Tweeting on a Commodore VIC-20

Syd Bolton prepares a Commodore VIC-20 to tweet at the Personal Computer Museum in this Feb. 19,...

Syd Bolton prepares a Commodore VIC-20 to tweet at the Personal Computer Museum in this Feb. 19, 2010 file photo. (CHRISTOPHER SMITH/QMI Agency)

Syd Bolton, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:14 PM ET

It's amazing sometimes how fast time flies. I just realized that four years have passed since I wrote the code to put the oldest computer possible on Twitter. At the time, I thought it might just work for a short time and Twitter would change somehow and not make it feasible anymore. Of course, I was wrong.

On Feb. 20, 2010 at approximately 11:06 AM, former Brantford Expositor city editor Richard Beales typed out the very first official tweet from a Commodore VIC-20 computer that was first released in 1981. The computer has five kilobytes of RAM, which is roughly 0.000079% the amount of memory that the average modern computer has. That's not a whole lot.

For me, it was an engineering experiment. I hadn't programmed on the VIC-20 in decades, but much like riding a bike I got into the swing of things pretty quickly. I also realized how I had changed as a programmer from the time I was a teenager to the more professional coder that I am today. I started documenting what I was doing so that years later I would remember something obscure I had done. I quickly found out why documentation can be sparse on older machines: I started running out of computer memory very fast. I had to ditch the documentation for the core code, and so I did.

At the time I was writing the code, I didn't really fully understand that I was making history. Instead, my focus was on doing something cool. Taking a computer that was almost 30 years old and integrating it into modern society was all the drive I needed. When I first envisioned the product and thought about the technical requirements in broad strokes, it never once occurred to me that I wouldn't be able to do it. I ran with it and got it done, and it worked perfectly (well, almost). There were a few unforeseen barriers but these were overcome rather quickly and I was able to get it done.

Today, the tweeting VIC-20 that sits at the Personal Computer Museum in Brantford is still the oldest computer to ever tweet. My plans to release the software "TweetVER" to the public never came to fruition as Twitter itself tightened up the security around authenticating user accounts, making my task much more difficult and the software somewhat obsolete. I believe there may be a legacy clause I can invoke in my agreement with Twitter on how I access its system, but I would most certainly have to get everyone else that wanted to use it on that same bandwagon and that's just not practical.

My journey with the tweeting VIC-20 has also had some other great impacts on my life and improved exposure for the museum. The Twitter account the museum uses (@vintagepc) has over 3,000 followers and many of them were the original people who wanted to see that historic tweet happen back in 2010. The story was also discussed by Leo Laporte, (twit.tv) who has been a personal hero of mine since back in the days when I first watched him on ZDTV back in 1998. The Daily Giz Wiz episode is on YouTube here:

I also got to meet Mike Wise from CBC, who has come down to the museum a couple of times to check things out and also shares a love of vintage technology with me.

Looking back at everything that happened, I realize that it's not the fact that I was able to tweet from such a technically inferior piece of hardware, but the relationships that it helped established and how it got people remembering their positive experiences with that old machine. The fact that Twitter today is still essentially what it was back then also proves the fact that people can communicate amazing things to each other even when resources are limited.

In fact, I would say a lot of the time communication is better because every single letter counts. Perhaps I'll find something else interesting to tweet, like my Microwave or coffee machine. Now that would be worth talking about.

Syd Bolton is the curator of the Personal Computer Museum and the manager of Information Technology at ACIC / Methapharm. You can reach him via e-mail at sbolton@bfree.on.ca or on Twitter @sydbolton.

 


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