Eric Lee, the creator of Busy Bee Software and author of The Write Stuff software suite for Commodore 64 and 128, accepted to be interviewed by AmigaLove.
However, in collecting his thoughts to be interviewed Mr. Lee was inspired to write his own brief memoir. It has been published here in its entirety completely unchanged. AmigaLove asked some follow-up questions, which have been added to the end of this post.
Photo by Eric Lee. "It was [taken] at the LA Commodore Convention. I made the booth, instead of renting one, and shared it with [Quick Brown Box]."
An Autobiographical Memoir, by Eric Lee.
A Life in Question
I was an exceptionally dull and stupid child, hence no efforts were made to educate me. I learned early on that asking adults questions annoyed them, so I stopped. And the other kids didn't 'know shit from apple butter', so I didn't ask them either. This condition favored my becoming an autodidact having a fool for a teacher.
Evidence is that I developed at an exceptionally slow rate. In any large population of ten year-olds, some may be functionally more like seven year-olds and some could pass for a teenager. In childhood the gap between my developmental 'age' and the development of my cohorts widened until puberty, after which their rate of growth slowed, but my rate of maturation didn't slow, which allowed me to catch up with my chronological peers. Or exceed them. I was 25 when people stopped asking me which high school I went to.
Graph provided by Mr. Lee. "[This is] a graphic showing apparent age for the set of all 10 year olds who on average would be 10.5 years old. I was on the far left of being functional growing up compared to my chronological peers, But rate of maturation varies. Some go through childhood thinking they are much above average physically and mentally, and they are correct, but only for a time. As adults they may be average."
I was actually in high school when for some reason, having been a non-reader, I tried to read Walden, and Thoreau noted that he only needed to work six weeks a year to support himself the rest. So why should I need to work more? In my last year of public schooling I managed two 'A's, a miracle of rare device, one in zoology and one in earth science. I was becoming more functional.
After high school I spent summers 'on the road' as a migrant farmworker putting in my six weeks. I went to a community college for three years: first year mostly 'C's, second 'B's, and third mostly 'A's. It was low cost schooling and I lived in the back of a 1954 Ford pickup I bought for $200 and had fashioned a five-sided box from plywood on. Summers began by hitchhiking to Bakersfield to chop cotton, then following the crops north by hitchhiking and riding freight trains. It was a wonderful life.
Cheap as schooling was, I decided to 'drop out' and feed directly from the trough of knowledge, libraries, so I moved to Isla Vista, a student ghetto next to the University of California Santa Barbara whose nine-story library was open until 11 pm. For nine months or so I wandered the stacks in wonder and read books, whatever seemed of interest. I often walked on the beach and occasionally took in presentations offered. Especially memorable was an informal talk with students (or whomever showed up) given by Garrett Hardin. I wasn't a real student so I didn't presume to speak to or socialize with any. I once lost my voice from disuse (I don't even move my lips when I read). Some seven years passed.
I was on my way back to California, end of season that had ended with picking apples near the Canadian border. I was watching the Oregon countryside pass from an open boxcar when I thought that if I became an agricultural expert I could live elsewhere about the world and serve humanity by furthering the green revolution.
I tended to work more than six weeks a year, so I had saved up on the money stuff each year. It paid my way to Cal Poly State University SLO for three years and I took BS degrees in soil and crop science (late 1970s and schooling was still cheap).
I did well, would have been paid to go to graduate school, but my education, if not my schooling, had informed me that as an expert in agronomy all I could do was show others how to turn fossil fuel inputs, direct and indirect, into food. But doing so was not sustainable, so transitioning traditional people from what works to industrial agriculture that could produce ten times more food (for a time while supporting ten times more people) was not in their best long-term interest. So I never used my degrees to serve the global economy or make money or otherwise save the world as pretending to save the world or be a benefactor of humankind was of no interest.
After graduating with highest honors I worked another summer as an overeducated farmworker. It was a last hurrah and I decided to move on as, not unlike Thoreau, I had other lives to live. My older brother knew an engineer who had one of the new Commodore 64 computers. I soon had one too. Not much use without software, so I started typing in BASIC programs published in magazines. I learned BASIC and got into coding to implement visions of software daring do like a version of 'Guess the Animal—Are you thinking of an animal?' with questions based on taxonomy such that most common animals could be guessed and players could add new ones. I became active in CSUN (a local user group, the Commodore Systems User Network). I served as 'disk of the month' compiler, and, yes, I shared my latest offerings. For a year I was newsletter editor. I got a 300 BAUD modem and went online before there was a WWW.
