Mommy, I Made a Microsoft!


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:

MICROSOFT

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.

Comments (28)

  1. Ajay says:

    Haha! Quality stuff!

    A great little story that I can relate to (sort of)

    The whole reason I got into IT was because my dad got me a shareware copy of Doom when I was 9 and I had to learn how to use MS-DOS to start it (not bad considering I had no manual and no-one to help me)

    Ahhh those were the days…

  2. Bil Simser says:

    Priceless. I never had a CoCo (my starter was the Sinclair 1000). Wonder what would happen if you typed in CLS 10? IBM? Mac? Linux (LOL)

  3. Kim Siever says:

    You were programming BASIC when you were four?

  4. James Schend says:

    I started with the famed Commodore 64, like so many others. Unfortunately, the C-64 had a library of probably three million games (at least it seemed like it; every time you went to the store, you’d find 30 new games you’d never heard of before), and so I didn’t get too far in depth with programming it, just some BASIC tinkering. I never came close to the 64K limit, though.

    We had a commercial "Print Shop for Kids" program, I don’t remember what it was called, that let you make greeting cards and such by placing images. I noticed once that the program maxed out at 8 animated images per page, and from reading the manual I remembered that the C-64 had 8 hardware sprites. Also, this was the rare program you had to type "run" to run, it didn’t run itself once loaded. Curious about these two factoids, I tried load "*", 8 and hit "list" instead of "run"… amazingly, out came a listing of probably 15,000 lines of BASIC code! I spent a lot of fun days hacking around in this company’s program, changing the sprites around and changing colors and such.

    (Later on, a Mac SE would give me the same joy after discovering ResEdit… although ResEdit was a lot easier to work with.)

    Remember how the Commodore 64 came with a thick manual that had the pinout of every port, a huge tutorial on BASICv2, and a detailed memory-map? They don’t give you documentation like that anymore.

  5. Phill says:

    Good story! Something similar happened to me actually.

    I was lucky enough to have one of the first IBM PS/2s when I was about 6 and I went nuts with BASIC programming on it.

    One day I was doing a search for every .exe and .com program on the hard drive trying to find new and exciting programs and I entered the name of this program I’d never run before. All that happened was a piece of text appeared saying:

    Requires Microsoft Windows

    This program became a source of fascination for me, what was it, what do it do? And most of all, what were Microsoft Windows? Perhaps they were squidgy monitors that responded to touch? The mind certainly boggled.

    Of course, a couple of years down the road I found out that the program I’d been looking at was a trial version of Excel 2.0

    Nowadays people who did not know what Microsoft Windows are would certainly be in a minority.

  6. jensenh says:

    Bil:

    CLS 9 through CLS 255 all printed MICROSOFT.

    Above 255, the system returned:

    ?FC ERROR

    Which is what it should have returned for 9 to 255 as well. :)

  7. jensenh says:

    I love all the old computer stories. Pretty funny!

    I did love getting used Apple // games and finding that they were just written in BASIC. So I relate to that one.

  8. Mike Dunn says:

    2 was yellow? Never! All us kids know the One True Color Ordering is: black, white, red, cyan, purple, green, blue, yellow.

  9. Jonathan says:

    Mike – I beg to differ:

    black, blue, red, magenta, green, cyan, yellow, white

    Add 8 for either blink or "bright" (meaning that white is actually kind of gray)

    … Or that’s how it was on my Sinclair ZX80 Spectrum.

  10. sloan says:

    Back then, with such small memory constraints, I had no problem with weird error messages that made no sense. In fact, it made it a game to figure out what they meant. But it still happens… and is one of the reasons I stopped programming professionally. For work, it is not fun trying to figure out cryptic error returns and even less so for users! It is one of the many reasons I got into usability. :-)

  11. I got my first computer in May ’83… a CoCo (16Kbyte), which was upgraded to Extended Basic after a couple of weeks ("pmode 4,1", baby!).

    The fact that the CoCo was virtually unknown in Germany (as it was sold only in the few Tandy stores, unlike the Commodore machines which could be bought almost everywhere), finally got me interested in writing my own software.

