I have been interested in electronics and mechanical stuff for as long as I can remember. Whenever I got a toy that was electronic or had complex mechanics I would take it apart to see how it worked. I was always fascinated with technology; everything from the simple operation of a flashlight to the complex operation of a television set piqued my curiosity and I was compelled to learn how these things work. This interest in technology has led me to where I am today and the help I received from so many people over the years has inspired me to give something back. Savage///Circuits provides a conduit with which I can share my knowledge, projects, reviews and videos with like-minded people. As someone who is self-taught, I relied on the information and help provided by others, hence my interest in giving something back.
1980 – Radio Shack and Forrest M. Mims III
In 1980 at the age of 11 I got my break when my parents decided to let me purchase some parts from Radio Shack with my birthday money. I bought switches, light bulbs, a crystal radio kit and an Engineer’s Notebook Volume 1. This became my electronics bible and I found myself requesting inter-district library book transfers to get more information, since my school only had one book on electronics and it was about Vacuum Tubes. I started hacking toys and appliances at an early age sometimes resulting in interesting changes and sometimes resulting in the loss of the device. Some of my first radios and record players fell victim to my curiosity.
Eventually I got a 150-in-1 Electronics Kit from Radio Shack. This kit had the greatest impact on me learning about components and circuits. The manual, written by Forrest M. Mims III, was a very important part of my understanding of electronics. Over time I collected the Engineer’s Notebook II and several Mini-Notebooks to supplement my knowledge and took advantage of Radio Shack’s vast array of cool parts to play with. This was the start of my adventure into electronics and becoming a self-taught electronics engineer, computer technician and programmer.
1982 – Commodore, the VIC-20 and the Apple II
Some time around 1982 my school acquired a Commodore VIC-20 through a grant. It sat in a classroom collecting dust because nobody knew how to connect it or use it. The school also purchased the VIC-20 Programmer’s Reference Guide. Both manuals sat on the corner table and one day I asked the teacher if I could read through them. She was impressed that someone showed interest and I spent the week reading both manuals front to back. The next week when I came in I asked if I could set the computer up and program it. She couldn’t believe I would know how to do that. Pretty soon I had the thing displaying “HELLO WORLD!” and flashing colors and even playing sounds.
I saved programs onto the Datasette recorder and kept a copy of everything I wrote including every revision of every program. Eventually we got an assembler and I learned how to do some assembly programming with the help of the Programmer’s Reference Guide. Before the end of the year was out I knew the machine inside and out and was confident I could interface to its user port. Unfortunately those last few months saw it impossible to get to the PC as my interest inspired others to get to the study hall early so they could get to the computer first and pretty soon it was all but impossible. I did get a chance to program the Apple IIc and Apple IIe though, including typing in some program listings from Compute! magazine.
1984 – Commodore and the C=64
While there was something magic about turning on the VIC-20 and seeing, “CBM BASIC V2 3583 BYTES FREE” and the inviting “READY.” prompt it was even more impressive when the school got a C=64 and I powered it on to see, “COMMODORE 64 BASIC V2 64K RAM SYSTEM 38911 BASIC BYTES FREE”. I had just gone from 3.5K to 38K! I knew I would actually be able to write some useful programs on this new computer. The colors and graphics were awesome, as was the sound. The processing power and memory of this new computer were quite a bit ahead of other computer platforms.
I had to stay with the datasette recorder for a while (albeit a new model), but it was worth it. Over the course of the next 5 years I had acquired much hardware, joined the local Commodore User Group and started doing repairs and modifications for some members. Modifications included adding the JiffyDOS Kernel as well as Stereo SID chips. I also started doing some BBS modifications and doors and eventually wrote my own BBS software which was later ported to Amiga and finally to PC.
Later a 1541 disk drive came to me. It was interesting to learn from the schematic that the 1541 had essentially a VIC-20 inside of it. An entire 6502-based system with I/O inside each 1541! This led to some interesting disk drive hacks. I modified many disk drives to have a three position switch to override the write protect sensor. I also started repairing and upgrading Apple computers. I started building small control boards around the 6502 CPU and even hacked a few TRS-80 Coco’s from Radio Shack for their 6809 CPU. I had this table-driven assembler that could cross-compile for about a dozen different CPUs and MCUs.
I acquired an Amiga 500, 3000 and eventually a 1200. I did some ray tracing in a program called Imagine and started learning how to use MovieSetter to make animations. I wrote music using my MIDI keyboard and a music application called Bars & Pipes Pro. I wrote tracker MODs using MED and later OctaMED. I stuck with Commodore until the company went under. By 1997 I had dumped all my Commodore hardware, something I still regret to this day.
