Early Days of Computing

Published on Thursday, April 03, 2008 in , , , , ,

Creative Computing MagazineMy previous post, Computing . . . Without Computers!, was certainly a big hit, largely due to Fuzzy Skinner's link on Metafilter (Thank you for that, BTW!).

The response to that last post has encouraged me to do a second post about computing. I first got into computers when I about 9, and my father's work had an early Commodore PET that could be checked out for the weekends. He had no idea the first weekend that he brought it home that it would start a lifelong passion for me.

Back in those days, there were really only 3 ways to get a program into your computer: load it in from tape cassette, load it in from 5-inch or 8-inch floppy disks (which were actually floppy!), or typing it in from a book or magazine. In the late '70s and early '80s, the computing kings of the hill were Creative Computing and COMPUTE! magazines. Those two magazine probably did more to educate the first personal computer generation than any other force.

As you can guess, this meshed well with my early interest in mathematics (my passion for memory work didn't occur until college). When I was learning about programming, it was quite difficult not to learn about mathematical ideas. For example, I remember a teacher describing Sigma notation to me in technical terms, and I wasn't quite getting it. As soon as he explained that it was just the mathematical equivalent of BASIC's FOR/NEXT/STEP command, I got it instantly!

Creative Computing magazine had many great articles, most of which can be found in the above link, or in The Best of Creative Computing, vols. one, two and three. Their other books, BASIC Computer Games, More BASIC Computer Games, and Big Computer Games, focused on computer games that you could type in and play.

Going through those is an excellent way to get a snapshot of computing's early days. Among the interesting things you'll see there are Hexapawn (mentioned in my previous post), Life (Isn't it amazing how often Martin Gardner's name shows up in these articles?), Life for Two, and even Weekday, a computerized version of the Day of the Week For Any Date feat that, thanks to the Internet, has been taken even further.

I could go on and on about the great programs and techniques I've learned from these pages, but one program stands out in my mind above all others. In the December 1983 issue of Creative Computing (one month before the Macintosh was first introduced!), there was an article and program called POLYMAZE! Solver. This was a maze program by Dan Rollins that was really three articles in one. First, it described how to randomly generate a rectangular maze with only one possible solution, regardless of where the entrance and exits were placed. Second, it described how to take that rectangular maze and turn it into a roughly circular maze. Finally, it taught how to program the computer to find the solution to this maze.

Sadly, the illustrations and program listings are not included in the linked article, but it is descriptive enough that you can piece it together if you know enough programming. However, as proof you can find anything on the internet, PC users can download POLYMAZE.ZIP from this archive.

Another interesting game that appeared in these early magazines was the classic Towers of Hanoi. It was not only a challenging puzzle in its own right, but for programmers it could also be an interesting exercise in programming recursive subroutines (routines that can repeatedly refer to themselves). As you can see from the version on this site, the graphics and sound have come a long way, but the same basic ideas are still there.

As I've tried to get across in numerous other posts, understanding the functional principles is one thing, making them appealing to a mass audience is another. Due to many of the earliest programmers having strong mathematical backgrounds, many of the earliest monster-hunting adventures still had a strong mathematical flavor, such as Hurkle and Mugwump, where you did your hunting on a grid. Many of these were little more than a dressed-up version of the classic Guess game. It would take a young programmer by the name of Gregory Yob to start making adventure games more realistic.

Gregory Yob asked himself, "How many stories has anyone ever heard where monsters are hunted on a grid?!? Shouldn't games like this be more realistic?" When he decided to program an adventure game, he decided to make it more realistic in several ways:

* The monster lives in a cave with several rooms in the form of a "squashed dodecahedron", not a grid.
* Other hazards would be introduced: bottomless pits and "superbats" (which pick you up and drop you in a random room).
* If you were ever in the same room as a bottomless pit, you died as a result.
* You killed the monster by shooting crooked arrow into a series of rooms.
* You would be warned if you were one room away from a hazard, but wouldn't be told which room the hazard was in.
* The monster would be lazy, and generally stay in the same place. However, if you shot an arrow or moved into the same room as the monster, he would either move to another room, or stay in the same place. If you and the monster were in the same place after the monster made its choice, it ate you up!

The result was the first hit computer adventure game, Hunt the Wumpus, in 1972. If you would like to try playing it yourself, here's a playable online version. Even though it free to type in and copy, it spread like wildfire, and by a year after its release, you could find people playing it anywhere you found a computer center. The game was so successful it even spawned a sequel, which featured 5 more caves and the even the ability to create your own caves!

It was the Wumpus games more than any other that started the move towards realistic computer games. In 1976, Colossal Cave Adventure, also know simply as Adventure, helped push the genre even further with breakthroughs such as natural language commands, puzzles to solve, and magic spells. It could be said that Adventure is the father of today's adventure games, and Wumpus is the grandfather. You can also play the original version of Colossal Cave Adventure online.

It wasn't long before there were numerous books and articles on programming your own adventure games. Creating Adventure Games On Your Computer and BASIC Computer Adventures were among the most popular early books of this type. I still remember picking up the July 1983 issue of COMPUTE!, and learning about adventure game programming.

Going back through these archives makes me realize that there is at least one concept that is as true for computers as it is for any other area of study: If you want to develop something that is perceived as new and original, start by going through the older works in the field, not the newest.

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