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A good day to feel old

16 November 2020

How old were you when you first encountered a microcomputer?

I think I was about 24 or so... it was 1977 when I decided to get my feet wet and build a small microcomputer system based around an 8-bit microprocessor.

Things were much different back then. I recall getting a real buzz the first time I wrote a piece of code that worked by making an LED flash off and on.

Flashing an LED was the 1977 equivalent of the ubiquitous "hello world" program of later years and it was the first thing any budding microprocessor programmer would do when building a piece of hardware.

Of course I was late to the game because some forward-thinking types had been playing with microprocessors since the invention of the 4004 back in 1971. In fact, next year will be the 50th birthday of the 4004.

With this in mind I realise that I too am getting old.

There was something about those early days though. Store-bought microcomputers had only just become "a thing" and they weren't the polished bits of gear we see today.

It would have been very hard to convince "the man in the street" to buy one of the early microcomputer systems.

"What? It costs how much just to make some lights blink off and on?"

would have been their response to any magazine ad for such a product.

"And you have to learn this complicated programming language?"

would have been their next utterance.

Yes, it was a time when only a very, very few people were even remotely attracted to the prospect of building or even just owning their very own computer. The investment in time, energy and money was huge, the results were (to the average person) far less than impressive.

Today of course, we take computers both large and small, for granted. Who'd have thought, way back in the 1970s, that eventually every man, woman and child would be carrying around a supercomputer in their pocket or have almost free access to a global communications network that allowed you to video-call anyone, anywhere, any time?

Just looking at the chips themselves the effects of Moore's Law are very apparent. The original 4004 was a trivial device with only around 2,000 transistors on its die. Today's latest processors have almost 40 billion -- that's over seven orders of magnitude increase in just five short decades.

Is there any other area of technology where we've seen such rapid or massive improvement?

One can only dream about what this tech will be capable of in another 50 years' time.

I have to admit that I feel a little sorry for those who missed out on the marvelous tech journies I've enjoyed during my lifetime.

I watched the world transition from valve-based tech to transistor-based tech and then move on to tech based on large-scale integrated circuitry. I was around when man landed on the moon (something no generation born since the mid 1970s can claim) and I've seen robotic rovers survey the surface of Mars. I've seen the Huygens probe perform a controlled landing on a moon of Saturn and send back astounding images.

Computers have gone from the realm of huge corporations and governments to an every-day pocket device and long-distance communications have changed from an expensive and special experience to something we take for granted.

Kids today probably not even imagine the thrills I got building my first radio, building my first computer, making my first LED flash, writing my first graphical game, creating my own fireworks and doing all manner of things that are today considered either archaic and boring or just downright dangerous.

Instead, those kids will probably just wait for the newest games console, phone or piece of software to drop so that they can "use" it. Where will they get the adrenaline rush that inspires them to take up a lifetime of involvement in the sciences and technology?

I think I have lived through the best of times this planet has seen -- from a tech perspective.

How about you?

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