Entry 1: History

A project log for Fixing 37-year-old software: Three Mile Island

I'm an Apple ][ fan. One game from my childhood keeps crashing on me... and it's time to finally fix it!

Jorj Bauer 01/09/2017 at 18:120 Comments

I grew up in suburban Norristown, PA. My mother, a single parent, raised my brother and me on a shoestring budget; we had little room for niceties. So in 1984, when my grandfather decided to buy me a computer, I was ecstatic. Computers were cool. I had been using the Apple ][+ since 6th grade at school; we had a Commodore PET lab there as well. Some of my friends had Commodore VIC-20s and C-64s. One had a TI-99/4a. Another loaned me her TRS-80 MC-10 for a while. I never thought I'd have a computer of my own, and here it was - an opportunity to buy whatever kind of computer I wanted!

I spent months preparing - deciding what kind of computer I wanted, based on what I wanted to do with it. The TI-99/4a was fun, but an outlier. C-64s were for playing games, and that's not what I wanted. I wanted to be able to fiddle. Like I did with the Apple computers at school. CoCos were very fiddly, but had a feel that I didn't quite like. And so it happened that one day - after a lengthy discussion with him about what I wanted and why - my grandfather drove me down to Bundy Typewriter & Computer in Northeast Philly to buy an Apple.

Now, as I recall it, the school year was coming to a close - which means it was early 1985. I would have just finished 7th grade (for the second time!) and was entering the 8th grade "gifted" classes (the district had dropped me out of the program after I flunked 7th the first time - note, it is not possible to pass 7th grade in 1983-4 if you do absolutely no homework all year, despite your test scores).

I suspect there was some condition attached to the computer - probably related to my getting back on the academic straight-and-narrow. I'd probably aced that year. The district dropped me in to the "average" classes, which were a breeze. I accidentally got myself in to the advanced Algebra class for 8th grade. I stumbled in to helping the Title I Math class with their Apple ][s, which paved the way to helping to teach the computer classes with Commodore PETs. All of this led toward my 8th grade year of gaming the system: I found the things that I liked and was good at (orchestra, Commodore PETs, Algebra, managing the Apple ][s, stage crew) and then things I hated and was bad at (umm... art, which is a sign of a crappy teacher, since I consider myself an actual artist) and balanced my life accordingly (read: found an excuse to skip every art class in 8th grade with a signed teacher's note for one of the aforementioned fun activities).

One of the biggest reasons I wanted the Apple //e (released in early 1983! New! Shiny!) was so that I would have a set of tools to work with. Yes, my friends had all those other computers; but I wanted to be able to work with the same software I'd been using in the Apple ][ lab at school. The games, I suppose. But more: the utilities. Disk editors. Programming languages like Logo and Applesoft BASIC. Program listings out of BYTE magazine. These were what really intrigued me. I wanted to be able to understand how things worked. Change them. Make my own things.

(I'm sure that will have surprised absolutely nobody that knows me today.)

So when we walked in to Bundy and they tried to upsell us to the brand new shinier Macintosh 128 (this is 1984, remember!), I was having none of it. It was clearly infantile in its capabilities. Nascent. Perhaps it had promise, but in that moment, it was the wrong machine. It had no programming languages. It didn't even boot in to Applesoft BASIC. I wouldn't be able to share any of it at school. Or run it in the school labs in the mornings and evenings, then head back home to work on it some more. Nope. No Mac, No How.

We actually went back home to deliberate (certainly not my choice) and went back a few weeks later. Walking in the second time, I knew *exactly* what we were getting. An Apple //e, 128k extended graphics card, color monitor. Which is exactly what we bought, and exactly what I used pretty much nonstop for the next 5 years. (Including - to much of my family's chagrin I'm sure - on vacations.)

In high school, I wound up working for Babbage's Software. Software sales were also nascent. People didn't know what they were buying or why. Software sales folks didn't know what to tell their customers about what to buy. But there were a large (and increasing) number of software titles, many competing in the same space; Babbage's was a pre-Internet way to put shrink-wrapped boxes of software in front of curious eyes, free from the car-dealership feel of computer hardware sellers. And one of the ways that they managed to keep the staff informed was to let the staff take software home and test it out.

I amassed quite a pile of software for my Apple //e. There are some utilities that I remember copying from my middle school. Some that I got from a friend with an Apple //c in early high school. And many, many that I bought while I worked at Babbage's. (I'm not sure I actually made any money there; I think I just funneled it all back in to software!)

So that I can wrap this up and get on with my day, I'll fast forward over the rest of the fun times. I wound up at Drexel University in 1990, where I worked with my roommate's Mac SE (we couldn't afford to buy me a new Mac of my own). The utilities I wanted now existed, and I was wholly ready to move on. My Apple //e went in to a box until about 1994, when a friend - a writer - was looking to buy a word processor. I spent a weekend dumping disk images out a serial port at a friend's house (he had the serial card), and then my Apple //e became a full-time word processor.

Most of the Apple ][ disks I had couldn't be imaged (copy protection was rampant at the time, and those diskettes were getting long in the tooth anyway). The remaining disk images went in to a CVS archive, later converted to git, and eventually supplemented with images found on the 'Net of software that I hadn't been able to copy (but someone had cracked, copied, and uploaded now that they're all abandonware).

Occasionally I'll pull out an Apple ][ emulator and play a game I remember. And one that I remember vividly from my early middle school years is Three Mile Island - a nuclear reactor simulator.

I never owned a copy of this disk, and I must have played it in 6th and 7th grades. I found the image online (probably in the early 2000s) and spent some time playing it. The only problem with it is that it crashes if you press '7'. Which is problematic, because the number keys switch between screens in the game. '7' is supposed to let you save and restore. Instead... instant boom. Bummer for a game that takes hours to play.

Now here I am, in 2016 - and I've got a hankering to play again. Only this time, I don't want to play TMI; I want to fix it.