10 PRINT "Classic Computer Games, No BASIC Required"
February 27, 2021 8:23 AM   Subscribe

In the early days of computing, downloading software was iffy at best. Instead, the most common way of distributing a program for home users was a type-in listing, typically in BASIC. Those of us with Eighties 8-bit home computers often purchased the yellow BASIC Computer Games (originally published in 1973), and it's red-covered sequel, More BASIC Computer Games*. Listings for classic games like Super Star Trek could be found. A new effort is underway to implement these games in modern computer languages, such as C#, Java, or Python. You can get the code (or contribute) at Coding Honor's GitHub. If you prefer, you can also use the classic code with Commodore BASIC on your Windows, MacOS, or Linux systems.
posted by MrGuilt (58 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, man, Super Star Trek. I played it every chance I could, even though I was disappointed that it wasn't a graphical game. (I did note that, in one of the arcade versions of Spacewar, one of the ships looks an awful lot like a Constitution-class ship, i.e. the original Enterprise.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:42 AM on February 27 [5 favorites]

Coding Honor's Github

This is not a place of honor.

(Which is to say it's Coding Horror, but I couldn't resist the joke.)
posted by zamboni at 8:48 AM on February 27 [5 favorites]

According to legend, Super Star Trek was Mike Mayfield's attempt to convert Spacewar to a non-graphical platform. Kind of ironic that the first turn-based RPG (and I think it is) is a port of an arcade game.

BTW there's a website where you can paste in vintage BASIC programs in various dialects and run them on a simulated teletype. (You may have to prepend OPTION DIALECT ALTAIR at the top for Ahl's programs, tho)
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:56 AM on February 27 [3 favorites]

Oh, the flashbacks. Typing code for hour after hour - and then it doesn't run! So back over every line with a fine-tooth comb, looking for the typo. My first real dev environment was like a religious experience after that.
posted by Mogur at 8:57 AM on February 27 [21 favorites]

I picked up a copy of both of these a few years ago out of nostalgia, with the idea of reimplementing them in different languages as a coding exercise! I feel like less of a weirdo now, thanks.

The Beker illustrations are what really make these books; I still love his robot horror vacui style.
posted by phooky at 8:59 AM on February 27 [3 favorites]

And I am only now realizing that my pandemic project of restoring a flooded out Apple IIe has an obvious purpose...
posted by phooky at 9:01 AM on February 27 [5 favorites]

(Which is to say it's Coding Horror, but I couldn't resist the joke.)

I didn't have quite enough coffee, apparently.
posted by MrGuilt at 9:14 AM on February 27 [2 favorites]

Mogur, the trick was to wait two or three months for a later issue of Compute's Gazette! that had the errata for the game you wanted, and THEN type it all in. Much higher chance of success. But you had to have both patience and a subscription to make that work.
posted by fedward at 9:21 AM on February 27 [4 favorites]

Oh yeah! I read and annotated both of these to fragments. I cut my coding teeth entering some of these by hand into the school district's mainframe accessed via my junior high's dumb terminals. Lots of careful eyestrain. And then making my own changes.

Ah, Deepspace.

Ah, nostalgia.
posted by doctornemo at 9:30 AM on February 27

The games will play better if you keep CAPS LOCK on, as they were designed to be used with capital-letter input.
Stay true to the original program. These are mostly unsophisticated, simple command line / console games, so we should strive to replicate the command line / console output and behavior illustrated in the original book. See the README in the project folder for links to the original scanned source input and output. Avoid the impulse to add features; keep it simple.
So … don't fix the CAPS LOCK thing, then.
Please DO update for modern coding conventions. Support uppercase and lowercase. Use structured programming. Use subroutines. Try to be an example of good, modern coding practices
Or … DO fix the CAPS LOCK thing, then. OK.
posted by fedward at 9:34 AM on February 27 [4 favorites]

Now I'm going to spend the afternoon looking for the type in Appalachian Trail game that taught me about food caches.
posted by cobaltnine at 9:37 AM on February 27 [2 favorites]

I remember playing a really good graphical version of Super Star Trek (called something different with copyrighted Star Trek names changed) in the 90s or early 2000s... you could even have Tribbles...
anyone remember what it was called or if there are similar versions available today, especially for Mac?
posted by Bwithh at 9:44 AM on February 27

Oh wait, I found it: https://www.myabandonware.com/game/ega-trek-1km/play-1km
posted by Bwithh at 9:47 AM on February 27 [3 favorites]

Jim Gerrie at CBU has this: Type-in Mania: An Interactive Archive of Early Basic Computer Applications.

