Unicorns from the Past

Unicorn Folder

I got my first personal computer in 1980 – a TRS-80 Color Computer with 16K RAM and Extended BASIC! It was probably the best birthday gift ever.

TRS-80 Color Computer

The TRS-80 Color Computer (image from Wikipedia)

I didn’t have the money to buy this for myself, I just asked (perhaps my mother would recall it as incessant begging) for it for months. Many months. I was so sure that this would be my first computer that I bought the BASIC programming manual for it months before my birthday.

Color BASIC Manual

Color BASIC programming for the TRS-80 Color Computer

I read and studied that book nearly every day until I practically had it memorized. I copied the sample BASIC programs, worked through them step-by-step to understand every single line, and even started writing my own BASIC programs (even though I had absolutely no computer to actually test any of these programs on!) I did it all on paper and in my head by pretending to be the computer.

After I received the computer and learned that I had been given the luxury model with 16K RAM and Extended BASIC, I bought the second BASIC programming manual and immediately got started.

Extended Color Basic

Extended Color BASIC programming for the TRS-80 Color Computer

Yeah, many of those program I wrote before I received the computer did not work properly, but they were probably about 80% correct, and I had taught myself elementary programming in BASIC without even having a computer. Within a few days I had learned how to correct my mistakes and started to extend my knowledge and skills. I think I came home from school every day and immediately turned on the computer, only willing to leave it when called to dinner or when told to go to bed.

I knew that computers could do so much. I had watched enough science fiction movies to know that they could analyze data, speak, play games, and destroy the planet. I had purchased some programs – they came on cassettes or on cartridges that could be plugged into a slot on the side of the computer (just like Atari video game cartridges), and a few of them enthralled me, especially my first experience with voice synthesis. It didn’t sound natural, but it was AMAZING! I had to learn how to enter each word I wanted it to speak phonetically using a special code for the different phonemes in American English.

Voice Synthesizer Codes

Translating words into phonetic codes

It wasn’t long before I realized that the programs I had written were simplistic, yet I couldn’t afford to buy complex new programs very often. I wanted to do more with my computer myself, so I subscribed to newsletters and magazines. These were the early days of personal computers, the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows were still 3+ years in the future, and desktop publishing hadn’t yet arrived, so the newsletters were often typed, copied (or even mimeographed), stapled, and mailed. Using the programs in the magazines and newsletters as models, I started to write more complex programs.

My computer did not have a disk drive – it stored everything on a cassette tape (probably 300 baud at best), and all programs had to be loaded one at a time, each time the program was needed. There was no multi-tasking, so you planned your time on the computer carefully to minimize the number of times you had to load and unload programs. As my programs got longer, I needed to write them down before typing them in, because I hadn’t learned how to type, and my data entry was slow. It might take me several evenings after school to type in long programs from the magazines or that I had written line-by-line on many pages of notebook paper. I needed a place to store all of my notes, instructions, and programs, so I used a folder from my school supplies.

Unicorn Folder

The unicorn folder that held my hand-written BASIC programs

Yes, that is a unicorn on the cover. Unicorns must have been very popular among Junior High School students in 1981, and I must have been very interested in them. Maybe it was their mythological status or their magical abilities, but I clearly saw the need to have them adorn my self-taught computer programming materials.

Thirty-two years ago I somehow knew that I was supposed to become what today we call “unicorns” – people who are proficient at UX design, visual design, and front-end development. I fear I have failed on this quest, having spent much more time practicing UX design, though I have always been interested in visual design and development and continually tinkered on the edges of both.

In 1981 I had no plans for a career in computers. I wanted to be a scientist, and I would go on to earn a Ph.D. in Applied Psychology and spend many hours in labs, making observations, collecting data, and conducting analyses. But it’s funny how our early selves sometimes seem to know things of which we are not yet consciously aware. I changed careers in 2000, almost twenty-years after receiving that first computer, so that I could focus on applying my psychology skills to UX design. I had not originally planned for this, and I certainly did not see it coming in 1981, but here I am today.

And maybe I was not intended to be just a unicorn, but a double unicorn! Maybe I was always meant to be a scientist-designer.

Unicorn Folder Open

Front and back of the unicorn folder

Yes, both the front and the back of the folder are adorned with fantastical unicorns! Without planning it and without realizing what might be way back in 1981, I have spent the last 13+ years focused on bringing together my skills in psychology and UX design: they are my two unicorns.

