Peter Thorogood, my father, whose family name I wear, was hugely influential to me. He passed away a few months ago, not tragically, but still sadly, at the age of 72.
I've written some words about my father: a short blurb about his life, and a speech I gave to my extended family at his funeral. But Dad was hugely formative for me in terms of technology: working in technology is a huge part of my identity, and he was the reason for that. This post details both Dad's life, the way he introduced me to tech, and a lot about my own development.
Peter was born in 1947, the first child of Patricia and Clifford Thorogood. If he was born today, he'd likely be diagnosed with Asperger's or similar: my dad has always been highly focused, socially awkward, sometimes lacked empathy, and especially rigid in his habits and behaviors.
Some stories I enjoy about my dad include that he, as a teenager, won so many "name a song" competitions on the radio that he was eventually banned from calling in again. (I'm told he was a fan of The Chicken Song, released when Peter was just 10.)
Dad once told me that as a highschooler, his physics class had been given a pop quiz—he aced it. However, the teacher then surprised the class by announcing that the quiz would be repeated weekly, and any student who received a lower mark would get "the cane". As an adult, he told this story as a joke—he found it hilarious—but I think these kinds of experiences shaped his approach to rational thinking. The absurd situation he found himself in punished his success.
Similarly, while he bounced around at university for many years—accruing a huge amount of study credits—he eventually dropped out just short of graduating. While Dad always told us that he found the University's administration frustrating, and refused to complete the exact courses required to qualify for a specific degree—he was close to both a BA and a Psychology degree—in going through his old files, I actually found that he failed Statistics at least twice. Perhaps the reality was a bit different than his story.
At school, he was part of Cadets. At University, he continued by joining the Citizen's Military Force. I vaguely remember stories of him operating an infantry mortar. And during Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War—when Dad would have been between 17 and 25 years old—Wikipedia notes:
"... the majority of [the CMF's] members had little or no motivation to fulfil their training obligations"
For Peter, this was absolutely true: while he was, for a time, a capable soldier, he told stories of entire rooms of highly intelligent people intentionally failing their officer's exams: low-ranking members of the CMF were ineligible from being sent overseas.
At the age of 24, in 1971, Peter applied for a position with BHP, now the world's biggest mining company. He undertook a "programmer's aptitude test" by IBM. This honestly seems like an incredibly interesting concept in itself—some quick research suggests it was almost infamous, being that basically programming didn't exist as a concept, so it was an odd thing to test for. This post is about my dad, but looking back, turns out this test was generally biased towards men versus women.
While Dad seems to have passed the test, it appears as if he wasn't selected for the first intake of staff, but instead was reconsidered about a year later to start. He accepted an offer to start at the Port Kembla Works on the 4th of September, 1972, technically at the Australian Iron and Steel Pty Ltd (which seems to have been a subsidiary of BHP at the time).
I vaguely remember Dad telling me about working on metrification, which was only passed as a law in Australia in 1970. This actually came up when we talked about the Y2K problem—I even vaguely remembering him saying that the programs he wrote back then dealt with this. (Who knows if code he wrote in 1972 was still in use by the year 2000. Knowing how some industries work, I wouldn't have been surprised.)
However, in 1974—after only about one and a half years working in both Wollongong and Newcastle—he started working for what would become the Department of Administrative Services. It's sort of a bit vague exactly what he did, but my mother tells me that he basically helped other government deparments use computers—at the time, these being enormous IBM mainframes with remote terminals.
The Personal Computer (1980s)
By the early 1980's, Dad had been promoted a few times, became a manager, and eventually my mum was similarly promoted into his department (after previously working on a system called MEDLARS for Australia). She was a huge fan of personal computers, having seen early an Apple II at the CSIRO and on previous working holidays to Europe. She tells me originally that Peter barely said a word to her, but was quietly encouraging and supportive of her work.
Eventually, in 1982, it came to a head and my mum basically wanted to start selling these kinds of computers. They—almost in parallel—started dating and also became instant business partners. My brother was already around, having been born to a previous marriage of my mother, and so Dad gained a new business, moved to a new city, along with an instant family.
The business they opened was a franchise of ComputerLand. My dad was 34, the same age I am today.
