My earliest memory of Microsoft:
I was 4 years old in the fall of 1980 when my dad brought home the first computer either of us had likely ever seen in person: a TRS-80 Color Computer I, brought home straight from Radio Shack. Loaded up with 4K of RAM, my father was ready to enter the computer age ahead of the curve. Eventually, he also bought two cartridge games: Football and Pinball. We had some good times playing Football when I was a bit older, except that the joysticks we owned didn’t really work very well and we could only pick 3 of the 5 offensive plays (End Run, Up The Middle, and Long Bomb as I recall.)
The TRS-80 Color Computer I (a.k.a. CoCo)
Anyway, back to 1980. I was interested in the computer right away. I vividly remember sitting on the shag carpet of the family room, computer on the floor, plugged into our color TV. The CoCo came with a manual detailing how to write programs with the built-in BASIC.
The first morning we had the computer, my dad said that he had to go to work, but that when he came home each night, we would do a chapter in the BASIC book together. And with that, he headed off. I wasn’t old enough to go to school yet, though, so I had the whole day to myself.
I finished something like the first 7 or 8 chapters of the manual by the time my dad came home from work that first night. I think he was kind of disappointed; by the next day I finished the whole thing and my dad never learned any programming. I guess I should have waited for him.
I remember writing programs and then getting stymied when I typed to the end of the 4K of RAM. The cursor just wouldn’t move anymore except backwards, to delete the line you were trying to type. For Christmas one year, my dad took the computer to Radio Shack to have it upgraded to 16KB of RAM. HEAVEN!! I never remember reaching the end of the 16KB. I also got a cassette recorder to store my programs that same year, although it took a while to figure out that the Lasitron “3 for $0.99” cassette tapes were the reason the programs never seemed to read back correctly.
The TRS-80 CoCo had the coolest cursor ever: it cycled through the 8 supported colors, giving it kind of a psychedelic effect. And, of course, since it was a “Color Computer”, the screen you typed on was black letters on a bright green screen. Hardly ergonomic, but friendly in a way I guess.
What does all this have to do with Microsoft?
Well, the built-in BASIC in the Color Computer had a command “CLS” (for Clear Screen.) You could type “CLS” to clear the screen to green, or you could type “CLS” and a number to fill up the screen with one of the 8 other colors. For instance, “CLS 2” filled the screen with yellow, and “CLS 8” filled the screen with orange.
CoCo Startup Screen (I made all these screenshots with MESS.)
I was playing around one day, and I typed “CLS 9” (maybe hoping for an additional undocumented color.) To my horror, the screen cleared, and at the top of the screen, the system printed:
As quickly as I could, I reached for the power button and turned off the system. I also unplugged it from the wall. I knew I was in big trouble, I had caused a MICROSOFT in the system and some of the parts had probably already melted. In my little kid mind, I thought a MICROSOFT must have meant that the actual chips inside the computer started to melt and become soft due to overheating. And that I caused that overheating by trying a number with “CLS” that I knew was out of bounds.
I waited at least half an hour before gingerly turning the system back on… to my great relief, it booted up just fine to OK and the flashing cursor.
I was saved! I never had to tell my mom that I made a MICROSOFT in the family room.
After “CLS 8” I next try the fateful “CLS 9” command…
AHH!! I caused a MICROSOFT!!
In later years, I became bolder and experimented with leaving the computer on after MICROSOFT occurred and eventually I think I decided it was just some sort of weird bug in the system.
It wasn’t until fifteen years later when I was in college that one day I suddenly made the connection between the MICROSOFT of my youth and the company Microsoft. In retrospect, I’m guessing that this was just an Easter Egg inserted into the CoCo ROM BASIC (maybe even by Bill Gates himself) as a way of getting a little bit of exposure for the budding company.
But as a little kid learning how to program in BASIC, it wasn’t so funny. I thought I had ruined my computer!
What’s amazing to me is that now, almost twenty-five years later, here I am working at the very same company whose name once caused me panic when printed as a cryptic message on my television.
Life’s strange like that.