I’d like to extend special thanks to my parents. My mother has graciously stored these items in the attic all these years and took these photos (except for the computer itself, which we gave away many years ago…), and my father (whom I miss so very much) worked many long overtime hours to save the money to buy that first computer. Both of my parents have been amazingly supportive, trusting, loving, and confident in me and that I would find my path. It may have taken 32 years to get here, and I may not know what comes next, but I know I’m on a right path. Thanks and all my love always.


8 thoughts on “Unicorns from the Past

  1. David,
    You have been such a joy in our lives. We always knew you would achieve your dreams. You are a wonderful son and an amazingly unique person. You have made us both so very proud of you.

    With our unconditional love always,
    Mom and Dad

  2. Hey Dave, it was a very interesting read! 🙂

    Thanks for sharing your memories and thoughts about your first computer(s) and learning programming!

    My first encounters with computers and Internet were around the years 1999-2000… but I was reading a lot about computers a few years before I first sat in front of a real computer… :)))

    (You started with psychology and I started with music, yet it seems we both ended with deep “computer affairs”!;-)

  3. Really enjoyed this. My first computer was a TI-99/4 that my parents gave to me for Christmas. Note the terrible UX of the button keyboard for which this product was much maligned.

    I spent my days, much to my parents chagrin, in my room copying thousands of lines of code to build rudimentary basic games as published in Byte magazine and putting the tear sheets that I’d keep in a Mead Trapper Keeper.

    In my current line of work, brand advertising, I’m still in front of a computer realizing some of the vision that I read about in the pages of Byte. We even refer to ourselves, in nerd humor, as “digital unicorns.” I really salute my parents for investing in the revolution I guess we’re still calling the Information Age, because I know at the time the cost of that home computer was an enormous expense.

    They still have no idea what I’m doing with myself all day.

  4. I have my original CoCo taken apart at the moment. I’ve decided to un-stick the keys and give it good cleaning. This machine was my 2nd computer … and like you my parents bought it for me. My first machine was a Timex Sinclair X81 (I still have that too).

    Working all summer I was able to earn $99.00 for the CoCo 64k upgrade so that I might be able to code in more than four colors. Our family was very poor and we lived in the country (rural Texas). I really had nothing going for me and this machine changed my life.

    I love review my old code and notes left in the original users guide. My hand writing is still horrible ;o)

    Thanks for your website. Brought back good memories.


  5. Don,

    That’s a great story, thanks for sharing! I never got the 64K RAM upgrade for mine, but I did use it for years until I left for college. I also remember the Timex Sinclair – I think I even tore ads for both computers out of computer magazines and put them on a corkboard in my bedroom to set goals for myself. Are you now working in the computer, software, web, or technology fields? Funny how our early experiences shape us in ways of which we are unaware.

    And like you, my handwriting is still practically unreadable. 🙂

  6. Hi Dave!
    I know this is 10 years later, but I accidentally came across this. I told my wife that when I was younger I bought a Unicorn trapper keeper with matching folders. The same exact one as you have shown. You are absolutely right, about why you must of bought it. Even though it seems like a girly thing to buy, back then we simply didn’t care. I’m a guy and I received so many compliments on that trapper keeper, both by girls and boys back then. I am 50 years old now and like to build pc’s etc and I tinker with emulation type arcade handheld. I have some knowledge of Linux from that. My brothet and I received the same TRS-80 computer from my Uncle when we were younger. He followed in your same footsteps and learned to program in basic. He used that to build programs exactly like those old which way books. For example: Do you want to go North into the cave, or South in the deep woods? You choose to enter the cave. There is a big Bear in there and it eats you. After that was the very best times on our lives, with the Commodore 64! Loads of fun with this, in fact when I was in my 30’s I purchased a C-64c, C’-64, and a C’128. I have 2 1541 disk drives and a 1571. I bought just about every game boxed that was popular. I have everything lol. Anyway thank you for this it made my day!

  7. Thanks for sharing your memories and experiences. I remember those word-based adventure games, early video games, and programming in BASIC in front of a little 13 inch television late into the night every weekend! I no longer have that old TRS-80 Color Computer, but my parents kept it in a box in their attic for a few decades before we finally decided to get rid of it. I knew I would probably never turn it back on and try to use it again, but it would be an amazing keepsake if I still had it today.

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