  12. I also had a CoCo with 16K, that I bought when I was 11.

    I even upgraded to a CoCo 3 when it came out and discovered that by pressing some combination of function keys with the reset-button on the back, you’d get an easter egg with a portrait of a bunch of the programmers. I want to say one was Bill Atkinson (the CoCo did have the same processor as the Lisa) but that doesn’t seem right.

  13. It’s so unfair…some of us had to buy our own computers! In fact my father bought his first computer in 1998, by which time I had already had a C64 (which I bought at age 11), an Amiga and a Pentium-based PC.

    Of course by the time I bought my C64 most of my friends had an Amiga or Macintosh so the C64 games didn’t seem so fun anymore which brought me into programming BASIC.

    I remember having a real difficulty in understanding GOSUB and RETURN as I never could figure out how the program knew *where* to return. I guess I was a bit anal since I never used them because of that, even though I clearly could see the benefits.

  14. jensenh says:

    Andreas:

    Funny you should say that. In my first few years, I always avoided GOSUB and used GOTO instead also. Later of course, I learned to love GOSUB and I always put my subroutines starting at line 1000, 2000, 3000, 4000, etc.

  15. That’s a really great story. Like Ajay I relate you it as well. When I was 4 I also learned some BASIC on the TI-99. I remember looking through the manual and getting familiar with all of the commands but I doubt I was very creative when it comes to writing the code. After all I also recall typing with just 2 fingers.

    I remember my first and favorite program, a simple 4 line scroller.

    10 CLS

    20 GOTO 40

    30 PRINT "Hi Mommy, I want pizza for dinner! Love Collin."

    40 GOTO 30

    Believe it or not that one actually worked at least 1 time. lol

    Let me share another story. My dad would bring home print outs of code, no idea where he got them. I spent hours typing out an insane amount of code for a 4 year old with only 2 finger typing skills. I finally typed RUN and didn’t get any errors from typos. Now here is the part any guy can relate to..

    If you have ever owned a video game system you know the discomfort of holding your bladder for the greater good fo making it to the next level of a game. That’s how I was with typing and debugging this code. After a single successful run of this game I saw a line drawing of a space ship and a few bleeps of sound that blew my mind. I then decided it was safe so I ran as fast as I could to the bathroom.

    As all computers of late 70’s and early 80’s the only storage was tape backup.. no physical drive at all.. I got back just in time to see my mother flipping the power off the TI-99. I am sure I cryed like a little girl (or boy) after that but can’t recall for sure. That moment stuck in my head though and I never did go back and retype the code for that game.

  16. Anonymous says:

    If you learned Basic with four, maybe you would have learned Visual Basic with three. Anyway you were luck kid because nowadays kids have to learn VB.Net :)

  17. Richard Cook says:

    "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 think you can give yourself a break; YOU WERE 4!

    I had a Model I and a CoCo. Best things about those days were it was all ROM and RAM, so any software you put in couldn’t hurt it. There were some games that produced sound effects by rapidly flipping the cassette relay back and forth, but that was about it.

    Anyway, since you couldn’t hurt the things one of my favorite pastimes was to type in a small program that POKEd random bytes into random memory locations. I’d let this run until it stopped. Sometimes there’d be a change in the BASIC source code, sometimes more spectacular things would happen.

  18. Dave Newton says:

    The Apple Lisa has a 68K, the CoCo3 had a 6809.

    I remember running OS-9 on a CoCo3 and running CIRCLES around PCs, with multitasking, wigged-out GUI, and everything. Too sweet.

  19. The CoCo rocked. I started with an MC-10, and likewise soon expanded the RAM. Wore out my Rainbow magazine collection. Went to a CoCo II, then another, then to an XT clone. I still have a CoCo II 64K in my closet.

    Best CoCo II command ever: POKE 65495,0

    And, 20 years and a college degree later, I make my living programming in a modern Microsoft implementation of BASIC.

  20. >The Apple Lisa has a 68K, the CoCo3 had a 6809

    My bad. Some original Mac prototypes had a 6809 and I got that confused with the Lisa.

  21. Anas says:

    That is really weird. I know Bill Gates loved tinkering with OS’s and making them more user-friendly. He then had a name for his company. But I know read somewhere that the original name of Microsoft was Micro-soft.

    Sounds strange but it could be a dream that I saw that in.

    Can someone ask Bill Gates for his story on that issue. 9-255??? 256 colors i guess.

  22. 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