The Best of Creative Computing Volume 2 (published 1977)

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Amateur Computing (Amateur Computer Group of New Jersey, What is Amateur Computing?, Who are computer amateurs?, What do computer amateurs do?, How does one get into amateur computing?)
by Sol Libes

graphic of page


by Sol Libes, President

Amateur Computer Group of New Jersey

What is Amateur Computing?

Amateur computing is private computer use, in one's own home, of one's own
computer-a computer that is most usually home-built and microprocessor based.

Amateur computing is the prelude to the future of a computer in every home. lt
is following in the tradition of Amateur Radio.

At the turn of the century when Marconi developed the antenna and demonstrated
that radio signals could be transmitted significant distances, amateur radio
experimenters eagerly began experimenting. They developed transmitters and
receivers, communicated with one another, improved equipment, expanded the range
and frequency spectrum. It was not until the 1920's that commercial broadcasting
began and the home radio receiver became common-place.

It was the radio amateurs, experimenting in basements and attics, who laid the
foundation for the home radio receiver. In 1900, if you had tried to tell
someone about radio receivers, they would not have even understood what you were
talking about. The situation in home computers, today, is much the same.

Today, amateur computer hobbyists are embarking on the road toward the home
computer. It began in the 1960's with the availability of economical digital
lC's (integrated circuits). With them, a few determined pioneers built home
computers to perform special functions. Around 1972, a company called INTEL
introduced a single IC which contained most of the circuitry for a small control
type CPU (central processing unit), This IC, called the 8008 MPU (microprocessor
unit) made it possible for amateurs to start building home computer systems.
They interfaced them to TTY's (teletypes) and started to use them for general
purpose applications (like game playing) and applications for which the
manufacturer had not really designed them. But then again, amateur home
experimenters are always doing things like that.

With the 8008, amateur computing, as a hobby was born. In 1974, INTEL introduced
the 8080 MPU-more powerful, faster, and easier to use than the 8008. Motorola
and several other manufacturers introduced MPU's, prices dropped and the hobby
began to grow, There were several hundred homebuilt computer systems.

In January 1975, MITS Inc. introduced the ALTAIR 8800 CPU kit (using the 8080)
making it even easier to build a home computer system. Now there are several
dozen kits on the market (in a future article we will try to rate them) and
several  thousand computer hobbyists.

The hobby is growing like wildfire-particularly as home machines become easier
to assemble, more powerful and lower in cost, Before long, home computing will
go commercial too, as radio did, and we will see a computer in every home!

Who Are Computer Amateurs?

Like radio amateurs, amateur computer hobbyists come from all walks of life.
There are high school students, teachers, computer programmers, researchers,
radio amateurs, retired senior citizens and others too many to mention. But,
they all have a common interest. It is their incessant curiousity and eagerness
to learn anything new. It is from these computer amateurs that will come the
computer revolution of tomorrow,

What Do Computer Amateurs Do?

First of all, most computer amateurs build their own computer systems, usually
from kits. A typical home computer system, of today, consists of a CPU (the
ALTAIR 8800 is currently the most popular), with about 12K (12,288) words of IC
RAM (random access memory), 1K (1,024) words of IC ROM (read only memory)
containing the Monitor system control program, a key-board input (usually
surplus), a TV alphanumeric display (using a black and white TV receiver) for
output and an audio cassette (hi-fi type) for program storage. Typical software
includes an assembler, program editor, text editor and BASIC interpreter. This
typical system presently costs about $1200 to $1500 to build.

Computer amateurs use their systems for hardware and software development, for
playing games (mostly in BASIC), word-processing, automatic operation of amateur
radio stations, monitoring home operating systems, scientific calculations and
analysis, book-keeping operations-and much more.

There are amateurs with full color graphics displays on color TV sets, amateurs
with talking computers-and on and on-there is no limit to the home computer's
applications. Can the home-built robot be far away?

How Does One Get Into Amateur Computing?

lf the preceding has whet your appetite and you want to look into amateur
computing, the first step is to attend a meeting of an amateur computer club.
There are now several dozen in the country. An up-to-date list of computer clubs
follows this article.

Learn from the experiences of others. Computer equipment is still expensive. But
there is a lot of used equipment available-much of which is sold or traded at
amateur club meetings.

Also, if you build your own system, the likelihood is that it will not work and
will require debugging. Clubs offer assistance to members in getting their
hardware up and running.

Also, most clubs have a software librarian, so that software can be made
available at low cost. Most amateurs make their programs available to other
amateurs. Most clubs also do "group purchasing" to obtain discounts for their
members. Another important function of clubs, is spreading the word on
suppliers-which are reliable and which are not (unfortunately there are some
unreliable suppliers in this area).

Keep in mind, that when you undertake to build your own home system, IBM will
not be there to provide hardware and software assistance (besides who could
afford their prices?) and a club will serve as your back-up.

In The Next Issue

This column will continue in the next issue with a discussion of magazines and
books for the amateur computer hobbyist.


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