At the time, almost no-one had personal computers. My parents tell a bunch of stories from around this time:
- Visiting Apple (or the importer of Apple), in Australia: up several flights of stairs in an office you could barely swing a cat in, filled to the brim with boxes and documents (Mum likes telling this to the folks working in the literal palaces of glass where you now buy your iPhone)
- Selling computers to early adopters while simultaneously coming up with use-case for them: in one case, they informed a customer they could catalogue their wine list (and seemingly they did)
- Being enamoured with programs like VisiCalc
Interestingly, ComputerLand in the USA seemed to begin its 'downward spiral' around 1985, just a few years after my parents opened their store. This didn't seem to effect them enormously—ComputerLand had a handful of stores in Australia, and they kept the business name until 1999.
In terms of programming, Dad wrote the store's accounting software to run on an Apple II. Presuambly, this was in Applesoft BASIC. Dad would go on to teach me BASIC in the 90's, so this might have been a precursor to that.
I think it's worth mentioning that Dad acted as accountant, stock manager, and 'boss', but was never amazing dealing with clients directly. My parents' partnership—both in business and personal life—was always led by Mum's drive, and Dad's practicality.
The Internet? (1990s)
I was born in 1986, when my dad was 39, so I suspect I don't have great memories before about 1990. An early memory was actually of my father disciplining me for continually walking over something he was trying to paint, although my mother tells me today that apparently it was her who got mad, not Peter. So—your narrator might be faulty. For me, this memory stuck around, even perhaps inaccurately, because it was so unlike my father to get really emotional.
Of course, more of my earliest memories were about computers, and technology in general. As a primary school student, I remember my parents getting feedback at the parent-teacher night that I measured my life by "which computer I had".
My grandparents had bought a Mac from my parents' store—it was probably a 512k, according to helpers on Twitter. It didn't have a hard drive, but it had both an internal and (optional extra) external floppy drive, and it didn't have a keyboard with a numpad. I also remember it having a square-style mouse (and the image of the later Macintosh Classic suggests it came with a round one). Either way, these were released in 1985, so I think my grandparents either bought it pretty late in its lifecycle or just had kept it for quite a while, or perhaps Australia got it years later. I remember playing with my grandparents' typewriter, and finding it interesting, but really being excited to use the computer itself.
Of course, a similar Mac eventually made its way to our own house and into my bedroom: as a small child, I actively demanded it. My favorite games were MacInooga Choo-Choo, and a golf game I can't really find—it was black and white, ran on the aforementioned Mac, but also had a course editor. I remember trying out real-life golf with my parents, and being reasonably disinterested. They pointed out to me that I was interested in the course design much more than the actual sport.
The Mac didn't last for long—at some point in the next few years, I further demanded to instead get access to my brother's computer, which was likely an early release 486. My parents wanted to encourage my brother and I to use and learn about computers, and we'd often get past-by demo models that had been previously displayed or use in their store. (I didn't have a Mac again until a 12.1" PowerBook in the early 2000's, when I was at university, and Macs were cool^H ran UNIX.)
But I quickly began to write my own programs. The first program was probably a guessing game, to guess a number from 0-100: I remember slowly building it with Dad in my old bedroom. And in 1995 or 1996, I remember writing games for my friends at primary school—I was a huge fan of the magazine PC Gamer, and I'd been writing a single-page newsletter I handed out at school, which reviewed the games I had access to. As part of this, I remember emulating the "demo disc" idea, and writing a game—in QBasic—similar to Nibbles that I handed out on that disc. (Of course, I'm sure the only time it got played was on the one computer we had at my primary school.)
While I never personally coded in dBASE, my dad had written all the software to run their computer store in it. I rememember it running on the clunkiest monochrome laptops that were almost suitcase-sized. I actually have a lot of the source code, as Dad's backups include computers from this time. Turns out it's challenging to understand, not least because:
- It's in hundreds of cryptically-named files with 8 characters or fewer (thanks, MS-DOS' filenames)
- Dad was apparently not at all a fan of comments
- There's very few functions: just lots of
DO OTHERFILEstatements which run other files
His dBASE code also has a few oddities that I don't completely understand: it asks for dates in dd/mm/yy, but considering how terrible Americans have made date formats even today, I find it strange that US-centric software in the 90's would have been specifically localized. (Although I could believe the opposite was true: before the internet, maybe the physical software package sold in Australia would have had more effort put into it to localize for our market.)