I even got a 'real' job as an instructional assistant to a special ed teacher in the public school system. I set up a C64 system in the class. California had just decided to levy a tax on the innumerate (the State Lottery) and so I wrote an accurate simulation and each student who played got a few hundred in pretend money to 'win' more pretend money. None did, and when their bank account was empty I refilled it, but only after they stood on one leg with a book on their head while they recited a poem from memory. Now that's education.
One year of real work was enough and while gainfully employed I had gone to a teacher's conference where vendors were plying their wares. I saw a talking word processor for the Apple II for maybe $300 or some ridiculous amount and I thought I could write one for the C64 and sell it for $5. And I did. But first I had to think about what a word processor should do. I knew plenty of software collectors (pirates) and was one, so I looked at the offerings and envisioned one I would want to use (then make it talk).
I went to live on the streets of Santa Barbara California, parking next to a city park across from an apartment complex where I wasn't taking anyone's accustomed parking space. My home on wheels looked like a utility shell (a new one on a '65 Chevy pickup) and appeared to be locked with a small padlock from the outside such that surely no one could be inside. Flying under everyone's radar worked. I had a small bicycle that fit in the front passenger side. I rode to the beach most mornings, ran a few miles, then took a swim in the ocean before doing the lay-on-the-beach thing. Back at the truck, I lugged my portable C64 to the city library and did a day's work.
To realize my vision I had had to seriously learn assembly. It ended up taking an hour and a half to assemble a new version, but there were books to read and I often just left the computer running in the library and went for a walk about the city. So some hours of coding and bug hunting, then a break. This went on for a full year. I had to document the software and managed to get a 24-pin printer running in the back of my truck off an inverter to produce a proof of a manual to be copied.
The C64 version of The Write Stuff.
I can't say I had no idea what to do with the heir of my invention, because I did. There were hundreds of Commodore user groups worldwide and I had a list I could type in, so I did. I made a demo disk that did everything but save. I used all but a hundred and some dollars of my life's savings to send out the demo disks. That could have been the end of the story, but it turned out not to be. Go figure.
I offered to supply user groups with a master copy, numbered disk labels, and manuals (even keyboard overlays) for not much for 10, and less per each on up to 50. I got orders. The Bartlesville Commodore User Group ordered 50 as a first order. The group, of course, would add a copy fee, so, win-win, my 'userware' innovation worked.
To provide user support I'd need one of those telephone things, so I moved into one of those house things my parent's owned as a rental, a small place behind the main rental. Apart from the kitchen, which became the shipping department, I kept on coding in the bedroom until I couldn't, then I'd slide out of my seat to sleep on the floor in my sleeping bag.
Sometimes I'd awake to a ringing phone and someone seeking user support would get all annoyed because I obviously wasn't actually awake yet. My parents lived next door and my dad was my only accomplice who filled most of the orders. I had never made enough money to pay taxes so he handled that for me. I was in business for maybe seven years total. At the peak (and there always is one), sales were over $70K/year and I flew in an airplane thing to Philadelphia for a Commodore Convention. I did another in LA. Things happen. Go figure.
I ended up president of CSUN, as some people are easily impressed. I offered free Commodore systems user support and was starting to look like a normal person. One user married me for lifetime user support. We are still tying the knot. Things happen and I can't figure it out, so I just dance with the system.
I've had a few other real jobs (one lasted seven years), but nothing to speak of. Properly unemployed again, I'm working now to save the world (aka humanity from itself), but no one is paying me to. I've never worked for money in my life. Sometimes it came my way, but it was only incidental to doing important things, like chopping cotton or picking apples.
M. King Hubbert noted while giving a seminar at MIT's Energy Lab in 1981 that there are two incompatible cultures: the 'monetary culture' and the 'matter-energy systems' worldview. I live in Hubbert's world. All the rest of you Anthropocene enthusiasts don't. But have a good Anthropocene while you can. It's a wonderful life while it lasts. It is down right mysterious. I wonder why?
AmigaLove's questions, conducted by Eric Hill (aka intric8), are in bold.
Do you still live in the Santa Barbara area today?
In 1994 wife wanted out of California, so it was Arizona or Oregon. Until late 2018 it was SE Arizona with 11 inches of rain per year, but since then Coos Bay Oregon with 66 inches and no AC needed.
Did you sell more C64 disks, or C128 disks?
C64 was much more common, so mostly C64.
Did you ever create C64/128 software professionally other than The Write Stuff and its supporting applications?
