Tommy and the Repton (1)

How do you start a high-powered career in computing? As with language, music or chess it is best to do so at a very early age. Mozart was composing at five, future World Chess Champion Capablanca was beating his father at four, Samuel Reshevsky was giving simultaneous exhibitions at six. Today there are full chess grandmasters who are just thirteen years old. As I write this one came close to beating the world’s number two player in rapid chess.

So how and when can kids start operating computers? Here’s the answer.

In a previous article I described how I managed to get one of the first three personal computers that were imported to Germany, a Commodore PET— and how we had loads of fun with it. A few years later it was time to graduate to a more advanced computer. Our great friend John Nunn told us what to buy: a BBC Micro, a truly wonderful machine.

At the time our son Martin (above at the age of around five) had already spent a lot of time with the initial Commodore series. He was delighted with the advanced features of the BBC, and the lovely software John recommended. He got deeply involved in games, and in rudimentary programming.

Martin was ten at the time, and in the meantime had a little brother, Tommy, seven years his junior. In the above picture he is being held by Nigel Short, a family friend who went on to become a World Chess Championship challenger. Tommy watched our activity with fascination, and begged to also “play computer.” But he had barely turned three and it was much too early. Or so we thought.

Repton

Around this time a remarkable program was brought into our house by John. Repton had been released in the summer of 1985 for the BBC Micro, and it became the second most successful game (after the space adventure Elite) at the time. It was very complex and hugely challenging — Martin and I played it obsessively. Tommy wanted, more than ever, to join in the fun we were obviously having with the computer.

But first, I decided, he needed to learn how to move an object on the screen, using the keyboard. So I wrote a program that had a little rocket he had to move directly below a planet and hit Enter to fire it. If it hit there was a merry tune, if he missed it would honk balefully. The idea was that the child would learn to use the keyboard (the mouse had not yet been invented).

Tommy had minutes of fun with my program. So I wrote a routine that would make the planet jump from place to place. He had to follow it and hit Enter at the right moment. He did this quite easily, and had many more minutes of fun with the enhanced version. I realized that he needed something more complex, and set about writing it.

In the meantime, however, Martin loaded Repton, sat Tommy on his lap, put his fingers on the keys and his own on top of them. In this configuration he played the game. After a while he removed his hands, and Tommy was playing it on his own. The process took about an hour.

Repton was programmed by a 16-year-old Briton, Tim Tyler, and launched by Superior Software in 1985. In the game a humanoid reptile is moved around an underground maze. He can burrow through earth to collect diamonds, but has to avoid getting crushed or trapped by falling rocks. There are also monsters that hatch out of falling eggs, and safes to open.

To give you an impression on how Repton worked, the part shown above is tackled like this: Repton left, back (rock falls), Repton right (to remove the earth, back left (rock on the right falls down the curved edge), Repton up, left to the end of the passage, down two and up again (rock falls into the empty space, not killing the Repton), Repton down one, then right to push the rock on the ledge on the right, Repton down two and then left to collect the diamond, then back up again to collect the two remaining diamonds. Not quite trivial, don’t you think?

Repton 1 had twelve levels, and you got a password after you had completely solved each screen, so you could later on reach the next screen directly.

As the weeks went by we could only watch in amazement. This child, who could not tie his shoelaces yet, was solving level after level of a highly complex maze game, with a speed that exceeded anything we grown-ups could ever hope to achieve. He even learnt to read and type, after he discovered the principle of passwords, which were required to return to levels (“So that’s what reading is for!”).

Tommy went through Repton 1 and after that Repton 2 in a few months. Then one day, back in 1986, John called to say he wanted to come to stay for ten days. Sure, we said, but why? “I need to solve Repton 3, which I can’t do on my own.” John was a world class professional chess grandmaster and author with very little free time, but this was something he needed to do. He came with the program and many pages of notes on what he had discovered so far. “Together the three of us will finish it,” he said. I was a bit surprised to learn that he did not mean John, Fred and Martin but John, Martin and Tommy!

It was fascinating to watch. The three of them would sit in front of the screen and then John or Martin would say: “Well, why don’t we try going this way, and doing this and this and this, and then proceed with that — oh, hang on, we can’t do that because we get stuck when this rock falls.” And in the middle of that Tommy would say: “Er, ah…” (he couldn’t express himself too well yet) and they would say “Show us.” Tommy would take control and start executing a manoeuvre, amid jubilant cheers (“Yes, yes!”) of the other two. Then he would suddenly stop, and the others would say “Okay, we see the problem, so that doesn’t work either.” In less than a week they had solved the game, with all three contributing on equal terms.

At the time I was working as a science documentary journalist for German TV, and I told the head of the department, Volker Arzt, about Tommy and Repton. He was producing a film on the role of play in the animal world, and together we devised a way to weave the game playing toddler into it.

Unfortunately I cannot find the documentary we made at the time anywhere in the Internet archives. I am sure I have a VHS copy somewhere, and if I find it— and am able to digitize the contents— I will add it here or in the next part of this story. That involves Tommy programming a perfect replica of the game eighteen years later, one that you can download and play.

In the meantime you can get a trial version from Superior Interactive (as the company is now called). It is available for PC, Android and iPad — and well worth the modest price.

Aviator Tom

There is one more story to tell. Tommy became extremely competent at many computer games on the BBC Micro, as Garry Kasparov has described quite vividly in his latest book. One day in 1986 or 1987 John brought along a flight simulator, the first of its kind for home computers.

The graphics were simple wire-frames — the BBC had the computing power of today’s microwave ovens — but the program was very accurate and very, very difficult to master. John was able to take off, fly around and land safely, in 30% of his tries. I was more like 15%. But Tommy was soon up to 90% and collecting loads of points for different tasks. He flew around like a professional. This led John to imagine the following scenario:

One day Frederic is on an airline flight when the stewardess announces that there is a problem: both the pilot and the co-pilot have eaten a meal that was poisonous and are now unconscious. The plane is on auto-pilot. Is there anyone amongst the passengers, she urgently wants to know, who has flight experience, who could land a commercial jet liner? Nobody comes forward, so Frederic ventures that Tommy is quite good on a flight simulator. “He’s just a toddler!” the stewardess exclaims. But there is nobody else, so they put Tommy into the cockpit. He takes control and lands the plane safely.

At the airport there is a crowd of airline executives who cheer and congratulate the boy, telling him he had saved a hundred lives. But they have one question: “When you were approaching the airport, why did you fly under a bridge?” Tommy’s answer: “Because that got me an extra 50 points, silly!”

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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