22 September 2012


In something like May, 1978, we had an IMSAI VDP-80 computer.  It had an operating system.  Did it have any programmes?  I think it had a CBASIC interpreter, in which programming could be done.  It had a text editor called ED that could be used for writing programmes.  It had the ASM Assembler (to write programmes in close-to machine language).  It had little else.

Self-rolling snowballs are an image of the way things, once started, may acquire a life of their own.  By the time we left Yap, the computer setup (all acquired by Jensen Hope & Advancement Company) amounted to:
  • the IMSAI VDP-80, with:
    • the STOIC programming language
    • a purpose-built text editing programming language (a Bible translator friend of mine had written it and gave it to me)
  • an IMSAI 8080 with attached Data General - dual-disc hard drive - 13MB built-in and 13MB insertable cartridge.  The 8080 had no ROM or operating system.  It booted via RS-232 serial cable from the VDP-80 - and used the VDP-80's terminal to talk to
  • two Heathkit H89 computers - these had no floppy drives, only an audio tape cassette for storage, and their operating systems were in ROM.  They connected to the 8080 by an RS-232 serial cable and were used by our people for data entry
  • A Diablo daisy-wheel printer (for which I wrote a driver that was pretty huge for our 56KB memory - the driver was 12KB)
  • Tektronix oscilloscope and a lot of other test gear
  • a largish library of technical material about computer hardware
and many other items.

The computer setup became the centre not only of our linguistic operation, but of much else that was done in the office.  Besides programming for word processing purposes - our people wrote many texts (which I, now, on the 'bus, am translating and preparing for Internet publication) to be used in schools; the programmes that I wrote on the computer then converted these into laid-out formats to be mimeographed for school use - I did statistics programming for test evaluation purposes, and word-processing for funding grant proposals.  By the time I left Yap, most of the linguistic work - dictionary entries including definitions in Yapese as well as English (this dictionary is now available on the Internet) and text-production was being done by the Yapese workers.  I was programmer and editor.  My work had gradually changed from linguist to computist.

Computist and, as well, electronics technician.

It is probable that all this computing would not have been possible, in a remote location like Yap, in very early microcomputing days, had I not been a moderately skilled electronics tinkerer.  I had been an amateur radio operator since the late 1960s; had built my own transmitter (from old television parts) in Yap and operated from there (as KC6JJ); had generalised my metalwork skills a bit (by becoming a trained locksmith - Yap had none).  The maintenance, and even operation, of our computer systems required a certain amount of electronics and other technical ability.

Within weeks of the arrival of the VDP-80, a chip in its keyboard circuitry failed.  I had used the above-mentioned library to see what was in the chip, had breadboarded a replacement and soldered it in - with the breadboard hanging outside the case - whilst ordering the replacement (which took a couple of months to come).  By the time we left, half the guts of the VDP-80 were hanging out on the desk, connected much of the time to the oscilloscope, as frequent adjustments were necessary to keep things like the floppy drives running.

All in all, it was a very educational experience - and resulted, in 1984, in my changing my main line of work from linguistics to computing.

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