Minor self-link, to avoid typing anything in - all of the Ahl games, tokenized for cbmbasic: cbmbasic-Ahl-BASIC_Games.zip.

The pinnacle of type-ins? Asterisk Tracker, a one-liner that has all the elements a game needs. Play it in the browser here (CW: unavoidable Beeb startup beep): Asterisk Tracker. Keys: Return to go up, Space for new game. That's it.

Not quite sure where the fun in reimplementing these is, unless you want to get depressed at how much crap you have to type to replicate PRINT and INPUT in modern languages.posted by scruss at 9:55 AM on February 27 [6 favorites]

Typing code for hour after hour - and then it doesn't run!

My brother had the patience to do that with an adventure game written in pages of raw 6502 machine language - nothing but 2-digit hexadecimal numbers. To my 8-year-old sensibilities this seemed somewhere between magic and madness. Unsurprisingly, he went on to maintain ancient code for banking networks until well past Y2K.
posted by cardboard at 10:05 AM on February 27 [5 favorites]

Not quite sure where the fun in reimplementing these is
Definitely agree here. I was a type-in maniac when I was in elementary school, and took a lot of joy in typing in many of these into BASIC on my uncle's kit-built Z80 CP/M or the Apple II's at school.

But, browsing through the Coding Horrors archive a little bit, putting them into modern languages sucks out the joy makes them all very clinical.
posted by 3j0hn at 10:06 AM on February 27 [2 favorites]

I typed in my share of BASIC games.

I would assume that doing so would be educational, but looking back, I'm not sure I learned a thing from it. My brain and fingers have conveyed every line of ELIZA from paper to working program, but I couldn't tell you anything about how ELIZA works. I learned way more from making my own garbage BASIC games from scratch.

I think I have learned from doing the type-in-the-example thing with JavaScript, Python, etc.

Maybe BASIC is just as bad as everyone says it is.
posted by Western Infidels at 10:18 AM on February 27 [4 favorites]

I learned way more from making my own garbage BASIC games from scratch.

I also typed in Eliza from scratch, and failed to learn anything from it! Then I got the idea to automate a bunch of tables from the Advanced D&D Handbook, complete with random number generator dice rolls. I had ambitions of selling this package of DM tools, and got far enough to receive a cease & desist letter from TSR.
posted by jon1270 at 10:46 AM on February 27 [18 favorites]

I remember those well. Also remember how quickly I learned BASIC was not standardized across platforms. Atari BASIC did not have some of the same commands, or implemented things differently, than the BASIC used in the Ahl books. I had to do my own porting, not just typing. Got the porting to work for most of them. I suppose it was pretty educational since I had to think about the code, and not just blindly typing it.

But, I never typed the game I most wanted. The listing for Star Trek was so massive, and different enough from Atari BASIC, that I didn't even try it. Instead, I wrote my own version of Star Trek from scratch.

In terms of the mistakes made while typing, COMPUTE (and maybe others) came up with a clever solution. There was a program you could run that would print a checksum by each line of code. Could compare that to the checksums in the magazine.

Thanks for posting this. I'm currently going through Javascript tutorials and building a few small things on my own in an attempt to learn the language. Rebuilding these old games would be good practice, and an exercise in nostalgia.
posted by Teegeeack AV Club Secretary at 10:47 AM on February 27 [3 favorites]

BASIC, a warrior's code. Code with honor.

