I recently had the opportunity to visit the Thomas Edison National Historical Park which consists of Thomas Edison’s laboratory and home in West Orange, New Jersey. The experience reminded me of how I started programming and it gave me a newfound appreciation for both his creative abilities and the tools available to us today express our own creativity.
Like many programmers, I was drawn to computers at an early age, but it wasn’t love at first sight. My exposure to computers was fairly limited at the time. One or two classrooms in my elementary school were fortunate enough to have a single PC. It was a rarely used, expensive box with a small apple symbol on its side. It sat quietly at the back of the classroom. I knew it was there and I knew it did something, but it was a mystery.
In the late 1980s, buying a computer was like buying a car. There were stores dedicated to selling computers with showrooms full of different models. The prices varied from expensive to very expensive. The salesperson who sold my family our first computer, an IBM PS/1 Model 2011, had my mom reeled in with its ability to center text. Merlin’s beard – this must be wizardry! She was upgrading from a world of manual typewriters so this single feature was an immediate selling point.
Once the enchantment of centered text wore off, I wanted to know what else this machine could do. Endless hours of discovery followed. Rudimentary DOS batch scripts preceded rudimentary BASIC programs. I wrote simple text-based vocabulary quiz games. Then I figured out how to add graphics and a small car racing type game a la Spy Hunter was born. I read everything I could get my hands on. I needed to know more. I sat in the backseat of my parent’s car on long drives reading manuals. I saved money to buy a copy of Visual BASIC. I wanted a compiler as a birthday present.
This computer with only 1 MB of memory and a 30 MB hard disk was a tool for expressing my creativity. It certainly had limitations, but it gave me an outlet to create. I could think of anything, covert that thought into code, and this machine allowed people to see my thoughts and interact with them. Wow – that’s pretty amazing and I didn’t even need to get my hands dirty.
The sheer quantity of inventions and innovations originating from Edison’s lab is truly astounding. Rooms full of gears and pulleys and gigantic machines. Shelves lined with little bottles of chemicals. Springs and widgets and doodads everywhere I looked. From incandescent light bulbs and mining helmets to recorded sound and film, Edison has touched us all with his creativity. His ideas advanced entire industries and made a global impact. As I sat at the keyboard of our IBM PS/1, I never imagined that I would have a phone more powerful than that computer. Nor did I imagine that code I wrote could be shared globally for anyone to use. The tools of creation advance through invention and innovation. As long as we keep creating, the future awaits.