1990 – Zilog and the Z80 CPU
In 1990 I was visiting a friend of a friend because our mutual friend thought we might hit it off. This other guy was into some of the same things as I was and I was sorely lacking of anyone to share ideas with. When we got to his house we found he had given up his pursuit of electronics and the first thing he did was donate me his programming guide for the Zilog Z80 CPU. On the way home I started reading it and realized this CPU was much more straight-forward to me than even the 6502 had been. Instead of dealing with memory-mapped I/O the Z80 had separate memory and I/O banks. The Z80 included a non-maskable interrupt (NMI) as well as a vectored interrupt request interrupt (IRQ). And it was also much easier to interface to and had a simpler clock circuit. It also had built-in refresh functions for DRAM, though I ended up using simpler SRAM memory.
I bought a Needham’s PB-10 EEPROM Programmer and a Datarase II EPROM eraser and quickly started experimenting with interfacing to EPROMs, SRAM, LCD, etc. I trained a couple of my friends on Z80 design in the hopes of building a user group around that. Over the next year I had built a small business (Knight Designs) and was building custom controllers for various applications. Later I acquired a Needham’s EMP-20 and had gotten into security and A/V systems. It was also somewhere around this time (1994) that Commodore had gone bankrupt, leaving me unable to maintain my Commodore business interests. I dissolved my partnership and started working on PCs after that. This took me through 1995 when I was faced with competition in the microcontroller market beating me up with single IC/module-based solutions which were as fast as my Z80 boards but much cheaper and simpler. I decided to focus on the PC market for awhile and started looking into alternatives for my next generation of controllers, but the Z80 will always hold a special place for me.
1996 – Relocation and the BASIC Stamp 2
By 1996 I had relocated back to my home town of Watkins Glen, NY. I didn’t realize how this would affect my business as I had never really felt dependent on being in the city before. The move severely hurt me in a number of ways. For starters I no longer had a local electronics distributor and the closest Radio Shack was over 20 miles away. Contacts were more difficult to get to and there was no local internet service provider. In a magazine I learned about the Parallax BASIC Stamp 2 and promptly ordered a starter kit from Jameco Electronics, finding that I could do almost everything with it that I did with the Z80, except things that required interrupts. Due to the nature of the later systems I built, interrupts were not needed and timing could be handled via an RTC chip (DS1302) which could be used for some of the same functions. It took 2 years to get started developing with the BS2 since I still had to get rid of all my Z80 parts and stock and I still had a few commitments I could not break. I also had a lot of source code to port over. With my PC business going smoothly I slowed down on design work for year or so, but in 2000 I got more serious about it and started pushing the limits of the BS2.
Soon I started using the BS2p40 exclusively for all new designs. While I was designing in a commercial capacity I needed to implement the BS2p40 in an OEM format. Having some issues I decided to join the Parallax Support Group (then, a Yahoo Group). I quickly became a contributing member and started sharing some of my non-commercial designs with others. When the group switched to a more traditional forum I started linking projects from my website which had been shut down a few times due to excessive traffic caused by my projects being posted on the likes of Slashdot.
Another thing that happened was that in 2000 my PC business, Knight Designs Computers (closed now since 2005) started picking up but I had been working out of my house. It was clear I needed a downtown store front so in 2001 I opened a shop in downtown Montour Falls, NY and moved my design work to that shop as well. Besides building, upgrading and repairing computers as I had always done, my wife and I started a DJ business called Savage Music Service and did pretty well for quite a while doing weddings, parties, etc. We also frequently hosted LAN parties of up to 12 people focusing primarily on first-person shooters and later some RTS games as well. These were hosted by Knight Designs Computers and we always brought a multi-port switch and cables for everyone to connect and play. Some of the games we played were Quake 2, Quake 3 Arena, Unreal Tournament, Warcraft 2 and Worms Armageddon.
2005 – Relocation (again) and the Propeller Chip
In 2005 Parallax had a Tech Support position open and it was obvious that I was very knowledgeable about the products, but Parallax was in CA and I was in NY. Sales and marketing kept asking me if I wanted a job, but I didn’t take it seriously until February of 2005 when I flew out to CA to discuss the possibilities. After some discussion I was offered a position and in March of 2005 I relocated to Rocklin, CA where I initially worked in the Tech Support Department at Parallax Inc. For me this was a dream job. I was working doing the things I used to do for fun. Things that were a hobby.
Meeting Chip Gracey for the first time was both an honor and a privilege. I knew his name from my Commodore days as the creator of the ISEPIC, which our user group had several of. But it was also a huge surprise when he showed me the Propeller chip, which at the time had not yet been announced or released. My mind immediately flashed back to 1990 and the wheels started turning. The capabilities of this chip were incredible and it would easily replace everything I had done up to now. After being with the company for some time a position opened in the Engineering Department and I was able to get back to my roots of designing new products and improving existing ones, as well as creating test procedures, test fixtures and writing example code. Up to this point I had been so busy that my personal projects had tapered off some. Though I did publish several articles in a few magazines such as Nuts and Volts and Servo Magazine.