I grew up a bit later and wouldn't have known what to do with hex machine code. But, I sure remember learning to type by tediously copying hundreds of lines of code I didn't understand from magazines into a used TRS-80. In retrospect, I wonder why they were using BASIC in human-readable form? Perhaps the magazines were meant to be educational. Which isn't a bad idea. I do know how to type all the letters, not just A-D. And maybe learned a tiny bit about programming, or at least learned about the possibility of programming. The years between being gifted a computer and obtaining writable storage media were painful.

I'm playing Super Star Trek now for the first time. Thanks! (I think.)
posted by eotvos at 11:08 AM on February 27 [4 favorites]

(You may have to prepend OPTION DIALECT ALTAIR at the top for Ahl's programs, tho)

Pshaw. Altair Basic is for *[ableist slur deleted]*. Real *[misogynistic slur deleted]* use the toggle switches on the front panel to enter the bits into memory.
posted by mikelieman at 11:15 AM on February 27 [4 favorites]

Seriously, olde-school programmer's jokes did NOT age well.
posted by mikelieman at 11:15 AM on February 27 [6 favorites]

If the Altair guys had been smarter, they would've put some left-right switches in front and we could've all had 30 extra lives.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 11:36 AM on February 27 [4 favorites]

putting them into modern languages sucks out the joy

But I guess it is programmers we're talking about here. Programming for the sake of programming is always a good thing with that crowd. Why not find a BASIC interpreter for your modern system? It's not like your modern computer is too small ...
posted by scruss at 11:42 AM on February 27

Playing a text adventure written in BASIC that you'd typed from a magazine held fewer surprises than usual.
posted by straight at 11:48 AM on February 27 [6 favorites]

My brother had the patience to do that with an adventure game written in pages of raw 6502 machine language - nothing but 2-digit hexadecimal numbers.

I think I tried this once and when it didn't work swore never again until the magazine implemented checksums for each line. Even then, I think I spent more time staring at screenshots and trying to decide which game was worth hours of mindless typing than I did typing mindlessly.
posted by straight at 11:53 AM on February 27

There were typo checking problems for multiple systems, but probably COMPUTE's most-entered of them were Automatic Proofreader and MLX for Commodore platforms, as frequently printed, in their entirety, in COMPUTE's Commodore-specific magazine Gazette, which survived its parent publication by several years, still called COMPUTE's Gazette all that time. I miss that era sometimes.
posted by JHarris at 12:41 PM on February 27 [2 favorites]

Ha, JHarris, I was about to mention a similar program in the back of magazines published by Commodore in the mid 80's. It checksummed the other program listings in the magazine and gave diagnostic info on the type of error. Since it too had to be typed in by hand, it even had the ability to checksum itself! I find these odd marriages of technology (paper publication + early computing) really fascinating.

Here's one instance of the program in Commodore Power-Play (Dec 1984).
posted by SaurianNotSaurian at 1:00 PM on February 27 [2 favorites]

The checksumming was especially important in typing in the machine language software in Compute's Gazette, like the SpeedScript word processor (which was a great word processor for C=64). It was tedious, but error free and sooo worth it.
posted by lhauser at 1:11 PM on February 27 [2 favorites]

So … don't fix the CAPS LOCK thing, then.

I hope they have SQL Fighter
posted by thelonius at 1:53 PM on February 27

The Apple ][ magazine (or whatnot) had a loader sort of small program that you typed in. Then the articles would list the BASIC so they could discuss it, but at the end was a hexdump of bytecodes with checksums on each line. So you could type it in that way and know you got it right and still get a regular BASIC program out the other end.

My first BASIC was like1979 TRS-80. My dad's company sent him out to a month long 1hr saturday morning class on these newfangled computer things. He took me along. TRS-80 is not any better (actually much worse) than their HP and TI calculator programs. Only 8 bits!

A bit later dad evaluated an Apple ][ with a floating-point card and came to the same conclusion. Calculators still did better. But he then went and got an Apple ][+ because computers are the new plastic. I only wrote one game (lol) on that Apple, it was a "shoot down the TIE-fighter" using both paddles at the same time to fly (no joystick for me) and pressing a button to shoot. It sucked.