A positive point I will add though is that the code was written to be fairly general-purpose. Dad called his software company "Easy Soft", and it had various modes of operation: one for the computer store, but also for management of their other hobby, which was buying and selling antiques.
My understanding of dBASE in the 80s and 90s is that it was a bit like Microsoft Access: a tool which gave you some simple way to create and work with a relational database (so you could always easily modify the data directly if you had to), but had a programming language layered on top.
Later on in life, my parents expressed a bit of regret that they'd never looked to sell or grow this software development work. In my mind, it could have worked well: they literally had a vessel to sell the devices they'd upsell with this very software, in the early 90's when there just wasn't much software to be found. But in practice, it seems as if Dad was never happy with his work, and was never able to escape that hobbyist mentality. (I find this interesting because I feel like—despite having a successful role in tech, 30 years later—I still struggle a bit in the same way.)
Here's a program called HIST.PRG, and one named ARTS.PRG. These included a ton of box-drawing characters: I'm not sure if this was standard for DBase, but I see this all over dad's code: I remember it in batch files he wrote for me as a child (showing menus to load certain games), and in BASIC code he taught me.
As an eager young nerd, one of the benefits of having parents who who ran a computer store was good access to software. Well, this was at least until I made friends in high school and began to pirate video games. It was a phase, of course—and turns out, having those same parents who ran a computer store, they came down very hard on me for this. (Not to get philosophical, but I like to think that today, technology has mostly solved this problem: software and digital assets are convenient enough that for most folks, piracy just doesn't offer any benefit.)
One of my best memories from around this time was playing A-Train with my dad. It's bizzare: in my adult life, I've played hundreds of hours of some games (cough Factorio, Dota), yet looking back, perhaps I didn't play more than just a bit of these older games, yet of course they've stuck in my memory completely.
It must have been around 1993, '94—I was still in primary school. I'd been playing A-Train with Dad, building a small little city, but tragedy struck: it was time for bed, but we couldn't save the game, my computer was out of hard disk space. This was in DOS, so there's no alt-tabbing to free up space. In hindsight, I don't know why we didn't use a floppy disk to save the game, but maybe there wasn't any spares.
Anyway, I was distraught, but later on in the evening I woke to my dad playing in order to recreate my progress, where I'd been up to. I don't know if I actually played the saved game he created, but this has always stuck in my mind as the moment I knew Dad was looking out for me. Yes, it was our "playing catch" moment, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.
I have similar but not-so-strong memories of games like SimCity, and The Secret of Monkey Island. We also played SimTower, but that was a few years later. And like most kids at the time, I eventually played shooters like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, but they weren't creative things that I played with my dad (although I did become a fan of their level editors). My parents weren't huge fans of me playing shooters: I vaguely remember that I ended up being allowed to play while friends were over, but not otherwise, although I still remember making levels whenever I felt able.
BBS / The Internet
It wasn't hugely influential, but I remember being introduced to a local BBS by my dad in the mid 90's. I think I found it a bit odd. What I really wanted to do was play video games, or role playing games, and I think I vaguely understood that BBS' were a bit tied up in that world.
Later on in the decade, we had dial-up set up at home—eventually on a dedicated, 2nd phone line, and finally replaced with ADSL—and Dad ran a single ethernet cable underneath the house so we could share the internet between my and my dad's computer. I think this alone was pretty impactful, considering my ~250m² house has at least 20 cable runs itself, and it was the first thing I had done after moving in (why would you use wireless when you can run cables?).
My dad was a huge fan of the web from very early on. HTML was invented in 1993—unrelated, but as a professional software engineer, a highlight is still that Tim Berners-Lee has liked one of my posts. Anyway, Dad writing HTML by around 1995-96. Like with software, Dad found it interesting and supported my parents' hobbies—yes, more antiques (turns out my folks were lovely but arguably boring)—but it never really became more than a hobby.
A snapshot of his computer from 1998-2000 reveals a number of sites he worked on:
- A site on Buddhism written by my mother, still online today
- The Menzies Era, a site basically about the era of Peter's youth in Australia
- "Portobello Pete's", a site on antiques (this seemed, even then, to mostly consist of referral links to eBay)
- Sites for various family businesses
He'd also built various amazing "start pages" for the family, that were used as browser home pages.