2015 – Losing my Wife
In July of 2015 I experienced the worst thing I’ve ever gone through. I lost my wife of 14 years to Breast Cancer at the age of 45. During the 3 years that led up to that point I lost my own health, suffering Type II Diabetes and subsequently Peripheral Neuropathy. While taking care of her, I stopped taking care of myself. I let my health go and I let my website go. My projects had dwindled. I stopped updating my website. And my online followers started disappearing until there was almost nobody left. I stopped caring about having fun because, quite frankly, nothing seemed fun anymore. My wife was the most important thing in my life and now she was gone forever. It was a long road just getting back to being able to function in life without her. It took me a long time to learn to cope with the grief.
2017 – Losing my Career
While grieving the loss of my wife I turned to the only thing I had left that was important to me…my career; the thing that I uprooted and changed my life for. Working gave me somewhere to direct my attention. It helped me focus. It was the only semblance of happiness I had left and was the most effective coping mechanism I had. Unfortunately, after 12 years of dedication to the company, I was told that my career was over. The announcement came 2 weeks after buying a new house and only a month and a half into a 6-month lease at my temporary home. The next 10 months saw me burning through my savings while losing everything I owned. Eventually I was forced to sell my new house rather than lose it to foreclosure and I ended up living in my RV for the next 6 months while trying to pick up the now shattered pieces of my life. Having lost my career, I also lost my benefits, including medical insurance. Since I have Type II Diabetes, I need certain medications every month and found myself now unable to afford them. Because I was unable to maintain my Type II, things got worse and my Neuropathy got so bad that I found myself unable to walk or stand for any length of time. I lost all feeling in my feet and was in constant pain. This also made it impossible to focus on any type of programming or design work, even if I wanted to.
2018 – Relocation (again) and Starting Over
I wasn’t able to get any insurance in Coeur d’Alene, ID where I was living, so I was forced to head back home to NY and try to start over while living in my RV. During this time I started a blog for all my travel adventures. Having closed my computer shop, DJ business and consulting business so suddenly back in 2005, there was really no way to just come back and start any of that back up again. Not only did I lack the resources, but I lost my customers years before. Most of the tech companies I had previously worked for had since closed. I was forced to work as a security guard while I looked for work within my field.
2019 – Relocation (again) and new platforms
In October of 2019 I picked up work as an Electrician / Mechanic in the Rochester, NY area. As I have previously done, I’m once again working in the industrial manufacturing field with machines that operate using PLCs. This is, as the title suggests, a position involving mechanical troubleshooting and repair as well as electrical. However, due to my issues with Neuropathy, I can’t see myself doing this type of work long term. I’m having trouble keeping up with the more physically demanding aspects of the job now. Besides working with PLCs again, I have also started to work with the Arduino again, having collected several different Arduino models to experiment with.
2021 – Looking Ahead
Right now I’m hoping to find a position in electronics technology (preferably engineering) once again. Something that would challenge my mind. This would be something I could handle despite disability issues. Is it too much to ask to retire from a company instead of wondering when it’s your turn to be laid off? I’m working on the website and trying to get content back up as well as plan the future of the website, including projects, tutorials and reviews I may want to include. In a perfect world I would move back out of the snow belt first, but I’m locked into a lease currently.
Other Interests & Information
In my free time (I know, right!? Who has that?) I like to write music and I play drums and keyboards. You can check out some of my music at my SoundCloud page. I do write some PC applications here and there. Some are in the projects section on this site. I have programmed on the PC in Assembly Language, QuickBASIC 4.5, PDS 7.1 and Visual BASIC. Most of my PC applications these days are designed to interface to my other microcontroller related projects.
I am also an avid gamer. I used to play on consoles back in the day and have fond memories of the many hours spent on my NES, Sega Master System, SNES, Sega Genesis, Nintendo 64, GameCube and Wii. I no longer have any console game systems. I gave them all away. I prefer PC gaming, especially for FPS and online multiplayer games. Currently I play games such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 as well as many of the other CoD games. I used to play many first person shooters in LAN parties I used to host through my computer business. I even still play World of Warcraft once in a while, though everyone else I know who played WoW stopped playing. I still have a ton of games through the Steam interface. I prefer games that require strategy, especially in real time.
I love to share and exchange information on technology. I’m really into the Smart Home market, especially on the Google Home end of things. I’m into retro-computing and have plans for both a 6502-based as well as a Z80-Based retro system. I’m interested in ideas for future projects. If you wish to discuss technology, please join me on the ZappBots Forums. Don’t be afraid to send me an email (link below) and introduce yourself. Maybe we’ll meet at a future expo or other event. Until next time, Happy Hacking!