The worst bit about BASIC was when your school used Apple and the Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) contests are all in IBM/Microsoft speak.

Although, I think the last BASIC I did (not counting some VB tiny hackery) was AmigaBASIC. Quite nice compared to Apple/Microsoft. I wrote a graphical serial terminal program that could capture binary dumps so I could use my new Radio Shack 300 bps modem to get to a local BBS and (get this) download a real serial terminal program that could do xmodem. Took me a week to write out on that big-green-bar paper my grandmother had. A weekend to type it in. Used it once.

The project seems like it would be a sort of Rosetta Code or r/dailyprogrammer where one can see the same problem solved in many many languages.

Cool post.
posted by zengargoyle at 3:38 PM on February 27 [1 favorite]

I still have those books somewhere and definitely had a subscription to Creative Computing. The magazine and books were published in my hometown in NJ in a little tiny building right off the town square.

David H Ahl, the author of the books, has a very Web 1.0 site that's mostly about military vehicles and bible studies. I'm guessing that we don't want to know his politics.
posted by octothorpe at 3:59 PM on February 27 [1 favorite]

zengargoyle, you're the only person I know who's said anything nice about AmigaBASIC. I was a big ol' Amiga nerd and BASIC programmer, and I hated that thing. So slow and buggy.
posted by scruss at 6:18 PM on February 27 [1 favorite]

I learned to type in order to type in code listings. I was in high school, had a full schedule, and the one friend I knew who already could type was getting tired of my asking. Fortunately, my mom had connections, so I took a beginner and intermediate typing course at the same time. All those years of piano lessons paid off. Good times!
posted by grimjeer at 6:47 PM on February 27

When I think I was born just a few years too late, I remember the few times I tried copying basic programs from magazines and realize I was born at just the right time. Any earlier and I might have given up in frustration and any later computers would have gotten boring, leading me to a life of actually working for a living.
posted by wierdo at 7:25 PM on February 27 [2 favorites]

MLX! Wow did that give me a sudden jolt of nostalgia, JHarris! The hardest thing to believe is how I could have typed all those numbers without a 10-key pad.
posted by straight at 7:54 PM on February 27 [1 favorite]

Look *REALLY* closely at the line of code...
posted by Dub at 8:10 PM on February 27 [1 favorite]

I remember typing in games from magazines, then saving them to my tape drive, on my TRS-80...
But after playing Super Star Trek just now, and remembering the descendants of it that I played in the early 1980's, I'm wondering whether the game I've been playing lately - Star Trek Bridge Crew - is essentially the latest incarnation of a game that goes back to the mid 1970's. It's the same concept - warp to a new local region, fly around, deal with Klingons by judicial use of energy allocated to shields and phasers. Amazing how we're still doing that fifty years later!
posted by Flight Hardware, do not touch at 8:28 PM on February 27 [2 favorites]

Memories: Playing Star Trek on a teletype on a friend's dad's computer, which was a teletype attached to an IBM cabinet in their basement, and dad worked at Oak Ridge on nuclear stuff.
Helping my uncle type in a business program from a magazine and learning that the character $ was pronounced "string"
Learning that TRS-80 Basic allowed one to chain together commands into one line of code from a magazine article about one line games, and then writing a program that was a UI menu that let one select and play those examples.
And now I want to play those one line games, alas.
posted by indexy at 8:31 PM on February 27

Started on the TRS-80, but DOS 2.1 IBM PC-Jr was my real jam. The cartridge was everything. Keying in every character from a magazine taught me everything I didn't want to know about programming.
posted by ryoshu at 9:17 PM on February 27 [1 favorite]

scruss, I didn't say I liked it but it was nice the time I used it. Simple event loop AmigaOS was cool. But in total, like Amiga 1000 in 1985 and by 1988 I was in front of Sun workstations at university doing UNIX CS stuff. Very little AmigaBASIC. I was actually into MVP Forth from one of the Fred Fish disks because it had most of the information from the header files and library bits and it could create an actual executable. You might like this: Reconstructing the Leftovers on the Amiga Kickstart 1.0 Disk – pagetable.com
posted by zengargoyle at 10:05 PM on February 27 [2 favorites]

I remember a childhood with a 16kB memory expansion pack plugged into the back of a ZX81, coming loose just after I finished spending two hours typing in code and using the keyboard to start the game.

