Vive’ la Evolution!

No – not of people. Of computer stuff.

When I was young our first computer was an Atari-800. Basically a game system with the added benefit of being able to program in BASIC. It wasn’t much but it was fun to mess around with. Computer programs came printed out in magazines, because there was no internet. If you were lucky, you had someone to help call out the program for you while you typed it in.

Conversations would go something like this:

Okay new line – 5400 If x is greater than number string plus y then go sub 2300

For hours. Then you had great fun finding all your errors before finally getting to play a text-based game with no graphics. If you were REALLY unlucky, the game code was bigger than your computer memory and 3/4 of the way through it, the computer would pop up a message “memory full” and all those hours of typing went for crap.

People these days will talk about the computers they build in terms of terabyte drives and Gigs of memory. But for the most part it’s just plugging in a few parts and everything works. The first modern computer I built took days, because I had to manually set com ports and software interrupts with little DIP switches. The PC builder in the early 90s would turn the computer on, figure out what still didnt work, and then turn it off and tinker around in the case. It still took kind of a nerd to do it. These days almost anyone could build a computer, given a shopping list of parts.

But the FIRST computer I ever built was nerd heaven. It didn’t really DO anything. At least, I never could make it do much other than count forward or backward.

My father brought home the kit from a business trip. It was the type of thing in the 70s that engineering students would build and use in school to learn about electronics and computing and programming. It came as a green board and a bag of parts in various little bags.

You had to know how to use a soldering iron. Now THOSE were the days of computer building. So after hours of searching through little baggies and breathing in fumes from lead-based solder, we came up with something that pretty much looked exactly like this:

sdk85

It had a display of a whopping 7 digits, three more than the average clock, today. I never really understood most of the stuff in the included books. Programming the thing was through “assembly language”, two digit hexadecimal codes that you punched in, in order. Like trying to type in BASIC but in Cantonese. I didn’t understand a word of what I was doing, but I could follow a list of instructions. A8, Next, B9, Next, 3F, Next. The books below weren’t much help. I was in elementary school, these things were designed for engineering students. But the PROCESS was fun, even if I never really got the kit to do much.

sdk85bks

So imagine my surprise when computing escalated into gear that cost thousands, and then slowly started coming down. I remember when laptop computers could only be affordable for doctors and lawyers. Now you can go to Walmart and snag one for a few hundred dollars. Building a decent PC is for the most part more costly now than buying one, but you get to choose what you want, at least.

Then along came a revolutionary little device, the Raspberry Pi. The Pi just turns the whole computing industry around. Instead of bringing a computer home, plugging it in, answering a few questions about where you live and license numbers, then playing WarCraft for 37 hours, the Pi is a tinkerer’s device.

It’s no bigger than a pack of cards, and as thick as two decks stacked together. It comes with 1GB of Ram, ethernet, USB, and HDMI out, as well as a number of software-defineable input-output ports, and a complete Operating System. The incredible thing is, it only costs $35. They can be had cheaper without all the excess ports, perfect for someone building an imbedded device (a computer designed to do one function and nothing else – such as run a security camera or intercept iPhone commands and turn on lights and open a garage door).

raspberry-pi-2-sd-card-100569129-origPeople have done all sorts of things with them so far – even built a “supercomputer” cluster from a few dozen Pi’s and some LEGO cases.

images-2

They’ll play some video games (mine craft included), act as media players, work as controllers for network storage, robot brains, etc.

imagesBest of all, you get to get the old soldering iron back out and add stuff to them. There are a number of extra pins to let the Pi interact with the outside world. I really can’t wait to get one and see what it can do, just for the heck of it.

It’s come a long way since the Intel SDK85 kit…

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Author: theosus1

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