In the same year that Apple introduced their first personal computer – and a full four years before IBM came on the scene in 1981 – Commodore launched their first PET. While the Apple II quickly gained popularity among home users the PET, with its robust metal casing, caught the eye of the education establishment and became a big hit in schools.
Meanwhile back in Jersey, Freddie Cooper (Mr. C. to his friends), a qualified teacher, was running The Learning Centre – a combined social club and educational centre – where he carried out private tutoring for children with learning difficulties in addition to a whole range of sporting/social activities for local kids. He soon realised the potential of personal computing, and began to work on Computer Aided Learning (CAL) techniques. Freddie Cooper was a keen user of infant, emerging CAL techniques.
A couple of years later I joined the club, pretty much the only place to do anything on the estate where I lived at the time. It was housed in a building next to St. Michael’s School (pictured) – a posh private boarding school. They always seemed to be trying to buy it from Freddie Cooper but never managed to until 2002 when he finally retired. In addition to mini football pitches, full-size snooker and pool tables, table tennis and more creative ‘arty’ activities, there was the odd computer and games console floating around (such as the fantastic Atari 2600).
I quickly became fascinated by the Commodore PET, and spent each of my allotted half-an-hour slots looking through the code rather than playing the games themselves. (In those days software was loaded manually via a cassette player, and then manually run (unless it was clever, and executed automatically). Before running you could use the appropriately-titled LIST command see the code on-screen).
I began playing around with the code, and talked Mr. C. into letting me print off portions on his dot matrix printer. Realising that I had a bit of a knack with the PET, I began experimenting with my own programs, and within a short space of time started writing basic CAL software for a couple of pounds a shot. Over time these got more and more complex, and Reading University took an interest in what we were doing. Sadly nothing came of it. I did get a rise to Â£5 per program – which were now being tailored to suit the specific needs of each of Freddie’s students.
At the age of 16 I was approached by a local software company and offered work. I did the sensible thing and decided to see my education through – take note, Bill Gates. The reference that Mr. C. wrote for me back then survives to this day.
Other casual programming work did come my way, writing games and bits of demo software for local business-machine suppliers. This gave me the chance to get my hands on some of the latest technology without ever being able to afford to buy any of it – ‘beauties’ such as the Commodore VIC-20, Commodore 64, the Acorn/BBC Micro and last but not least, the Sinclair Spectrum – the 48k model, I hasten to add.
As for the career in computer programming, it never quite happened – although my skills did come in handy many years later when I set out to create the first version of FrontlineSMS.