Fiddler on the Loose

All that talk of the Rockwell 8R that I indulged in last time reminded me of something I discovered way back then but never really shared with anyone until now.

The next model of calculator up from mine was the Rockwell 18R which was a very similar device except that it had the benefit of a memory. Imagine that. Only the rich kids in school had calculators with memories.

You'd have thought that what with my four function calculator being my proudest possession (aside from my clunky LED digital watch) I'd have treated it with kid gloves, but far from it. I was always obsessed with taking things to pieces. I'm not sure why - it's not as if prying the back of most machinery would have given me any insight into how it worked, but I used to do it anyway. Once I was convinced that if I swapped the connections for the aerial and the loudspeaker on an old valve radio I'd have built myself a radio transmitter.

Anyway, I pulled the front off my calculator and was surprised to find that underneath the smooth plastic of the 8R's fascia where the 18R boasted its coveted memory controls were the electrical contacts for two additional buttons. A couple of minutes' experimentation with a biro and a bit of poking around revealed that these were indeed the memory's STO and RCL buttons. Basically I had discovered that the 8R and the 18R were the same machine, and you paid extra for the privilege of the 18R name, for two holes drilled in the front and for a couple extra cheap plastic buttons.

I didn't quite see it like that at the time - I felt as if I was getting something for nothing; as if I'd discovered how to perform witchcraft. Since then I have always been convinced, even if only on some subconscious level, that there is always more than meets the eye to things, and that if you poke around long and hard enough you will discover secrets.

Other people must feel the same - I guess this is why Easter Eggs exist. In some ways the hidden memory of the Rockwell 8R could be considered as a very early example of the genre.

I never did discover anything quite so exciting again when pulling apart other technology that fell into my hands over the next few decades. I suppose in a very small way I did get into customising my very early PCs - adding hard drives and extra RAM - but it was shortly afterwards that I discovered it was the software that was important and that there was a whole new invisible world of intangible components I could pull to pieces to discover how they worked and then put back together again in new and exciting shapes.

I made a few elementary errors at first - deleting the file in MS-DOS 3.3 for one - but after a while I started to get the hang of things, write batch files, design simple menu systems and so on (this was all pre-Windows).

However, aside from writing web pages, I've now stopped all that as well. I'm still an inveterate fiddler, but what I'm now messing around with are ideas and concepts, my mind, and its model of the universe, what makes me conscious and what makes reality real.

I do hope I don't accidentally delete something important.


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