My first computer was a THOMSON TO8. It was a French-made computer designed for the French market. Instead of boring you with all its technical details (they are available here), let me tell you about how one of them beat all the others to my desk and what a good thing it was.
I attended high school in France in the mid to late 1980′s. At that point in time and space, computer owners could be split into five categories: rich kids had Macintoshes, cool kids had Amigas, losers musicians had Atari 512STs, poor kids had Amstrads and kids coming from families with no computer knowledge whatsoever had oddball machines that nobody else had.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, my family belonged to the last category. At the end of my last year in junior high, I worked very hard to get my grades up and was allowed to go on to high school by the slimmest of margins. To thank me and encourage me further, my parents decided to buy me a computer. Even though they had no experience with the “thing”, they thought (correctly) that knowing how to use one would be important in the Future. They said something to the effect of “having a computer will help you with your studies”.
So one Saturday morning, my parents and I went to the computer store. Back then there were no large stores like Best Buy or even chains like Radio Shack. That store was pretty much a one man operation run from the ground floor of a brand new office building that was otherwise mostly empty. That store had several brand of computers as well as some dedicated word processor machines. There were no Macintoshes: those were sold at an Apple-only store located in a fancy-pants mini-mall where we only window-shopped.
I remember my father rejecting the Amiga as too expensive, the Amstrad as too cheap and toy-like (plus it used weird 3″ floppy disks that were clearly incompatible with everything else), and the Commodore 64 as too old (tape drive? Floppies are the Future). It came down to the THOMSON TO8 and the Atari 512ST. Now, with the benefit of experience and a college degree in engineering, I can confidently state that the ATARI was the superior computer of the two. Back then, they looked the same and cost the same price. Which to choose? The sales man tried to politely nudge us towards the Atari. This had the consequence of making us think that he was getting a better commission on the Atari (he probably was just an honest enthusiast trying to steer a lost kid in the right direction). Plus the TO8 had a color monitor for the same price as the greyscale one that came with the Atari! So the TO8 won. My father haggled with the sales man to get 9 floppy disks for free (those 3.5″ disks were brand new technology!) and placed an order. What? You did not expect computers to be in stock, did you? Well, I did: big let down number one.
Some time passed by and our almost yearly vacation drive down to Italy loomed. Finally we got the call from the store: the computer had arrived! Here my memory is a bit fuzzy: I know it was shortly before the trip to Italy, I can’t remember exactly how long. Anyway, my parents thought it would be better to unpack the computer after the vacation: big let down number two! They did however allow me to get the user manual out of the box. Looking back, this was one of the single best acts of parenting they ever made. Like most such acts, it did not feel that good at the time…
It turned out that the manual was much more than your typical “plug the monitor here” type: it was a complete guide to learn how to program in BASIC. Not only did it teach BASIC but it did so in a very structured way, putting emphasis on things like proper commenting and program structure: no spaghetti code allowed! I spent the entire vacation reading the manual and writing programs on paper. When we (finally!) came back home, the computer was promptly unpacked and started. I don’t remember exactly, but my parents probably said something like: “so, what does it do?”. To which I probably answered something along the lines of: “Well, I have to program it first. Give me a few minutes”. At that point they probably left my bedroom wondering if they just wasted their money…
Within a few days, I had all kinds of simple demos going with multi color lines moving around the screen and all sorts of other “wasteful” things. This kept on going for the entire summer (needless to say, I did not get much of a tan that year). Then school started and I was all ready to share my programs with other computer users (after all, most computers used 3.5″ floppies, so it should be easy, right?). Well it turned out that most of my classmates had either Amigas or Atari STs! All those computers and floppies that look identical were actually quite incompatible after all… Only one other school mate had a TO8… Big let down number three! We did collaborate on a Breakout type of game (“casse-brique” in French), so all was not lost.
I turned to computer magazines in hopes of finding a BASIC listing of games I could program, but most of them used those mysterious PEEK and POKE instructions that made them computer specific. Remember that Amstrad computer that was deemed “too cheap” and the Commodore 64 with its archaic cassette drive? Well it turned out all those magazine listings were written for those two!
I did get to use the TO8 for school once: as part of our history class, a friend and I were assigned to do a presentation on the battle of Midway. My friend wrote all the text and I was tasked with drawing and showing the maps. There was a TV set in the class room and the TO8 could output to it via the PERITEL (a.k.a. SCART) connector. So I decided to write a program that would allow me to display a succession of maps by clicking on the mouse buttons (right to go forward, left to go backward). It was like Power Point, only more BASIC… The main problem was to draw the maps: due to my complete lack of limited artistic talents, I could not copy them from an Atlas. Enter the optical stylus (“le crayon optic”). This neat input device was a pen shaped device that plugged into the computer and included a light detector. It worked pretty much like a light gun used by some video game consoles: it “saw” the refresh of the video screen and by calculating the time of the event, the computer could tell quite precisely where the stylus was pointed. I found out that I could digitize maps by first photocopying them onto ordinary paper (film was then an exotic material reserved for teachers) and taping said copy to the monitor. With its brightness turned up to 11, the crayon optique could work through the paper! I wrote a program that read the position of the crayon optique and saved it to a file. The “power point” software would then read back these files and draw the map outlines and other items such as arrows that showed the progress of the battle. The presentation was a great success, mostly due to the fact that it was the first time anyone in the room, including the teacher, had seen a computer used in such a way.
So was the TO8 a waste of money? At the time, it probably looked like it; but looking back, I think if I had gotten any of the more popular models, I would have spent all my time exchanging pre-written software (Logiciel in French) and delayed my introduction to programing by several years…
So you want to use a TO8? No problem, emulators are available:
Linux: http://membres.multimania.fr/jth/emuto8.html (page in French, not tested)
Mac: http://www.macupdate.com/info.php/id/15924/teo (I just successfully ran this one both on Leopard and Snow Leopard)
PC: http://www.di.ens.fr/~mine/mess/index.html.en (I have not tested this one. Looks complicated!)
All things THOMSON (again, mostly in French): http://www.serveur87.com/
If you can ever figure out how to get .djvu files to display, you can read all the documentation here: http://dcmoto.free.fr/onlinedoc/index.html
Next time, with our editor’s permission, I will tell you all about the THOMSON MO5 as used in French high school computer labs…
[Editor's Note: David Wegmuller sent this in some time ago as a contribution, and I promptly lost it somewhere in my realms of email. I just managed to locate it while cleaning up my files. My apologies to David, and if you all liked his writing, beg him to tell you more of the story!]