Sunday, October 30, 2022

Forty Years of Personal Computing - The ISEF (1979)

Yours truly, at the 1979 ISEF, with my exhibit.
I've written about my attempt to write a BASIC interpreter. While I never finished the project, it did win a few awards at science fairs.

Area Fair  - Fairmont State College - March 30-31, 1979

While writing the interpreter, my parents thought my efforts would make a good science fair project. I entered the West Virginia Area Fair. My father, being a professor there, was a judge. To avoid any conflict of interest, he did not judge my category.

My interpreter was by no means "done". I was still working on it. I put together an exhibit discussing the various things I did to improve computer performance, including fixing the CPU clock source.

I did well at the Area Fair, winning the US Air Force Honors award for the most outstanding exhibit in my category. I also placed first or second overall. This was a matter of debate. The first place winner would travel to the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). This trip  was sponsored, in part, by a consortium of coal mining operations. The other exhibitor I tied with had built an impressive and detailed model of a modern coal mining operation. The coal miners wanted to send him. After all, his exhibit said "COAL!"

The professors of science weren't that impressed with the model, and they wanted to send me. (My father, of course, declined to vote) They worked out a compromise. They would see how we did at the Regional Fair, and break the tie that way.

Regional Fair - West Virginia Wesleyan College - April 20-22, 1979

West Virginia Wesleyan College impressed a kid from a small town like Fairmont. I toured their computer science lab, using a PDP-11. I met some of the students and got to talk to professors of computer science. One of them (sadly, I cannot remember his name) gave me some helpful suggestions on how to solve certain parsing problems, as well as methods to compute mathematical functions I needed. 

I was impressed with the lab, the professors and the other talks that I scarcely remember my presentation. My mother remembered me holding up the October 1977 issue of Kilobaud magazine like everyone must have read it. 

It must have gone well. My exhibit won two awards, an outstanding exhibit award in my category for large schools, plus a US Army / Science Service certificate for outstanding achievement in my category. I also placed 3rd in the state overall. My competition from the Area Fair? He didn't do so well, and didn't even place in his category. That meant I was first place in the Area Fair, and would be going to the ISEF.

Trying to Finish

I was desperate to finish my work before the ISEF in San Antonio. It was my Senior year of High School, and there was a lot going on. I had less than two weeks to prepare.

I read the rules of the ISEF competition. The venue required all equipment have 3-wire electrical plugs. I replaced the cords on the terminal and computer to 3-wire cords and plugs -- the only ones I could find at the local hardware store were bright orange and very heavy. The tape recorder had a two wire plug, but I could run it on batteries if anyone complained. 

That job done, I turned to the interpreter. I've already described that during one of the late work sessions I over-wrote dozens of hours of work. There was no way to replace this work in the time remaining. I would go to the ISEF with an incomplete project.

The Trip

The time came to ship my equipment to San Antonio. There would be no further work done. 

Shipping my computer worried me. There were so many things that might fail in transit, I wanted to be able to repair them. The airline allowed a small personal bag. I filled it with virtually every tool I owned. A soldering iron, multi-meter, screwdrivers, wrenches, solder, parts. In all about 35 pounds of tools in a small gym bag. 

Today, you couldn't walk through airport security with 35 pounds of tools, they would never let you board. In 1979, they asked me what all of it was for. I explained that I needed them to fix my equipment that had been shipped to San Antonio. This seemed satisfactory, and they let me board.

International Science and Engineering Fair - San Antonio, TX - May 7-11, 1979

At the Fair, I worried about setting up my exhibit. Fortunately, everything survived the trip, and was set up in short order. It all worked. I noted the exhibitor next to me had a Radio Shack TRS-80 computer -- all with two-prong AC plugs....

If you study the picture, you can see that I brought everything -- CT-64, SWTPc 6800 computer system, CIS-30+, cassette recorder, tapes and even the Kreepie Peepie. I also had hand-outs, a paper and the source code sitting on the table. (And, yes, I could not spell "binary" correctly)

Without an interpreter to show, I wrote a simple program that drew a sine wave vertically on the terminal using asterisk characters and spaces. This was a good demonstration of how slow SWTPc 8K BASIC was. I left this program running each time I left the exhibit. When I returned, the program had crashed. I never figured out why.

I don't remember my presentation to the judges, so it must have gone OK. I didn't place in my category. I was just happy to be there at all, especially with an unfinished project.

The ISEF arranged some tours for the exhibitors. One was to a solar power farm at the University of Texas. Another was a trip to the USAA offices, touring their computer center. They had all IBM equipment, including a large mainframe and one of the new laser printers with a 77" imaging drum. It was my introduction to a corporate computing environment. 

I remember one of the docents talking about who they hire at USAA. It wasn't all computer science majors. In fact, some of their best programmers were actually music majors. 

And there was a welcoming event for the exhibiters. I was super shy back then, so I don't remember meeting anyone. But I do remember the food. It was my first experience with tamales. They were much easier to eat once you removed the corn husks....

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