Story 2014-09-03 2S0G Lost lessons from the 8-bit BASIC era

Lost lessons from the 8-bit BASIC era

in code on (#2S0G)
Call it wistful nostalgia, perhaps, but this guy isn't alone in recalling fondly how much you could do with so little on 8 bit BASIC machines.
The little language that fueled the home computer revolution has been long buried beneath an avalanche of derision, or at least disregarded as a relic from primitive times. That's too bad, because while the language itself has serious shortcomings, the overall 8-bit BASIC experience has high points that are worth remembering.

It's hard to separate the language and the computers it ran it on; flipping the power switch, even without a disk drive attached, resulted in a BASIC prompt. ... There's a small detail that I skipped over: entering a multi-line program on a computer in a department store. Without starting an external editor. Without creating a file to be later loaded into the BASIC interpreter (which wasn't possible without a floppy drive).
Yes, what we do with computers is so much more complex now. But I do miss getting a working machine less than 1 second after turning on the on switch. I suspect I'm not alone.
Reply 12 comments

Thanks (Score: 2, Funny)

by on 2014-09-03 12:12 (#2S0K)

I don't feel ancient now

Re: Thanks (Score: 0)

by Anonymous Coward on 2014-09-03 14:05 (#2S0X)

Fuck, I feel more ancient now, having worked on a PDP-8. I pity any poor bastard here who worked on a PDP-1 or an IBM 70xx. He or she must be feeling like they're ready for the dirt nap after reading this article.

On the other hand, it was pretty cool working in the industry back in 1960-1990 or so, when there was such an amazing cornucopia of processor architectures and OSes, back before computing became standardized, commoditized, shrink-wrapped, and (above all) an industry that made enough progress that the exploitation of that work could be left to dullards.

Not how I remember it... (Score: 1)

by on 2014-09-03 12:19 (#2S0M)

"But I do miss getting a working machine less than 1 second after turning on the on switch."

That's totally not how I remember it. I had an Atari 130XE, On top of getting the system booted, which was long enough for me to use the washroom and get a snack, I started my first program in BASIC when I was 7 and it took me over a year to finish. All it was was an elephant standing on a ball with some beeping noises. The ball moved back and forth a bit and every ten seconds or so a speech balloon would appear and the elephant would go "Cha-Cha-Cha". I think most of it, but not all, came from one of those monthly programing magazines. I showed it to my Dad and he dashed all my dreams of becoming a poet, something about wasting talent and I was going to work with computers... Wish I'd become a poet. I like computers, but to be honest they, or the people that use them anyway, drain the life right out of me.

Re: Not how I remember it... (Score: 2, Insightful)

by on 2014-09-03 13:55 (#2S0T)

I'm most nostalgic for my old C64, and that thing had you at the READY prompt in about a second, I think. Obviously, "LOAD game ,8,1" would take up to 20 minutes if you were unlucky, but man, back in 1985 those were 20 delicious minutes of anticipation. Good times. My greatest hit was a BASIC program that would help you create a dungeons and dragons character, a choice of project that probably solidified my soul into nerddom forever.

Re: Not how I remember it... (Score: 1)

by on 2014-09-05 03:07 (#2S2V)

I had a C64 with EEPROM cartridge which would load and start Turbo Tape as soon as I press F1 button. Loading a game after that would take 1-2 min max... If the tape was in the right position...

Re: Not how I remember it... (Score: 0)

by Anonymous Coward on 2014-09-09 21:57 (#2S7Q)

Today's PCs could more or less do that today if the BIOS was well engineered. I don't know exactly what the factory BIOS is doing for all that time, but it certainly isn't just what is needed to bring the system up.

I have seen Coreboot systems (then LinuxBIOS) come up to a single user mode shell in 3 seconds from power-on.

Nice toys (Score: 0)

by Anonymous Coward on 2014-09-03 13:20 (#2S0P)

I went thru the C=64/Amiga500/PC route as a teenager. I really liked the C=64 and the Amiga, but they were simple toys compared to even the 286s.

I did like many things about those computers: direct access to video memory, light pens, sprite animations etc, but they lacked seriously in the language/environment department. For example, there was no operating system to call if you wanted to do sound, you had to "poke" some value somewhere, kind of like a modern device driver. The BASIC language was also shitty. After hacking on it for a while, you eventually ran into problems like lack of composite types, pointers, subroutines etc. Anything serious had to be written in assembly and that wasn't the paradise the article mentions.

Amiga-500 was much better, with the Pascal compiler and whatnot. I did have a lot of fun times with that also but there was nothing special about it, really.

What I really miss from that era are the cartridges. You popped one in, and the game/whatever loaded immediately. There were even cartrigdes which extended the computer's functionality but I never got one of those.

Modern computers can boot very fast. My current system boots under 10 seconds, thanks to the SSD in it. What I'd like to see in my life time is the return of cartridges. If we could solve the heat problem, I think we have enough technology to pack a lot of power and space into a cartridge-size box. We could then carry that around to hotels, meetings etc.

Re: Nice toys (Score: 1)

by on 2014-09-03 13:52 (#2S0S)

What I'd like to see in my life time is the return of cartridges.
Isn't that basically what USB thumb drives are? A little stick you can carry around and plug into a terminal. You can even store a whole OS on one and boot right from USB if you want to take your whole PC with you. The limit seems to be drive size (I have a 128 GB drive, which is pretty nice) rather than heat.

Re: Nice toys (Score: 1)

by on 2014-09-03 13:57 (#2S0W)

You're right, not far off. I'd like a "Web server and IRC server" cartridge. Click, turn on, you're online.

Get a calculator (Score: 1)

by on 2014-09-03 15:49 (#2S0Z)

If you miss having a "working" machine in a second, get a programmable calculator. Pretty sure they boot up and do nothing (just like those apple II era machines) in no time at all.

I'm pretty happy with flipping my laptop open and having it *working* - right where I left it - immediately.

Ahh, the good old days (Score: 1)

by on 2014-09-04 03:31 (#2S1E)

QuickBasic was an interesting cross between a compiler, IDE, and a live environment. Code was parsed as you typed, and after running the program, you could interact with it in immediate mode after the program stopped running, or after breaking out of execution. You could then type in BASIC statements and query and set variables. It was a unique blend of the live environment the author seems to be pining for, and the modern compiler IDE.

Python for me fits this niche rather well. I can fire up the interpreter in a second or two, run a few statements, etc. Modules I'm currently working on can be imported quickly and tested interactively. I understand the IDLE provides something similar in a full IDE environment.

I personally don't worry about a computer being "instant on." Wasn't useful back then either. At least, Cassette BASIC was never useful to me anyway. I needed to have a disk operating system running so I could load and save files to the disk drive. Even on Apple II I rarely used the command-reset to break out to integer basic. I much preferred teh BASIC that booted up with Apple DOS. Kind of funny to think that BASIC pretty much was DOS back then. At least the user interface to it on Apple. And it did provide a fairly low barrier to entry to budding programmers. Boot it up, break out a book and start coding. I wish I still had the book that my parents gave me when I was about 7. Can't even remember the title but it contained simple games (guessing games, etc) in BASIC that taught basic skills like input, variable, logic, loops, output.

What I miss (Score: 1, Insightful)

by Anonymous Coward on 2014-09-04 08:10 (#2S1F)

What I miss is programs that often were more responsive than many programs nowadays, despite the computers literally being orders of magnitude slower.