Was your father an electronics engineer?
SM: Yeah, he designed equipment for NASA, and he designed top-secret equipment that he still can't talk about in Australia. When we came back from Australia, he was still working for E-Systems, which became part of Raytheon. When he retired a couple years ago, I know that the last thing he was working on was imaging systems for those Global Hawk unmanned planes you saw flying around in Iraq.
What kind of things did he do in the Apollo program? Do you know his particular contribution to it?
SM: That's a good question. All I know is that he designed a lot of the equipment that was used in those things. He could build equipment from scratch using parts, and so on, so several of the -- I don't know -- instruments and control panels he had a hand in. He says a lot of his stuff is still up there on the moon because it was left up there.
I don't know any of the real specifics. I know he was friends with all the astronauts, so he was pretty high up in the food chain over there.
Your father's story is very interesting because it always seems like technical people have some sort of technical parents.
SM: Yeah, that makes sense. My father always built electronics in the garage. He had a big workbench, just tons and tons of stuff, and he built digital clocks for his personal use in the home before I ever saw any on sale in stores. He was always doing that kind of stuff. So I'm sure that just growing up around that kind of atmosphere led me in that direction a little bit.
When did you first get into programming?
SM: I was going to school in Australia, and it was early 1975. In Australia, the way it works is that summer time is in the winter months here. So we had summer vacation in Australia while it was winter time in the United States. School starts up around February or March over there.
I was starting a new year of school, and our school had just been donated this new Wang 2200 computer from the company my father worked for. The school was just starting up a computer course, an elective you could take. I didn't know a thing about computers, but I decided to go ahead and do it because a bunch of my friends were taking the class.
I remember that I wasn't doing too well the first half of the semester, because I just wasn't into it. But then one of my friends started showing me that you could play games on computers. I thought, "Wow, that's interesting." That's what led me down the whole rabbit hole there: "Okay, now I see a reason to be interested in computers, 'cause I can make games."
After that, I got into programming really fast. During the daytime, I left windows unlocked at my school so I could sneak in at night and spend several hours in there making games. There was something magical about being in there at night. I wouldn't turn the lights on; it was just a green screen glow lighting up the keyboard in front of me. I have very magical memories about those nights.
I remember one weekend I was in there during the daytime, doing that same trick, and I got caught. My computer teacher looked at a bunch of printouts of games and other things I had done and was so impressed that he gave me the key. He said, "As long as you're going to respect the equipment, you're welcome any time." So I really got into it, I got in good with the teacher and everything, and that's what set the career path of making games for me.
As far as I'm concerned, that Wang 2200 computer was probably the world's first PC.
It could easily be a contender. There a lot of computers fighting for that title based on different criteria, because it's all dependent on how you define "personal computer." People bend the definition to fit whatever they want.
SM: From this perspective, I look at it as a complete package: monitor, storage system, keyboard. Everything was there, it was all integrated. Built-in BASIC language, and it was pretty much turn-key from the start.
An amazing machine.
SM: I had no idea at the time that it was the first of its kind or anything like that, and it was really quite painless to use back in those days. I remember it being fairly easy to pick up.
You just turn it on and you've got BASIC right there, right?
SM: Yeah, you've got BASIC. It was a simple green-screen CRT. I think it was like 12 or 15 lines by maybe 64 characters across.
What was the first game you made on the Wang? Do you remember?
SM: I remember seeing a game in Creative Computing magazine called UFO, and it was one of these games to where it was text-based, and it would say, "There's a UFO 50,000 kilometers in front of you. Do you want to shoot a laser, which would have minimal damage, or do you want to try and target it like a missile shot? Do you want to turn on your shields?" It was a bit of a Star Trek-y kind of deal. Or "Do you want to move closer or move further?"
And the opponent had a bit of AI. It would make moves, shoot at you, and stuff. So I typed that in and felt like, "There's a lot of room for improvement here." So I started to try to make it graphical by using ASCII text. I spent a lot of time doing that kind of thing.