “a good bike” instead, as computers were “just a fad”). This
sealed my fate, and I spent night after night typing in programs from
computer magazines. I say night after night, because I didn’t have a
cassette deck to start with, so I lost everything each time I turned
the computer off. But I was happy to type and re-type. Quirky Atom
Basic and 6502 assembler. And there lies the secret. I learned to
program by reading other people’s code. Typing it in from listings in
computer magazines. Discovering code styles. To this day, my preferred
way of understanding a system is to print as much code out as I can
and then go and sit with it. Mostly in the bath. How often do you see
code listings in computer magazines these days?

Anyway, I still have Issue #1 of “Acorn User” magazine. I threw the
rest out a few years ago, and then saw copies in a retro shop near
Warren St in London selling for fifteen quid each. Sickening.

So that’s how I got into computers. To this day I have an aversion to
[what most people call] PCs these days … having started out on a
PDP-11, through the Atom and BBC Micro era, playing briefly on all
manner of minicomputers at University whenever I could (I read Latin
and Greek so it was limited ;-), I ended up as a graduate at work on
IBM big iron at an oil company in London – “proper computing”. Even
now I yearn for the times when writing JCL, programming ISPF and
hacking Rexx scripts together was part of my normal working day.