16 September 2012


We seldom recognise the decisions that are major turning points in our lives.

We did not have budget that allowed us to buy a computer.  We would have to write a grant proposal for such a thing - with no certainty of success.

We did, however, have money that would have been used to fund the tedious business of contracting with someone in Honolulu to take my edited dictionary printouts, enter the information thereon into the database there, send new printouts back, receive the corrections, enter them in ...

And that money could be used to hire computer services.  Investigation turned up a Wang minicomputer from some company in Guam.  The cost was unmanageable.

John McGinnis's conversation with me, one day in 1977, turns out, in retrospect, to have been one of those major turning points.

I had actually got information on a second-hand DEC PDP-8 (with 32KB of real magnetic core memory!) - with the idea of buying it for my personal use - but, in addition to the cost of the machine, I would have had to buy a screen, keyboard, many other things - it was not possible.

John told me about a marvellous development that I had not known about: personal computers!  These, he said, had been around since the beginning of 1975 - and were real computers, not just glorified calculators.  I lusted after one of these.

But they would cost even more than my PDP-8.

I am no business man, and would never, I suppose, have thought of what John suggested: start my own company, buy one of these, and provide computer services to the Yap Department of Education, for that budget they had.  I was very keen on Gary North and entrepreneurship (unsuited as I was and am to such activities).  I was converted to John's idea.

To provide services to the Education Department, I had, I thought, to be a company (though I had only the vaguest idea of what that might mean).  An enthusiastic Christian, I thought of a name: Jensen Hope and Advancement Company.  This provided much humour for John - his favourite was Faith, Hope, and Charity Company.

I had, still, of course, not enough money.  I don't recall precisely all the places my finance came from.  I took a business loan from the Bank of Hawai'i, Yap Branch - on the basis of a letter of intent from the Department.  I borrowed (at 6%, I think) $1,000 from my father.  Sometime early in 1978 we took delivery of an IMSAI VDP-80.  We debated whether to spend the extra $350 - 1977 $350! - to upgrade the RAM from 32KB to 64KB.  In the event, we did so, although this only gave us 56KB of usable memory, since the top 8KB was covered up the the video display ROM.  The computer had a 3MHz 8085 CPU and dual 8" double-density floppy drives - 512KB storage per drive!  To put that memory into perspective, the PC on which I am writing this post has 8GB of RAM - 131,072 times as much RAM.  I think you could buy 8GB for around $200.

In preparation for the computer, we had taken what had been a storeroom in our office - itself an old classroom - and had Public Works install air-conditioning in it.  We had painted the concrete surfaces (to reduce air-borne dust) - nearly asphyxiating ourselves in the process.  Pugram, Defeg, Yow (Athanasius), and I did all that work.

The computer arrived - in May, 1978, I believe.  We set it up on a worktable in that back room.  It could boot into CP/M from floppy, but initially I simply turned it on.  The boot ROM had miniminal programming built-in that allowed you to push bytes into memory and to jump to a location.  What would be interesting to do?  I wrote a tiny programme in Assembly language, hand-assembled it into bytes, and poked it in - a programme that did nothing but display one of the characters in the video ROM, waited one second, then displayed the next character in the set, and so on.

Exciting!  So I invited my friends from the office in to watch it display.  Giloochen, seeing the graphics characters waving, as it were, arms in air, exclaimed: "Bea churuq!!" ("It's dancing!!").  Defeg was more practical.  He asked, "All right, how much is ..." - naming some simple arithmetic problem.  "Oh," I replied, somewhat embarrassed, "it hasn't any programme in it; it can't do anything like that yet."  "How much did this thing cost??"  I named the figure.  Leaving with a snort of contempt, he exclaimed that even his $20 pocket calculator was better than that.

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