I’m old. Well I’m not really that old in the grand scheme of things, I just feel that way when I hang around game developers.
I got my first real computer time in the fall of 1982 by hanging around after school and hacking some stuff in BASIC on the Vic-20 in the library.Â I was in 5th grade at the time, and was by far the most computer-obsessed person I knew. That christmas my parents bought me a TI-99/4A and a little black and white TV to hook it up to. Technically the computer was a present for “the family”, but in practice it didn’t really work out that way. I was obsessed with the TI, and wrote all sorts of little games and other programs on it.
A few years later I spent all my accumulated allowance and paper route money on a Commodore 64. The C64 was a big upgrade, and included such advanced features as a floppy drive and a 300 baud modem. It also had the advantage of having a manufacturer that was still in the PC business. (TI abandoned its home computer line shortly after we got ours.)Â I spent quite a bit of time on the local BBSes, much to the delight of the other 4 people I shared a phone line with. Once I had a car began participating in one of the staples of the personal computer revolution: the computer club.
The local commodore user’s group met once a month in one of the classrooms at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. It was a group of 20-30 people, many of which came from the university or worked at the local Hewlett-Packard site. Computer enthusiasts were pretty few and far between in those days, and this was one place where we all fit in. Just about everybody in that room was a geeky, sci-fi reading, D&D playing male. Everybody could program to one degree or another, and more than a few knew their way around a soldering iron. Despite all the other things they had in common it was those last two that brought this group together: everyone wanted to do cool stuff with computers.
I don’t know if that kind of community disappeared or if I just fell out of touch with it. There are millions of programmers these days, and they are usually specialized enough that they barely speak the same language let alone program in it. Being a “hardware guy” now means that you are comfortable plugging together prebuilt components and hunting down device drivers online. The inexorable march of progress has pretty much made the computer itself disappear as something people get excited about. Nobody cares enough about specific platforms these days to even have the sort of trash-talking arguments Commodore and Apple fans used to have with each other.
Does this sort of passionate niche club still exist? TheÂ Seattle Robotics SocietyÂ might fall into that category. They spend their meetings talking about various components to build robots from and what sort of code to put on microcontrollers to make their robots do interesting things. The meetings feature lots of teenagers learning things about robots that they would never have any exposure to at school. There seems to be the same mix of Boeing engineers and college students that the computer clubs had.
What about others? Are there clubs for wearable computer enthusiasts? People who design programming languages? Quantum computing fans? Or are we nearing the end of the innovative period for computing and somewhere there are developing pockets of interest around nanotech or some other technology that doesn’t really exist yet?
It’s funny that I’m so nostalgic for something that was already going extinct by the time I got involved. My experience with the computer clubs was 10-15 years after theÂ Homebrew Computer ClubÂ spawned Apple Computer and others. The people I met in the clubs were not entrepreneurs to be, they were more like fans and maybe the occasional shareware developer. It’s been twenty years, and I’ve never seen any of those names show up as leaders of industry.
What about you? Are any of you old enough to have belonged to a computer club? Â :)