I remember the exact moment I discovered that you could “click” a highlighted button by pressing the spacebar.

The relative of a friend of the family was sitting in front of our computer, installing Visual Studio 6. I had been waiting for this for a long time.

I want to write about Visual Basic, but I don’t see a path to that unless I first write about DOS. But I don’t know how to get to DOS without writing about the first computer I – my family – ever owned.

Many people have some form of old Apple or Macintosh machine as their first computer, but mine was a no-name grey Pentium tower that ran two versions of Windows: XP and 2000.

Today I can sit back and pontificate about how Mac OS X was a revelation when I saw it for the first time in its Leopard skin, and how ever since I got a white Intel MacBook in 2007 I can’t use Windows without getting a metallic aftertaste in my soul. But back in the early 2000s, I was in love with the computer I had in front of me, and that computer ran Windows.

I spent hours in front of that machine. There was no one to teach me, and we didn’t have internet, so I just clicked on everything I could click on and tried to figure out what the hell it did.

I have a big extended family, and all of them belong to one occupation, except one of my uncles, who is in IT. He had a side business putting computers together and selling them, and always had the coolest looking things lying around; screwdriver sets, SATA cables, empty motherboard cases, empty anti-static bags. I wanted to be around that stuff all the time.

He had a computer than ran Windows 95, and he had games which he would let me play sometimes, but he didn’t trust me to click around his Windows environment. So he taught me how to boot into DOS and launch the games from the command line.1

My uncle had a black Visual Basic 3 book that he didn’t need or use because it wasn’t 1993 anymore, so I took it.2 I read the book and understood that you could drag tools onto a window, give those tools names, then write some code to define what happens when you interacted with them. I read about this, but where could I actually do it? This was a Visual Basic 3 book!

A screenshot of my first programming world. Courtesy The Register

I forget how I discovered that Microsoft Office had some scripting section that not only let you write Visual Basic, but create GUI programs! That was so awesome, and I did a lot of my early stumbling and learning in it.3 Then at some point an opportunity presented itself and we got a relative of a family friend who owed us a favor to install Visual Studio. He came over, opened his CD case, popped the Visual Studio CD into the disc tray, and went through the installation wizard. I could see the dialog windows as he went through them, and I realized he was advancing not by clicking the buttons, but by hitting the spacebar! Whoa….

Visual Basic gets made fun of a lot, I think, and I haven’t spent a lot of time trying to figure out whether there is merit to the mockery. But I do know that it was a very easy language to learn for someone who only had an ancient book to learn from. The only comparable development environment I know is Xcode, and it’s way more complicated to handle a multi-view Xcode project than it is to create a multi-form Visual Basic one.

I remembered learning that the spacebar clicked the highlighted button because I’ve been thinking about why I like computing so much. Why did I spend so much time running DOS commands I read about online? Why do I find intrinsic value in creating tools and automatic things? Of course I’m not the only one, but we could all have different reasons and I can only try to figure out mine. I still don’t have a good answer, but it connects all the way back to that spacebar.

  1. It’s funny to look back at that. A child is not trusted to not break things, so we steer them away from Windows and unleash them on the command line instead! 

  2. That was a great book. I spent a lot of time trying to find a photo of the book or its cover, but no luck. 

  3. I also spent some time trying to find what that Office Visual Basic tooling was called. My best guess is Visual Basic for Applications although this is not based on my memory.