Then the inevitable blink while the zed-ex goes haywire and loses everything in memory, and I vow never again to put code into this thing, with all the hot, passionate rage only a six year-old can muster.

Today I hold the equivalent of a Cray supercomputer in my hand. I still code, somehow. I live in a strange universe.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 1:24 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]

Today I hold the equivalent of a Cray supercomputer in my hand. I still code, somehow. I live in a strange universe.

I'd suggest multiple Crays, and well, trying to figure out how if I can run SPECint92 on my Nexus 3a lead me down some deep rabbit holes of early 90's multiprocessing. The Cray CS6400 was the last "Cray Supercomputer", and no. I couldn't get apples-to-apples benchmarks in the time I committed to digging into it.
posted by mikelieman at 5:11 AM on February 28

Look *REALLY* closely at the line of code...
Couldn't get it to run at all. I'm surprised the page didn't provide a disk image download link, but I guess it pre-dates decent BBC Micro emulators. Things have come on a lot: there's now one designed to help you write tweets in BBC BASIC in the browser …

For a readily-works one liner game, may I refer to Asterisk Tracker above? It's too long to edit in the BBC Micro's line buffer once all the keywords are expanded, so you have to enter it as an abbreviated line, save it as text, then *EXEC that line to load it in. And it was written the first year the BBC Micro came out, too:
posted by scruss at 6:34 AM on February 28

I also typed in Eliza from scratch, and failed to learn anything from it! Then I got the idea to automate a bunch of tables from the Advanced D&D Handbook, complete with random number generator dice rolls. I had ambitions of selling this package of DM tools, and got far enough to receive a cease & desist letter from TSR.

Hah, my first experience with home programming (after entering the game code from the back of COMMODORE magazine with varying levels of success) was working with my dad on our C64 to break down the code of a program that allowed one to roll up an AD&D character with varying levels of buggy success. We figured out how to adjust the roll style used, then added in a whole section where you could shop for gear and then equip your character and print it out. Never got to the 'legal challenge' part of the work, but then this was mostly home-use.
posted by FatherDagon at 10:14 AM on February 28 [2 favorites]

Asterisk Tracker... Thank you, scruss; even though I've never seen that particular game before in my life, you've just enabled me to recapture the exact feel of my youth. I didn't read the whole of your comment before clicking through, and therefore had to do the "press each key in turn till something happens" process, watching myself die over and over until I hit the right key at the right time, that was an integral part of my childhood with a BBC Micro and, thanks to one of Dad's colleagues, a bunch of instructionless games.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 5:37 AM on March 1 [1 favorite]

I had both of those books and I can still remember the smell my Vic20 made after it had been on for hours as I typed out those lines of BASIC code. Does anyone remember that? I assume it was from the microchips inside offgassing as they baked without so much as even a heatsink (the Retro Recipes guy on youtube actually puts heatsinks on many of those old chips to make them last longer now.) Once I was done I would then save it to a cassette tape and that would take 20 minutes.

Those were the good old days.
posted by drstrangelove at 6:44 AM on March 1 [3 favorites]

I may have told this story before here.

No one in my family was into technology and we could not afford a computer, but in the 80s a local grocery store sold (or at least had on display, never met someone who bought one) Commodore 64s. They had a few demo models on the floor, but no one who could use it.

There was another department store that sold imported magazines. It was about half a mile from my school. As a 6th grader one was allowed to leave school grounds to walk half a block to the library. I would get a library pass, run to the store, read magazines for an hour, and run back before the end of recess.

