Tac2 (the Traansvaal Amateur Computer Club) was a group of nerds and geeks that met in the basement of Senate House at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. I served as Editor of their newsletter for several years and also as Chairman for a good many more.
The club, as I recall, started out with folk who built their own Motorola 6800 computers from kits put out by Southwest Technical Products Corporation. Many of us also soldered together Sinclair ZX80’s. Then the tide turned against hardware and our soldering irons towards software and keyboards: We started buying ready built machines like the Sinclair ZX81, Commodore PET, Radio Shack’s TRS80 and the Apple II. The software revolution had begun and the Apple took a big lead eventually to be overtaken, not by the latecomer IBM PC itself, but by the generic PC.
We had interludes of interesting hardware developments: The club purchased and collectively assembled a Heathkit HERO robot — which was so poorly controlled that it was promptly named “Harvey” after the Harvey Wallbanger cocktail, both for the wall banging and it’s drunken behaviour! Peter Hers built aucoustically coupled modems which included the rubber couplings used between a toilet bowl and its water tank — a perfect fit for telephone ear and mouth pieces. He sold many of them to club members who were keen to network with other computers. I bought one, it worked surprisingly well. There was Compuserve, an expensive subscription service and an international call away; a whole host of international bulletin boards if you could afford the calls; the local Control Data office sold time-slices to those who wanted access to databases and mainframe computing power; a few hackable mainframes answered the phone and a couple of computer companies had dial up bulletin boards to entice their customers to buy product. Amateurs were in desperate need of a local dial up bulletin board.
Whatever happened to Steve Cilliers? He was one of our club’s brightest minds and wrote the machine level code for my “Ideas” bulletin board — South Africa’s first private 24/7 dial up bulletin board. We knew him as Steve, his family called him Richard. In this photograph we were spoofing a new Apple product release which we called the “Lemon”, a simple one-bit-input-memory-and-output computer with a green “screen”.
The Ideas Bulletin Board took calls from all around South Africa and even a few from Zimbabwe, Canada and Britain. It connected me with people I might never otherwise have met: Michael Earl a design genius, Willie Esterhuizen the movie maker and Paul Everitt, still a friend to this day. Around that time I started living with my wife-to-be, Carolyn, a relative techno-savage until very recently. She would unplug the bulletin board and sometimes leave it unplugged to dry her hair! Frank, a caller from Cape Town was often the first to raise the alarm: “Your dizzy blonde has unplugged us again”, never mind that she’s actually a brunette.
South Africa’s premiere computer exhibition was started by Tac2. The club had some smaller swap meets, not really formal exhibits, at Wits University and the Sunnyside Park Hotel and then floated the idea of a bigger show which we called The Computer Faire. The first and only Faire run by the club, before we sold it, was in the Carlton Hotel ballroom. It was wildly successful and profitable for the club. The Apple II was the star of the show that first year!
I worked briefly for Computers Etc. in 1980, a branch of a retail business based in Annapolis, Maryland. While club chairman Angus Anderson was first to wholesale Apple computers in South Africa, Computers Etc., with its US experience and personnel in the form of one zany Jim Hoffman, took the lead in selling Apple computers. They also took two stands at the first Computer Faire, in a prime position with the largest video projector available at that time. The Computer Faire, the Apple II and Computers Etc. made a big splash that year. It brought in many customers that were to feature prominently in my consulting business for years to come.
In September of 1981, after I returned from a trip to the USA, I formalised a consulting business I had started earlier: Intelligent Ideas. Amongst my early clients was Joan Joffe of Joffe Associates. I undertook the project management of her foray into exhibiting at the second Computer Faire run out of the Kine Centre in downtown Johannesburg. Thirty shows later the Computer Faire website writes about its Tac2 origins and of Joan Joffe’s exhibt at that Faire: “We exhibited on the second-ever Computer Faire,” Joffe says. “We were a small operation – really tiny – and decided at the last minute that we should exhibit at the show. They didn’t have any real stands left and could only give us a portion of the corridor near the restaurant, where we literally had room to put up a shelf. So we erected a lot of scaffolding under a sign ‘Build on Joffe Associates’ and hung up a standard construction board listing the project manager, developer, technical and sales managers (all members of our team). And we won the Best Stand award for it”. Both the visibility at Computer Faire and the Best Stand award had important implications for the fledgling company, says Joffe. “It showed what a little company with a lot of imagination could do”. I remember Joan as a South African technology pioneer, she was first to import the IBM PC, on a grey market basis, into the country — a move which eventually unseated Apple as the dominant microcomputing platform. Joan was not a Tac2 member.
The power failed for about forty-five minutes at the Kine Computer Faire. The floor was drawing too much power, a new feature of technology exhibitions. With the air conditioning out the emergency exits were opened and the fire alarms on each door went off — an incessant, piercing shriek that had to be drowned out by filling each alarm with coffee through the speaker grille.
