Jan 7, 2014

Donald Empson, Sinclair computers, and the Street Where You Live

I have always been fascinated by computers.  My father worked for Burlington Northern doing "computer stuff" back in the days of punchcards and floors upon floors of whirring machinery.  He obviously enjoyed them as well.

My hunger for a computer of my own was satisfied by the Timex Sinclair 1000.  It was a pre-built version of the ZX-81, except it had twice as much memory -- 1k!  (That's 1000 characters.  The wikipedia definition of kilobyte is actually one and a half kilobytes.)  It was hard to find, and we scoured department stores, electronics shops, magazines, and watch stores for information, books and software.  There was no Internet, so finding even a scrap of information was like striking gold.  In fact, there was a Timex watch kiosk downtown Saint Paul that had more Sinclair software than we'd ever seen in one place before.

Eventually we found out about the Sinclair User's group in Saint Paul.  It was a diverse assortment of folks, all interested in this funky little computer.  It was a wonderful opportunity and resource.  I remember being one of the youngest folks there, as it was mostly adults.  Someone had a "chip drive" which was like a disk drive but it used some sort of "chip" technology to save data.  I bought a "blippo" from someone  - a module you plug in that would allow you to make a dozen beeping tones.  Very cool!  I even got the hi-res Memopak which allowed me to program graphics up to 192 by 248 pixel resolution.  I also remember one of the men in the group had an earring.  It was the first time I'd seen that, and it seemed so exotic.  (I'd have my own within five years.)

I'm remembering now just how supportive my father was in bringing me to these meetings and helping me with everything.  We learned a lot together on the Sinclair.  One of our best bonding times was in the basement - he would read me the letters to type in from a program in a magazine and I would mash them out on the nubby little "keyboard."

One of the folks in the user group was Donald Empson, a watch repair professional.  He was very helpful and I remember visiting him at his shop once or twice over on Grand Avenue.  It was full of tiny, tiny parts and so many shining gears.  In my later years I've often thought about how cool that shop was for it's mechanisms, but at the time I was focused squarely on making that computer do so many more things than it was intended to do.  I sucked the life out of that thing, but in the process learned a lot of the skills that make my trade today:  programming, improvising, researching, and even disaster recovery.  (If you touched the computer the wrong way you could jostle the 16k expansion module and lose all of your data.  HOURS of typing!)

Many years later my mother showed me a book she found somewhere called "The street where you live" and I immediately recognized the author's name - Donald Empson!  The book is a list of Saint Paul street names and their origins.  Many of them were obvious, but other surely required a lot of research.  I read it from beginning to end like a novel.  To this day I take a drive down Bison street whenever I'm near the Como zoo.  I tell my kids (again) about developers fighting for customers, and how one of them installed a pen of Bison for people to come see the giant animals -- oh and while you're there, maybe look at a new home!  Journalists in Saint Paul have credited it as a vital resource in their research kits, but I use the book for finding interesting areas in Saint Paul for my scooter club to ride through.

A new edition of the book has since come out and I'm so happy to have it, so that I can keep my first edition safe and sound.  I also still have a complete Sinclair system tucked away.

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