I don't remember exactly how I figured out what a type-in listing was, but during the week I would go to the magazines and copy code listings to a notebook. Then on weekends I would beg my mother to go grocery shopping with her so I could test my code in the display commodore 64s.

It sounds like a walking to school in the snow uphill both ways story, but it was actually fun and exciting to literally run for miles every week to get the code, wait until the weekend to test it, and then repeat again if there was a bug.

Long story short this led to me and five other self taught 15 year old coders talking our way into access to the internet and hogging half of Mexico's internet bandwidth for a couple of years in the very early 90s just to play bot wars on IRC.

The memory of the moment when I went from copy pasting magical incantations into a mysterious device to understanding what code is still gives me gosebumps.
posted by Dr. Curare at 9:22 AM on March 1 [8 favorites]

I have this book (the second edition), so basically as soon as I read the post, I went to the Github page, grabbed one of the games and reimplemented (twice) in Ruby. The pull request (now accepted) is here.

So I guess you could say this post is relevant to my interests.

(Ironically, while I had the book, my computer at the time the book was gifted to me (a Sinclair ZX81) had a BASIC too different for my newb abilities to let any of them work so I've never typed any of them in.)
posted by suetanvil at 1:40 PM on March 1 [1 favorite]

Oh man, this is hitting some serious Proust-biting-into-a-madeleine nostalgia for me. I couldn't recall if I had the first BASIC games book or the second just by the covers. But, I remembered that the one I had had a "Hunt the Wumpus" game and sure enough it's right there in the second one.

I remember at one point wanting to play some game (probably not from either of these books but from one of the magazines) but finding the program was too long to reasonably type in. However, I remembered that my mom was an incredible typist (easily 100+ wpm, maybe even 120?) so I somehow convinced her to type it in for me. In a flash, she had it all squared away. But when I went to run it, it gave nothing but SYNTAX ERRORs. When I went to look at what she had typed, I realized the mistake. My mom was used to old-fashioned typewriters that didn't have separate keys for 1 and 0, leaving I and O to serve double-duty which, of course, did not work for coding.
posted by mhum at 5:27 PM on March 1

It's not from the Ahl book (which might've contained a whole bunch of code written by Kay R. Fisher at DEC) but I had more fun porting the 1973 PCC game Taxman [PDF] (aka Factor Monster) to other dialects of BASIC than to other languages. It's a simple take-a-number, beat-the-computer game, but it's harder than it looks. Porting it to the ZX81 was murder: all the keyword weirdnesses, plus a tiny screen AND having to manage scrolling manually (if you output more text than would fit on the screen without issuing SCROLL to make space, your program would stop) was a little too much. Some of the versions get unbearably slow near the end of the game, but I think I can refactor (hoho) that out by precalculating factors and storing them in an array of integers.

You can play it here on an emulated Beeb (CW: startup beep), albeit with slightly ropey number formatting:
Taxman (BBC)
posted by scruss at 4:35 AM on March 2

I was late to this party (born 1986) but my dad studied computer science in the 70s at university for a few semesters before switching to something "to get a real job" (big oops on that). Anyway, he taught me BASIC when I was a wee lad growing up on an old AppleIII. Good times with these games.
posted by Glibpaxman at 6:00 AM on March 4 [1 favorite]

thatwhichfalls' "Program Along With Joey Ramone!" link lead me to discover that the Internet Archive has high-resolution copies of K-Power Magazine, in case anyone feels like trying out this method of software distribution. The full Ramone article is volume 2 page 38. Sadly, the Talking Heads feature on page 34 doesn't include a song.
posted by eotvos at 6:54 AM on March 4

he taught me BASIC when I was a wee lad growing up on an old AppleIII

You had an Apple iii? I was programming on my elementary school's Apple II+, IIe and IIc when I stumbled across the iii in a book we had in the library. I had never--- and still haven't--- seen one of these in person. In those days information was hard to come by and it was years later when I learned that these things suffered from overheating (due to Jobs's insistence on not having a fan) despite there being a gigantic aluminum heatsink for the entire board.