How did you create BB Speller and the 17,000 (and 61,000) word dictionary?
I acquired a data file of words from somewhere. I came up with a way to compress the list and search it. I recall comparing mine with one for a 25x faster IBM processor desktop (I eventually got one), and my algorithm was faster. With slow processor speed and memory limits, programmers have to try harder.
The C128 version of The Write Stuff is utterly packed with features. In fact, the 128 version seems to be more full-featured than most PC/DOS/Apple options, and even 16-bit computers, available at the time. How did you decide what features to build and pack into the software?
Easy, if I could envision it and code it, I added it. I liked my idea of 'macrotyping' and used it a lot. You created a small text file with one or two characters set equal to any text string less than 256. Whenever anyone typed one or two characters (other than SPACE), then typed a SPACE, the string would appear if defined. So 'B' + SPACE and my mailing address would appear on three lines. Many common words had short-forms, so my typing was greatly sped up.
The C128 version of The Write Stuff it bursting with features and special commands.
Was there ever a version beyond V2?
When did you to pack up shop with Busy Bee Software? Was it the demise of Commodore or something earlier that convinced you it was time to move on?
I kept it going after moving to Arizona. Never packed it up, just stopped getting orders or calls wanting user support, so it just faded away over several years. Commodore's passing away was the cause.
Did you continue your programming talents beyond the C64/128 days?
No. I transitioned into doing websites and dabbled in JS and PHP, contributed to some open source offerings, Joomla! stuff, but I didn't want to try to master other computer systems,
The manuals, which I love, all have this very unique, almost Robert Crumb feel to them. I assume you designed and created them using your own software. They are also quite thick and detailed. How long did it take you to print a single manual? Or did you use a photocopy service?
I printed a master copy (originally on a 24-pin printer) and a local printshop printed them and the keyboard overlays. I folded and stapled them, and took them back to the printshop to be trimmed. Users had to cut out the keyboard overlay.
If I remember correctly, you even offered a service where folks could send you disks for you to professionally print via laser printer. How did that process work?
I bought a laser printer to make the proofs and recall offering a laser printer service, but I don't recall anyone using it.
Do you still have any of your Commodore computers or software from back in the day?
We still own the place we first moved to as a rental and there is a shed with stuff in it. I had an SX64 (portable as in luggable) and recently found the magnifier I made to enlarge the screen. The SX64 I used to develop the 64 version should still be in the shed with who knows what else. I plan to go get it and see if any of the hardware still works after over 20 some years.
Did you know that the Fresno Commodore Computer Club still exists, and still offers your software for sale when it is asked?
I recall the group as one of the more exceptional, supportive and active. Didn't know it was still active. We should be in Oregon now, but still in Tucson on lock down. We will pass through Fresno on the way back. Third Sundays at 11AM. Maybe. We won't be selling property in AZ at this time, so we'll be back and forth a few more times in the next few years.
Final Notes by AmigaLove
If you're a fan of the C64 and/or 128, I highly recommending checking out The Write Stuff for either platform. The C128 version has more pizazz, mainly due to its 80-column mode and full 128 support. But both packages are jaw-dropping displays of highly sophisticated software for our beloved computers. Mr. Lee's work is a testament to his ingenuity, and the untapped potential he saw in the machines and was able to bring out single-handedly.
AmigaLove, my deepest thanks for this incredible post. Mr. Lee, thank you, thank you for telling your story! So amazing and inspirational. It's very rare to learn the backstory on the creation of seminal software like TWS. I feel even more connected now to my TWS original disks and manuals.
--Kent (whose favorite software to collect and appreciate is 80-column word processors for the C-128!)
Wow. What a fascinating story. Thanks so much for sharing it Eric Lee and thanks for doing the interview intric8. Eric Lee appears to be a real free spirit. An embodiment of the hippy / hacker mentality which I associate with the early years of the Microcomputer revolution coming out of California.
I wrote my Physics Master's Thesis using The Write Stuff and GEOS Draw for the figures. I squirted both over to one of our Vaxen at the Missouri University Research Reactor and added equations using DSR - Digital Standard Runoff. The equations showed up on the screen as escape codes, not as real equations, but printed up fine.
My favorite quote about computers is:
Using computers is simply the matter of finding the right wrench to pound in the correct screw.
Thanks Eric for writing a great right wrench. After I got my master's I went with my wife to Western Michigan University for her Blind Rehab Teaching Masters. There I used The Write Stuff to help her and a lot of her friends, many who were blind, with their word processing.