Computers and stuff…

I got interested in electronics in my junior year of high school.  At first it was just GE_GENERAL_ELECTRIC_1940_TABLE_AM_TUBE_RADIO_MODEL_HJ514_WOOD_CABINETshort wave listening on an old radio that had belonged to my grandmother (vacuum tubes and a wooden enclosure).    I had fun stringing a wire antenna up in the biggest tree in the yard and listening to radio stations all over the world.

At the bottom of the radio’s shortwave band it could cover what was (I later discovered) a ham radio band.  I periodically heard people chatting there and it was obviously not commercial.  It piqued my interest and I started studying electronics (radio theory, actually) with an eye towards getting my ham radio license, which I did in my senior year of high school (more on that elsewhere).

During my Navy career I kept up my electronics studies, but I avoided getting into digital electronics, as I wanted to focus on my radio licenses (commercial and amateur)

In the early ’80s I got a job as an electronics tech where I was surrounded by computers of all types and sizes.   Of course I got interested and dove into digital electronics and computers.   (This is where the “I remember way back when, my first computer was….” happens)

vic20Anyway, I bought a VIC20 for the family.  The kids had fun playing games on it, but as something to do work with and learn on it wasn’t much.



z80_motherboardSo I bought a motherboard that was equipped to run CP/M (pre-DOS!).



Qume Data Trak 8 inch floppy disk drive with diskektte. Circa 1979, 1.2 MB. Photo by Michael Holley, July 2007
Qume Data Trak 8 inch floppy disk drive with diskektte. Circa 1979, 1.2 MB.
Photo by Michael Holley, July 2007

I had to buy floppy drives (8″!  used! $200 each!) and a terminal ($400!) for it, but I was up and running.  It even had Wordstar (early word processor).










It had an expansion slot on it, so I got interested in trying to build something.   I designed an I/O (input/output) board for it that would interface with my ham radio RTTY (radio teletype) setup.  Once I got the board built, I then had to learn how to write aS100 Prototype program to use it.

Starting from ground zero (not knowing how to program), I gradually wrote a program from scratch that eventually could decode incoming RTTY signals from my ham receiver, and generate outgoing messages from the keyboard out to the transmitter.

For months, I’d write and debug a new feature for the program, get on the air and test it by having a QSO (ham radio for “chat”) with someone, then start writing another feature.  That was some of the most fun I’ve ever had with ham radio.

Around that time the FCC released the restriction on ham from running RTTY as the only digital protocol allowed.  Soon hams were experimenting with other digital modes and protocols.

On the VHF (Very High Frequency – but not very high compared to what we use today) ham bands a group in Tucson developed what they called “packet radio”.  It was a method of relaying data from VHF ham radio transceiver to another automatically, forming a “local area network”.    I got into that and messed around with it for almost 10 years.  At that time most of the programs written to use packet radio were written in DOS  (this was at the very beginning of the IBM PC era).  I and several thousand other hams were using a combination BBS/forum/email server/IP router program written by a ham on the east coast.    He was adding features and fixing bugs in it and releasing new versions weekly, if not more frequently.

It got to a point where his program wouldn’t compile with the DOS compiler any more.  He sent his program to the vendor (Borland) and they told him it was the biggest most complex program they’d ever seen and they couldn’t help him.

So the ham moved his source code to an early Linux box and found that the Linux compiler would compile it just fine.  So he dropped the DOS version and started running it on Linux.   At least several hundred of us followed him and I’m sure for most of us it was our first exposure to Linux.

At that point in time, Linux was available only on floppy discs; a lot of them. The minimal install version I got was a set 1of 16 discs, and it omitted any kind of GUI (Graphical User Interface); that would have been another 16 discs and I wasn’t prepared to tackle that (it was very primitive and a major hassle to get working then).    But I got Linux installed (several times actually) and got it working enough to run the program.

That was my first exposure to Linux, and it was strictly for ham radio.  About a year later a version became available on CD and it included a GUI, which I installed.  Compared to Windows 3.1 (yeah, back then) it was butt-ugly, and I dismissed it.

kde1.1Another year passed, I got a newer version of Linux on CD and this time the GUI was sophisticated and not ugly.  I remember thinking “this could be a daily workstation”.   I installed it on a couple of old PCs to play with it (this was in about ’98).   A couple of years later I installed it on my office PC, dual-booting it with Windows (where you can select which operating system you want to run when you start up your computer).  As time went on I used Windows less and less, and eventually just took it off my computer and used Linux only (in about 2004 or 2005).  Several years later I switched my wife’s computer to Linux.  And promptly switched it back to Windows.  Not because of Linux but because pretty much every web page on the Internet was written for Internet Explorer 6 (which was kind of non-standard and thus pretty buggy).   At the time the only good browser for Linux was Firefox (a much earlier version than now of course).

I waited another 1-2 years, tried again with Beth’s computer and was successful; web pages had matured enough (as had Firefox) to allow a user to surf the web mostly successfully with Firefox.  Since then we’ve had no Windows on any computer in our household (with the exception of my work laptop).

It’s not all been smooth, but not having to worry about viruses and most malware has been a major benefit.  And while it’s not the prime reason for running Linux, not having to buy software is nice;  the majority of the software we use on Linux computers is available in their repositories for download and installation for free.   It’s digitally signed so you know it’s safe to use.