Technostalgia

My First Computer: The Thomson T08

The Thomson T08 (Image Source: Old-Computers.com)

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.

The Atari competitor. You can see how dissimilar they are! (Image Source: pugo.org)

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

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.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!]

  • Absolutely epic (and I don't use that word lightly). Excellent story, and a computer I never heard of! Tell us more!

    I spent several summers programming in BASIC on our Atari 800XL. I did not have the tape drive, so all my programs had to be rewritten each time I wanted to use them. Also, the allure of the ocean beckoned me (and bikini-clad women were so nice to see for the then-13-year-old me). So, my programming skills were never fully refined. I figured that out once and for all when taking FORTRAN in college.

  • zsm

    Thanks for this nice story David. I too think I took to programing since my uncle bought me a computer almost no one else had, a TRS-80. I did later encounter them at a high school lab, but not the one I attended. Had I had a C64 or something like that I would have surely played video games all the time instead of learning BASIC. In fact BASIC was the reason I learned English. It was the summer between kindergarten and 1st grade and I had been stubborn and refused to learn English. (We had emigrated, I had learned German in Austria and thought, if someone wants to talk to me they can learn German or Polish.) My parents had signed me up for a computer class and they had TI 99/4As. I really only wanted to play video games, but the instructor knew my mom, and she would only let me play if I used the typing program and did the BASIC examples. Since I really wanted to play the games, I had to learn English, and fast!

    Anyway later we got a PC clone, actually not really a true clone a Victor computer, but pretty close. I remember one summer I brought a book about Aston-Tate dBase with me on vaction and then I came home and helped my dad with his business. Then the next summer I borrowed some Pascal books and used a pirated copy of TP. Finally when my parents had bought a truer PC clone and I had saved-up enough money (took years), I bought Borland C++. It was $450 and I got it at a discount for $400 plus tax at Elek-Tek (miss that place). That summer I read those books on a vacation to FL. I also did not get a tan.

    Today I'm a code monkey, it pays the bills.

    • B72

      A friend's dad had a "Trash-80" that was actually pretty fun for games. There was a great text based game where you got "build points" every turn and had to build out a fleet of space ships to defend yourself against the computer controlled enemy. We found that the Russian model worked well – Build lots of crummy ships and force the enemy to divide their fire.

      Now it's really bothering me. What was the name of that game?

      • zsm

        I wish I knew. I did not have many games for mine since I got it right about when Radio Shack stopped pushing them hard, ie they had Tandy 1000XLs already. Also a lot of the software was for newer or more capable TRS-80s with more RAM. Eventually I got a CoCoII and disk drive. That was a bit better. A dad of a friend of mine was a HAM and get got a schematic of how to add a composite connector, so my mom taught me how to solder (that's what she did all day at her job back then), and then I had not so fuzzy an image on the TV.

  • Charles_Barrett

    Wow…! Thanks to this contribution I have now learned about the SCART/PERITEL connector standard, which I was previously unaware of. They had very workable home-entertainment interconnect schemes in Europe long before the USA got with the program.

  • tonyola

    This is one area where I have basically no experience – "alternative" microcomputers that run something besides MS-DOS, MacOS, or Windows. As I mentioned in a previous post, FORTRAN scared me off of programming forever though I have had a smidgen of BASIC, and I didn't own a computer myself until I bought a Mac Plus in 1988.

  • I am painting my return key yellow right now!

  • dwegmull

    Thanks for all the positive comments. I will sit down on Sunday morning and attempt to write a follow up story…

  • Even better. I am going to make some Sharpie corrections to my keyboard first.

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