Teaching kids about computers...

Tony Duell ard at p850ug1.demon.co.uk
Wed Nov 21 18:28:24 CST 2007

> So the boy (9yr. old) was asking last night about how computers work... any 
> recommendations for good books for learning the basics from? I think I started 
> out with a Sinclair Spectrum and its BASIC manual, but I really don't recall 
> now where I found out about the fundamental building blocks of [typical] 
> computers and how a CPU worked. There must be a good 'classic' "how computers 
> work" type of book which avoids going on about PCs and Xboxen...

Fristly a word of warning. There are far too many 'how computers work' 
type of books that oversimplify things, that miss out the interesting 
stuff, and which are impossible to understand as a result. 

I came across this with telephones, not computers. I read several books 
on 'how telephones work' and didn't understand them. They made no sense. 
Findally I found a copy of the famous 'Telephony' book (I didn't realise 
what it really was when I bought it), read that through and everything 
made sense. The reason is that 'Telephony' doesn't simplify things. It 
has complete circuit diagrams for telephone exchanges with every realy 

The problem is that there are few good books on computer operation (and 
plenty of very bbad ones). I learnt a lot from the Philips P850 CPU 
techncial manual, and more from the PDP8/e and PDP11/45 manuals and 
printsets. But trying to understand those is really starting at the deep end.

I think you need to start by deciding from which end to introduce 
computers. Do you want to introduce the kid to programming, and then 
start explaining how the machine runs the program. Or do you want to 
start off with transistors, then logic gates, flip-flops, and end up 
whith how procssors work. I took the second route, which probably 
explains my rather unconventional way of looking at computers.

> I figure I should find him one of those kids electronics projects kits too (I 
> think that was where I got my first exposure to logic gates from at about the 
> same age) and also some old 8-bit machine to play with.
> I can get a Spectrum / BBC micro shipped over in a few months, but something 
> US-built might be better; any thoughts? I did wonder about a C64, but maybe 

I shouldn't need to tell you to get a BBC micro :-). It's probably the 
best educational machine ever designed.

Some people dislike BASIC, but it has one great advantage as a teaching 
langues, the results are obtained almost instantly. If you have to 
explain how to run the editor, complier, linker, etc just to display 
'Hellow World!' they your kid is going to lose itnerest very quickly. 
Much better to type 'PRINT "Hello World!" and hit <return> and get the 
result back.

And of course BBC BASIC is a particularly nice version with named 
procedures, local variables, built-in assembler, and so on.

And the BBC has the user prod and analogue input port for very simple 
interfacing later. 

If you want to approach it from the hardware side, then I am not sure 
what to recoment. The machines I learnt on -- becuase that's what I had 
-- are niot the best choice. THe Philips P850 is plain weird (even if you 
could find one), the PDP11/45 is very complicated. It's a nice machine, 
but it;s not easy to uinderstand. A PPD8/e is fairly simple if you can 
find one. 


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