Isn't it funny the sort of things that can take you back to your childhood? I was browsing one of the many catalogs that have arrived here for the holiday season and found a neat Microcontroller Engineering Kit for kids. Just the thing that every budding young technologist needs, don't you think? As I was examining the details of the kit (100 page instruction book! Sound and Light Sensors!) I suddenly flashed back to a Radio Shack kit that my Dad bought me when I was a kid.
I had completely forgotten about it, but after some Googling and eBay searching, I rediscovered my past. (No, I didn't buy one. I'd get the modern kit, if anything.) I spent hours playing with this Digital Computer Kit, and even remember programming it do to a card trick.
There's no processor, you effectively create your own by hand-wiring logic using the springy terminals, switches, and flashlight bulbs. I remember one of the projects was to wire-up a binary calculator. I had no idea what binary was, but I dutifully followed the instructions, then (quite literally) had the light bulb of understanding go off once I saw the results. This kit also provided my first exposure to troubleshooting and tedious hand assembly. (Not to be confused with the tedious Assembler I'd teach myself a few years later.) The wires would get all tangled, the switches finicky, and heaven forbid if you had to turn it over and replace the batteries--you risked your entire program falling onto the floor!
I used to credit a Sinclair ZX-81, hand-built by my Dad, as what got me started in computing. But, in retrospect, it was really this kit. It was 1977, and damnit, I had my own computer, such as it was. (I also remember that none of my friends were impressed.) What a nice surprise to remember all this, thanks to a little catalog shopping. It's like a little gift in and of itself.