Being a computer freak in the early 90s

Klausen in Sonthofen, 2016. Photo courtesy of Sabine Gross.

Sonthofen is a town with about 20000 inhabitants in the very south of Germany, close to the borders of Austria and Switzerland, and the towering mountains of the Allgäu Alps. Each year around the fifth of December, you see the Klausen: Young men with cow heads and fur costumes run around, chase away the winter ghosts and occasionally hit bystanders with a switch — a tradition hard to understand for outsiders, but normal for the inhabitants.

When I grew up there, every kid learned how to ski. If your parents didn’t teach you, you would learn it in “ski camp” in sixth grade. I remember vividly how we would go down the slopes until the afternoon, and then finished the day off with endless matches of table tennis. I wish I still had as much energy as back then.

It must have been around that time, in 87 or 88, that my parents bought me my first computer. It was a C16 by Commodore, little brother of the then popular home computer and game machine C64, with even less memory (16 kBytes, less than a single compressed picture on the internet today). It came equipped with games like Summer Games or Winter Games that forced you to move your Joystick as fast as possible to win and were infamous for causing the death of many fine game controllers.

One day, my uncle Klaus came by for a visit. With a few keystrokes, he wrote a program in BASIC, the programming language that was natively supported by the C16's operating system. It made the screen flash in random colors and produced random noise, not very pleasant to watch or listen to. That day, I fell in love. I wanted to become a programmer.

I asked my parents to buy me books and started to study myself, as their peak understanding of technology was being able to program the family VCR. I spend hours in front of the machine, reproducing what my uncle had shown me, and going beyond. In short, I became what was then called a “computer freak”.

That term was not (only) used disrespectful, it mainly showed total lack of understanding of what people like me were doing by the “normal” people. All the grown ups around me had real jobs that rarely involved any computers. The only two programmers I knew back then were my uncle Klaus and my aunt Heidi. But that was about to change soon.

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