Yesterday I told you a little story about how I got my first computer. Thing is, this wasn’t a random chance event where my parents bought me a computer because it might be “educational”; they didn’t even buy it to help me with my homework.
No, you see before computers I was somewhat obsessed with electricity and wires. I was one of those kids who, if left alone with an electronic item would be found half an hour later with the thing in bits. Not just “let’s take the lid off and have a look inside it” but I used to do teardowns on everything just for fun. Well, not everything… I wasn’t daft enough to go poking inside TVs or wall sockets. I knew what mains electricity was so anything that had a plug didn’t get touched. If it ran on batteries and had screw holes? It was fair game.
What mystified my parents was that I’d put the stuff back together and it’d still work. 80s technology was great, there was so much stuff inside your average boombox. All these little metal things with legs that books told me were called ‘integrated circuits’ and other things called ‘resistors’.
I remember proudly telling my parents that one day I’d make them a computer. I didn’t own one (yet) and had never taken one to bits. I must have been exposed to their general existence though since I did manage to construct one at four years old. I mean, it had a few basic limitations like being made from cardboard and wood but it had wire inside it and a few random circuit boards I’d removed from some unwilling ex-stereo.
Well, on Christmas Day in between playing on my Beeb and digesting copious amounts of food I spent a fun hour or so putting together my own computer – from components, with a soldering iron. The computer is called a Fignition and is a computer kit designed with the same idea as the first 8bit micros – it’s simple enough that one person can understand the technical workings of it. Six year olds can grasp the concept of programming and what ‘RAM’ and a ‘CPU’ do. They can even cope with assembler if it’s reasonably simple. They can’t quite cope with multi-core CPUs, GPU shaders and interfacing things to a PCI-Express slot which is probably why modern computers don’t include manuals that have full schematic diagrams in them.
The Fignition contains an Atmel AVR as its CPU, has proper composite video output, a tiny keyboard to enter code, runs Forth as its OS/programming language and while you can use AVRDude to flash the microcontroller it includes its own 8Kb of RAM and 384KB of storage so you really can sit in front of a TV with just the Fignition and tap away writing software. It’s not something that requires a host PC to make it useful – in fact the only reason to plug it into a computer is to update the firmware. Upstairs on our bookshelf are loads of 80s programming books full of simple type-in programs. I might convert some of the more interesting ones to Forth and type them into the Fignition.