Computers I Have Known: Commodore Pet and the Apple II

In: Blog

I began learning programming when I was 12 or so, in Uranium City, a remote mining town in northern Canada. The high school, named after Canada’s homegrown reactor, the Candu (school motto: ‘We CANDU It!”) had been rebuilt the year before we moved back to town after fire had gutted one wing and when the school re-opened, it was one of the best-equipped high schools in the country, filled with everything from photo labs to welding and auto-body shops, dark rooms and video-editing equipment. And desktop computers, first the Commodore PIE, then the Apple II.

It’s easy to make fun of it now, but we were proud of the nuclear connection. Eldorado Nuclear, the government-owned operation that ran our mine and another big uranium mine in Ontario, printed out posters showing how uranium was refined, how the Candu reactor worked. These were put up in school hallways, and we were given copies to take home. For a couple of years, I had mine next to my poster of Farrah Fawcett, that iconic, exquisitely ‘70s portrait, Farrah’s hair fabulous hair tumbling about her shoulders. The Candu connection, along the beauty of the land around town, made us feel special. The Canadian government had banned the sale of uranium  for military purposes in the ‘60s, and the Candu was supposed to be the safest, most efficient nuclear reactor in the world. Let the Yanks have Three Mile Island: our nuclear industry, we felt, was the future.

It was the Maths teacher, Mr. Mah, who I believe brought in the Commodore PET (at the very last it was in his class that I learned to use it). The PET was an ungainly beast, its undersized monitor looking like a shrunken head atop its oversized body. The keys were too close together, and too small for even our just-adolescent fingers to type on (thus earning the moniker ‘chicklet keys’), and it stored a cassette instead of a floppy disk.

But it seemed plenty ahead of its time for the period – it even had 4K of RAM! You had to run a whole sequence of commands just to get it to run, but the satisfaction of seeing numbers stream past after a successful operation was intense. Perhaps because it was so difficult to get running, we wrote out our programs on sheets of paper. I still remember the long sheets of yellow foolscap we used, the commands mapped in a series of lines and circles, often written in pencil, programs covering page after page. Mostly we made up simple games, with a lot of IF/ELSE conditionals, outlining a series of ever more absurd encounters.

It was the right time to get into computers. The PET was the first home computer (SEE HISTORY), mass-produced for education and business. The era encouraged it, in a light-hearted way. Star Wars had been out a couple of years, but the intense fever surrounding the movie had yet to die down. Just a few years before, we’d landed a man on the moon; for many of us the space age just around the corner – I, for one, was sure we’d have a man on Mars before the end of the century. Programming, and computers, seemed an integral part of the space dawn to come.

Somewhere along the way, an early version of the Apple II arrived. I remember the Apple being a distinct improvement over the PET. Better screen, better keyboard, and that novelty of novelties, a floppy disk drive (check this). At the time, it seemed like a revelation: the future. Perhaps this is why, when the first laptops began to appear a decade and a half later, it was the Apple II I gravitated to, and Apple I’ve been with ever since.

Yet by the time Apple II came along, I was becoming less enthralled by computers, space travel, science, the life of the mind. I had more terrestrial concerns – girls and hanging out with new friends, rock bands, getting into trouble. By that point, computers seemed a dry alternative to a life of the senses, a prejudice, with a few respites, lasted until a few years ago.

My family moved to Vancouver, where I soon lost all interest in not just computers and programming, but school itself. A year after we left, Uranium City suffered a cruel fate when Eldorado very abruptly closed their mine, throwing 90% of the population out of work in just six months.

I’ve been back to Uranium City a few times, catching a succession of jets, busses and bush planes North to what is now a town of 87 people, and several miles of empty houses. My old high school closed for good in 1986, several years after the neighborhoods around it had been completely abandoned, and when I went back it had been abandoned a decade or more, all its equipment removed, a dark shell filled with refuse.

Then, almost by accident, I started programming again. A very different form of programming, on infinitely more sophisticated machines than the PIE or even the Apple II. Surprised to discover an old passion come back to the surface after all these years.

View of Uranium City