Could you run Apple II programs on it?
posted by drstrangelove at 8:17 AM on March 4 [2 favorites]

Could you run Apple II programs on it?

Hey sorry, I forgot about this thread damn. I was hurrying into class when I posted it then forgot to check back.

So tldr, yes. But the III was extremely temperamental.

Long answer: My grandpa was an early adopter of basically everything - he had one of the first cellular phones ever in like 1980 that had to be custom installed into an entire car. The antennae was so big it basically was the car. Grandpa bought the very first Apple when it was released then the II, IIe, and several IIIs. He was convinced they could help do...something... for his farm.

My dad, with the couple semesters of computer science classes, tried to use them to do simple accounting but in the end it was clear that there was no practical use for these extremely expensive devices grandpa had just bought so they sat in the office collecting dust.

So when I was around 7 I really really hated going to school. It was just boring and dumb. And at least once a week I'd just refuse to go and dad would have to take me to the farm and I'd hang out in the office and eventually I started playing around with the forgotten Apples. The Apple I and II didn't work at all but the IIe did and grandpa let me take one of the IIIs home to play with.

Nothing ever worked exactly like it was supposed to. It would crash a lot (maybe overheat?) and a lot of the disks just wouldn't boot up. But my dad showed me how to do some really cool stuff on BASIC. I guess it's like when your first car is a total junker. You remember it fondly forever even when you get a much nicer new car. Good times.
posted by Glibpaxman at 8:20 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]

My grandpa was an early adopter of basically everything - he had one of the first cellular phones ever in like 1980 that had to be custom installed into an entire car. The antennae was so big it basically was the car.

Because I'm a pedant, I can't help but point out that was before cellular phones. The ones with the huge whip antennas on the trunk were Mobile Telephone Service (MTS) phones. They used one big broadcast tower in the middle of town for the audio going to the mobile terminal and a bunch of antennas spread across town to receive the audio from the mobile terminal. The system had terribly low capacity because the frequency wasn't reused like it was (and is) with the cellular system.

The one my granddad had involved a couple of suitcase sized boxes in the trunk and what looked like a slightly modified Bell 500 phone on the floor under the dash of his Lincoln. The cellular car phones, at least by 1986 when my dad got one, looked like the goddamned future. Just one brick between the seats with a handset clipped to the top and a little helical antenna pasted to the back glass. The minutes were like a quarter of the price, too. That was before automatic roaming, though, so if someone wanted to call you when you were out of town, they had to know where you were and a special phone number in that city.
posted by wierdo at 7:29 AM on March 6 [2 favorites]

The ones with the huge whip antennas on the trunk were Mobile Telephone Service (MTS) phones.

There were DIY options.

My uncles in rural Mexico were into civilian radio. They had built their own antennas in the 70s, several big ones at home, a few smaller ones in their land. For a while one of my uncles home antennas was the tallest structure for miles. They had all kinds of gadgets, and sometimes would let us kids play with them. I remember during the christmas holidays of 89 / 90 we were listening to live transmissions from Panama, both civilian and what sounded like police or military, we had front row seats to the invasion.

But back to phones, I was too uninterested to understand the technology, but they had somehow hooked up their radio stuff to a Commodore with a very expensive and not exactly legal expansion cartridge with telephone cable ports they had smuggled into Mexico from the US. They got it from the same people they got their guns and ammo from.

All their trucks got this huge antennas installed along a hundred kilos of hardware and what looked like a cellphone handset. The truck woull call the home antenna, and similar to MTS the commodore would then transfer the call to the public telephone system. Same for incoming calls.

I remember my uncles being particularly proud that it was all automated, while the people at the big cities had to deal with human operators to route calls.

Like Glibpaxman's grandfather, my farmer uncles were early adopters of a lot of high tech that did nothing for the farm, but did inspire the younger kids. The current generation of that side of the family runs state of the art automated greenhouses now. Except for the ones that liked guns more than electronics.
posted by Dr. Curare at 9:05 AM on March 11 [3 favorites]

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