"Me, and Mark, and Computers", or "Our Geeeky Day in the City"

Mark Tan-Wanklyn (formerly Mark Wanklyn), my best friend, was killed in a motorcycle accident in Feb 2005. We grew up together in Boronia, in the outer Eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. This is a reminiscence from our high school days together (Boronia High School, 1977-1979), as a pair of young computer geeks.


Learning to Program

I started at Boronia High School in 1977. Mark was a year ahead of me, but the unusual system at the school meant that I had some classes with him. In particular we had two of our favourite classes together - Electronics (taught by John Miles) and Computer Programming (Helen Taggart). Mrs Taggart performed, I think, some sort of supernatural feat (for which Mark and I are forever grateful) in starting a computer programming class in outer-suburban, working-class Boronia in 1977 - just before home computers appeared on the scene and some years before they appeared in the average high school.

She did this through her close association with Monash University. In the first course, towards the end of 1977, after some theory lessons and discussions on employment in the computer industry, she brought in a portable Texas Instruments terminal. This had a keyboard and a thermal printer, and an accoustic coupler modem on the back - two big rubber sockets that you put the handpiece of the phone into. She dialed up a timesharing system at Monash Uni, and we all took it in turns typing in some simple programs in BASIC. The effect was, I think, something like magic. It certainly hooked Mark and I.

The next year a less exciting, but more practical system was used - we would write our programs (still in BASIC) on mark-sensitive cards - like punch cards but simply marked with a pencil, and the following week we would get printouts back so we could see our syntax errors, or, if we were lucky, the results of our program. This led to a competition between Mark and I to see who could get the thickest stack of print-out back, but we got told off in no uncertain terms for doing this.

One incident, remembered by all who were there, was the week that someone (another teacher's husband?) dropped the cards on the way to the computer centre. He picked them back up and submitted them anyway, leading to everyone getting a totally jumbled set of syntax errors.

No matter, because by this time the TRS-80 had been introduced, and Boronia Tandy had one - with Level 1 BASIC and 4k of RAM. On Friday nights (late night shopping) Mark and I would go down to Tandy and sit on these ashtray/rubbish bins they had that were shaped like giant D-Cell batteries and were surprisingly comfortable and teach ourselves to program from the incredibly good and comprehensive book that came with the TRS-80. We became friendly with the manager, Keith, and a few years later Mark worked there for a while. (My first job out of school was also at Tandy, but in Crows Nest as by then my family had moved to Sydney).

Trips to the City

Mark on his pushbike at Boronia station
In 1979 and possibly earlier, Mark and I made a number of pilgrimages into "the city" (Melbourne). How many? I've no idea. More than one, possibly as few as two, maybe more. But they, in a jumbled together kind of sense, were a major event in my early high school years and a particularly fond memory. Boronia is 30km from the city, so trips in were unusual anyway, and for two teenage boys on their own it was quite an adventure.

We'd start by buying, at Boronia station, a Pass Master - an all day train and tram ticket that allowed you to hop on and off at will. And on the train journey in, Mark would explain and demonstrate the Doppler effect to me - as we went past a level crossing we could easily hear the pitch of the bells change from ding-ding-ding-ding as we approached to dong-dong-dong-dong as the bells receded. Melbourne's beautiful turn-of-the-century red trains were still running at the time, so it's possible (likely even) that we did this standing by an open door.

We'd get off the train at Richmond station. From there it was quite a walk to the far end of Bridge St, where Melbourne-at-the-time's only Dick Smith store was located. As mentioned, we had a Tandy in Boronia, but they carried only the TRS-80. Dick Smith carried a number of computers over the course of time, but in the late 70s the highlight was the Exidy Sorcerer - an incredible looking machine with more keys, more RAM and better graphics than a TRS-80 and a plug in ROM cartridge. What we did with it I'm not sure - I don't think we were allowed to program them, nor did we have time to seriously learn anyway, so I think we mostly endeavoured to crash whatever demo the store staff had running on them.

Given there was a tram, and we had Pass Masters, I'm not sure why we walked, but I remember that we did. Possibly because there were other electronics and computer shops on Bridge St. In particular, I think the oddly named "Looky Video" was there... How we got back I couldn't say - but probably we caught a tram into the city. Definitely a next major stop would be the Science Museum on Swanston St, and some stores opposite that carried army surplus electronics gear - cramped shops filled with fascinating valve-filled, knob-laden gear whose purposes we could only guess at (although in fact, Mark often knew) and old teletypes and the like.

In 1979 the 50 storey Nauru House was the tallest building in Melbourne, and Mark was determined that we should get to the top of it. There was a bit of sneaking about in the lobby, and then, when we felt the guard wasn't looking, we hopped in the lift and pressed the top button. The lift, no doubt, had it's own security system however, and steadfastly refused to take us there. Not knowing much of such things, we imagined we were on closed circuit TV and that the man in the lobby had control over the lift. Looking back, I suspect we would have been disappointed if we'd succeeded, exiting the lift most likely into a viewless lobby. Or maybe not. I'll never know... Perhaps it would have been best to do what Mark would most certainly have done later in life - start asking people to let us up there.... Might just have worked....

We would however have found other lifts in the city to take us up and down a bit. We loved to explore the brief zero-g moment that you get in a lift by jumping just as it comes to a stop on an upward journey, or as it starts a descent. I still do this if no-one's looking, and it wouldn't surprise me if Mark did too.

Another likely stop would be McGill's newsagent on Elizabeth Street - at the time the only place I was aware of in Melbourne with an extensive collection of technical books. We would have looked in at the toy and/or electronics departments at Myers, and no doubt in other long-forgotten computer or electronic shops. What, or indeed if, we ate, I've no idea - probably potato cakes as they were cheap and filling....

The journey home I don't really recall, but it would have been as adenture in itself as it would have been getting dark and the trains would have been jam-packed with office workers commuting home.

Much Later

Mark and I remained geeks, never tiring of computer and electronic shops, and especially shops filled with heavy old electronic equpment. Trips into the city were always an adventure with him, even when Melbourne and Sydney themselves had become commonplace. Perhaps the closest in spirit to our high school trips was walking across the causeway from Singapore to Johor Bahru to visit the pirate software shops in a mall Mark knew. Sim Lim square, a 6 storey mall packed with electronics and computer shops near Mark's flat in Singapore was also an eye-opener. But the trips we made as young teenagers into Melbourne will always be a treasured memory.

Patrick Jordan - patrick@ariel.com.au - 2005-03-23