After Tac2 meetings, which often included demonstrations of recent achievements, many of us would retire to the all night cafés in Hillbrow: Café Wien especially and Café Zurich were favourites. We’d work through the night, fueled on coffee and bacon-and-egg breakfasts, rehashing and expanding on ideas we had learned at the club. We sparked off each other and rose to the challenge of some serious amateur development work …
- A robotics language in FORTH, never completed, called BodiLanguage, an attempt to improve Harvey’s performance.
- A networked, multi-terminal game also written in FORTH, which didn’t quite work (my own part in that project was almost identical to a modern day browser, written in BASIC, to fetch plain text instructions from the game server and make something more of it at the terminal: The browser could write text and draw crude vector graphics anywhere on the Apple’s graphic screen).
- The game browser eventually morphed into a private project, a version of Logo: Seymore Papert’s learning language, based on Jean Piaget work, which directed a turtle to run around a computer screen. I put my Little Logo into the public domain, primarily for the benefit of local schools that couldn’t afford Apple’s Logo. Instead of getting instructions from a networked server, my Logo took its instructions from the keyboard and plotted it’s course in the browser window.
- A dial-up bulletin board with it’s own markup language called BBL (Bulletin Board Language). A machine code driver diverted keyboard input routines (a lesson learned from my Little Logo) to listen in on the serial line for remote commands, it was wrapped in an API we could conveniently call from BASIC. It suffered from buffer overruns as modem speeds increased over the years. We had a friend in the Post Office, a fiend at solving Rubik’s Cube, that kept “donating” modems to the cause. We started at 300 baud and stopped at 1200.
In the mid-eighties, years before the World Wide Web, we had the concepts of client/server computing, a rudimentary browser and a markup language. Perhaps because we didn’t have a persistent network, we never connected the dots. Some of us went on to create our own businesses based on ideas we hashed up in those heady days of all night discovery.
Tac2 spawned several smaller groups such as Apple, TRS 80, Commodore and the IBM PC groups, many of whose members were professionals in the field of computing. The associated nature of the parent club and the apparent stigma of amateurs eventually led to the club being renamed to the Transvaal Associated Computer Clubs (TACC).
This will be a work in progress, as I remember them I’ll list club members here (in alpha order) that I had close contact with. A more comprehensive list of Tac2 members will be kep at the tac2blog on their Member List page.
Angus Anderson: Founder member, frequent Chairman, named the “Computer Faire” after visiting the West Coast Computer Fair — he like the dichotomy of old and new and wanted to Anglicise the concept.
Norman Arcus: Long time club Treasurer, eventually resigned the committee to spearhead an offer to purchase the Computer Faire.
Basil & Dulcie Bray, retirees, Basil hosted the club’s bulletin board for a while, Dulcie never did a stitch of housework for thirty-four years before they packed up their home and retired, caravaning. Dulcie catered several of our Tac2 socials.
Steve Cilliers: Genius, programmer, dropped out of Wits University, cracked VisiCalc’s software protection just to show that it could be done, but never used VisiCalc himself that I know of, machine coded the underlying API which I called from BASIC for the Ideas bulletin board.
David Cousins: Owner of Cousins Engineering.
Paul Everitt: A pilot and aircraft salesman who had a keen eye on accessing Compuserve, researching databases and using computers for marketing, now a long time friend and scuba diving buddy. Emigrated to Florida, USA.
Eddie Hague: A Wits University electrical engineering student who wrote a Typing Tutor which was better than anything you could buy, a professional electrical engineer who emigrated to Silicon Valley in the USA.
Prof. Leslie Glasser, chemistry professor at Wits University. Apparently now emigrated to Perth, Australia.
Peter Hers, built acoustically coupled modem that spawned our interest in dial up and networked computers
Denny Jensen, a reinsurance professional.
Dave Joubert, a wizard at FORTH.
Ken Phillips, up on Northcliff Hill, a professional food photographer.
Kevin Ryan, a developer at Rand Merchant Bank.
Eric Meano, an engineer on the East Rand.
Matt & Heath White. Matt was an editor at Systems Publishers and then Times Media Limited, owned a book store in Rosebank and now he sells books from a holding out on the West Rand.
Victor Wilson, a communications engineer at the Post Office (but not the Rubik’s Cube fiend mentioned earlier as our supplier of modems, whose name I think was an Alan F).
If you were a member of Tac2, please leave me a comment, reminding me of your participation together with tidbits of club history that you remember. Corrections would also be welcome, since time has taken its toll on my memories!
We had an treasurer who was an accountant at Eskom, what was his name?
We had an Ivan somebody and his wife, both scientists at the CSIR I think.
Some of my early memberships to Apple Computer clubs in the USA …