Or, why are you doing this?
The Aquarius Computer was a wildly unsuccessful product when it was released in 1983-1984 by Mattel Electronics. By all accounts, it was a computer that arrived a half-decade too late, and was universally panned for everything from it's mediocre chick-let keyboard to it's underwhelming character-based graphics. So with many other beloved and successful personal computers out there (Apple II, C64, Atari 400/800, Mac, etc.), why would I spend my free time working on such a dud of a product? See the details below to find out...
I was the son of a single mother growing up in Kansas City, KS in the late 1970's and 1980's. Many of my friends had personal computers at home, usually because their parents could afford the luxury of a personal computer, and thought it a wise investment in their family's future. We simply couldn't afford one. I taught myself how to program BASIC on paper by checking out books from the library and TYPING them out on our manual typewriter on sheets of notebook paper. When I was fortunate enough to get some time on a friend's computer, I would bring my notes and re-type in my programs by hand, troubleshoot, and then make edits to my typewritten code. I learned PASCAL in much the same way. When I was accepted to Sumner Academy of Arts & Science (a magnet in KCK), I hoped that my first choice of elective courses would be granted: computer science. Instead, my second and third choices were assigned: drafting and theater. As luck would have it, these courses taught me more about the software engineering process than I could have ever hoped.
I made two attempts to get access to computers my first year at Sumner. First, I tried joining the TRS-80 computer club, but the sponsor, science teacher Jerry Roberts basically made fun of the fact that I didn't have a TRS-80, and then took delight in embarrassing me about it during his science class. Second, I sneaked into the school computer lab after school hours. This worked for a while until the lead teacher figured out I wasn't in any computer class and subsequently banned me. It didn't help that I had found a way to log into another high school's file area, copy a Star Trek-style game into Sumner's work space, and then proceed to alter it to a robot-hunting game rather than a Klingon-hunting game. Sumner at that time had a strict no-games policy on their computer systems. Dumb.
I got my first job at AMC Springs South 6 Theatres in Fall of 1983. I began earning enough money to buy and do things on my own, so when KB Toys (on the upper level of the same mall) began offering the Aquarius Computer as a bundle in early 1984, I couldn't refuse. I bought it for US$90, then ran home and hooked it up to the 12" color TV that I had received for Christmas, and began teaching myself the wonky version of BASIC embedded in the system. I used an old Radio Shack cassette recorder I had hacked to use as a data drive, and I was off and programming!
Things went along great until after I graduated high school in Spring of 1985. I was already feeling the frustration of the limits of the Aquarius, so I began to take notice of the wide array of software titles available for the Commodore 64. I moved to Tulsa, OK on my own after high school and got a job at Home Software, a mom-and-pop software store at the Woodland Hills Mall. My envy of the C64 prompted me to get my grandmother to purchase one at Target (or maybe K-Mart?) as a post-graduation present. I don't remember what eventually became of my original Aquarius. More than likely, it got donated to a charity. I didn't feel guilty at the time, but in the long run, I did occasionally view with fond memories listings on eBay for a complete Aquarius bundle like I had back in the day.
It wasn't until Summer of 2019 that I decided to reacquire an Aquarius system to work on. That's when all of this started...
So, what am I trying to accomplish?
- Learn more about my first computer - Now that I have over thirty years of development and engineering experience, I'd like to go back and understand the things that were out of my cognitive grasp back when I started.
- Have fun designing and modding old hardware - I really like tinkering with old computer hardware, as the circuits are relatively simple, and I can use more modern hardware to either control or emulate components of older hardware without having to dive too deeply in the weeds. I also love electronic engineering and PCB design, so I want to marry my design background with new advances in materials engineering (PCB production, 3D printing, laser cutting & etching).
- Improve a legacy platform - I get some flak for this, but since the Aquarius is an orphaned system that many people have written off long ago, there are tons of opportunities for improving on it. Don't like the chick-let keyboard? Design a mechanical one to replace it! Don't like the green power LED? Replace it (and it's resistor) with a blue one! Don't like the character ROM graphics? Replace it with a different, programmable video set! The possibilities are endless!