Computer Clubs

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.  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.)  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? The Seattle Robotics Society 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 the Homebrew Computer Club 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?  :)

~Joe


13 Responses to “Computer Clubs”

  1. John Scott Tynes commented on :

    Wow, great post, Joe. I joined the Memphis Color Computer Users Group around 1982, which was devoted to the Radio Shack CoCo. It was also a pretty motley group although I was by far the youngest person there (I was 11). The club had a guy who contributed an original hardware project to the newsletter every single month for years; it was amazing stuff, experimental game controllers and voice synthesizers and all kinds of crazy Radio Shack hackery. I loved that group and wrote reviews for the newsletter now and then.

  2. Joshua Kriegshauser thought on :

    Always great to meet other enthusiasts of the TI-99/4A. I loved that machine. I started doing BASIC programming on it in 3rd grade (saving to cassette of course), plus games like Parsec and MunchMan were a lot of fun. My parents took me to a swap meet where I found an Extended BASIC cartridge and I thought I was in heaven! Finally, I could do moving sprites! I also found the expansion box for it at a garage sale with the floppy disk and the 32K RAM upgrade.

    It was a great machine and I look back upon it with fond memories.

  3. Joe commented on :

    Ooh, the Extended BASIC cartridge was always on my wish list but I never managed to get one. Lucky bastard!

    Instead I customized the fonts to show my own sprite-like elements and moved them on 8 pixel boundaries. I even made a crappy kid-in-middle-school clone of GridRunner with a player ship spread over four characters. It was awesome.

  4. Loredena wrote on :

    The first computers I used were the TRS-80 in middle school, and the Apple 2E in HS. My senior year we got one of the very first IBM PCs. While in college I got my own IBM Junior. My first, and only, true PC club was in the late 80s while living in Boca Raton Fl. At that time I was hooked on BBSs and USENET. Pretty much all of my programming was done on midrange computers; I now work with SharePoint, but I’m no longer a developer.

    Man. I’m old!

  5. Matthew Weigel replied on :

    I got started on a Tandy CoCo 2, around ’84 or ’85, in Kindergarten, but I didn’t have a modem until ’95. I managed to get some play time on MUDs at the library a year or two before that, but I am definitely too young for a computer club. :-)

  6. Darius K. commented on :

    I still have the TRS-80 I learned on.

    Also, Arduino user groups are similar in lot of ways to the old computer clubs, in terms of getting passionate about hardware.

  7. Daniel James replied on :

    It was at my school’s computer club that I was introduced to MUD — the guy who ran it handed me a clandestine PSS (packet switch switch stream, X25 network) ‘test’ ID and instructions to remote login to Essex University’s DEC10. That was 1982! Within a few months I was writing MUDs on the school BBC Micros’ ‘Econet’ network. I was a solidly BBC kid; BBC basic was awesome, functions, proceedures, network and disc access, and you could inline assembler!

    There were very odd MUDMeets etc. over the years, but I never had the homebrew computer club experience. I do fondly remember the trade shows, though, where one would buy a modem or something from the guy that built it.

  8. TimothyFitz said on :

    SuperHappyDevHouse!

    “The premier monthly hackathon event that combines serious and not-so-serious productivity with a fun and exciting party atmosphere.”

    It’s not quite the same thing, but it is a fun modern alternative.

    http://superhappydevhouse.org/

  9. Dominik replied on :

    It’s funny that you mention a robotics society. 1982 is actually my year of birth, so I don’t have any first-hand experience with computer clubs, but when I read the post, the first thing I thought about was the group of robotics grad students that I met while writing my final thesis as an exchange student at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. There were people working on the Grand Challenge, on Mars Rovers, on biped humanoids and loads of other cool stuff and they could all get pretty excited about new sensory and manipulatory hardware to put on their robots. Robotics is actually pretty much the only field that I can think of where there are programmers who still (have to) care about their hardware a lot.

    Thinking about this also brought back fond memories of reading every single post on the PotBS forums for six months while working in the lab at CMU. :-)

  10. Matthew E Imbery replied on :

    Hi guys
    I would like to know if you guys could help me out with a TRS-80 Model I. This computer has been in our family since the day that I eas born. I pluged it in for the first time in 20 years every thing comes on but there is garbage that appears on the screen.

  11. Jeff Doak commented on :

    I miss the computer club days as well. I was in the school computer club in 7th grade in 1982. I didn’t have a computer yet. I didn’t get into programming until later with C64/128, TRS-80, Atari 400/800, and Apple 2e. The commodores were my favorite. Of course I was biased because that’s the one I owned.
    I was fascinated by the Ultima series and kept digging around to find out how they programmed them. Their games were full of programming tricks.

  12. shawn said on :

    My grandfather (87 years old) uses his Apple 2 E every month for an accounting program, and it apperas to have a problem printing as of last week. He can no longer print because the program is to big, after 30 years who would have thought it. Any ideas of how I can help hime get it running agian?

  13. OlderThanU thought on :

    Go to blazes. You are making me feel old. Yes, I started a computer club and I still love programming. Robotics is the next wave. Go get involved.

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