I don't mean to evangelize heavily as in my job, but the web is amazing: all these sites basically still exist and have code from the 90's when he wrote them. They still operate fine in browsers from 2020, and will continue to work in browsers from 2030, and so on. Of course, it's obvious that Dad's design and approach to websites only slightly evolved over the years. His biggest growth was embracing Wordpress in the late 2000's, which moved him away from (seemingly) manually maintaining sites with dozens of pages, all with unique HTML files sharing common headers and so on. This isn't a criticism—he got things done, even with his hobbyist hat—but I hope that I don't get stuck the same way as I get older.
I've actually put up the site Dad built for ComputerLand, circa 1998. It mostly works, which again, is a bit of a testament to the web. He used FrontPage, which was a popular WYSYWIG editor that doesn't really exist any more. I remember him swapping between HTML and the editor as nessecary. The 1998-era site is amazing in its own right—check out the prices for various computers!—but the page on Y2K is particularly good.
At some point, it became clear to my parents that I was potentially yearning for more content. My dad very roughly introduced me to C++, but I also remember both my parents helping me buy books so I could learn more. I actually have a very happy memory of being in a bookstore in Sydney and having another customer, who was presumably an engineer themselves, helping us choose one. We ended up with C++ Nuts & Bolts. While I still have fond memories of that book (it was without the STL, which is arguably a plus 🔥), in hindsight it seems like the author is not incredibly well-received.
Books weren't really enough on their own, so my parents hired me a tutor to teach me. The tutor was quite good, and taught me about low-level memory management, pointers, C++ classes, … the list goes on. He'd written a sidescrolling DOS game of his own, using hand-written assembly for fast Mode 13h graphics, which I thought was just the best.
I actually ended up working for that tutor—albeit writing HTML and ASP, rather than anything low-level. This was around the turn of the millenium, and every person and their dog wanted to be on the internet, so my tutor's small programming company—today, I guess you'd call it a creative agency—had a lot of work building sites for companies around where I grew up. One of my first jobs was working on the local radio station's website, cutting up Fireworks artifacts to make the website out of tables (…as was the style at the time).
As I got closer to the end of school—I graduated in 2002—I ended up shirking a bunch of school to go work occasional weekdays at this company. I don't regret it; I was gifted but lazy at school, and I learnt a lot more doing practical hands-on work than I was while not paying attention in class.
All throughout the 90's, I also spent a bunch of my pocket or work money on books for myself: I think there was a gold rush for books about game development, languages like Perl, etc. Some of these now hold up monitors around my house.
The Fall of ComputerLand
Back to my parents: in the late 90's, the reality is that computers really became commoditized.
While my parents later told me about having great years "in the computer shop", it did had a slow decline from the early 90's: their company never had more than 10-15 staff at any given time, and while they prided themselves on being a full-service shop, they eventually could not complete with a bunch of new players in this space like big box stores, and "computer fairs".
The latter was really interesting: in the late 90's I was a PC gaming nerd. I remember purchasing a Voodoo2 card on holiday—we went on a couple of overseas trips, this one to Thailand—on one of the first days of the trip. I must have taken it out of its box hundreds of times just to marvel at it. Of course, most of my hardware was bought at computer fairs: every couple of months, a local school hall would be full of retailers selling random assortment of parts—the sort of stuff you now go online and have delivered in a couple of days from websites that still look like they're from the 90's, and whom technically give you warranty but you never really want to check that—and I was in heaven, spending my hard-earned AU$15/hour cash from my programming job.
And this was an amazing contrast to my parents' business, which sold brand-name PCs to big organizations like hospitals and other enterprises, at big markup because in the end you were buying service and support. So these kinds of things began to chip away at their business, they laid off staff, and they eventually sold the business. Today, I guess you'd successfully run a small computer shop like this (i.e., how can you avoid a "race to the bottom" by just lowering prices) by positioning yourself as a consultancy, but they weren't able to do that (or perhaps were just tired of running the shop for so long). The business was eventually sold again, seemingly after it had failed to reinvent itself.
On the flipside, my mum was quite successful in finding new work and new opportunities. Dad struggled with this.
In the 2000s, as I grew up and moved away from home, my dad began to have less influence on my growth. Dad had worked for nearly 20 years running a small business, and honestly wasn't sure now what to do with his life. Mum talks about him being depressed; I think he sat around at home not doing all that much, pottering around on computers or in the garden.
At some point—both their kids had moved out, and they realized the commuter belt held nothing for them—they decided to move to inner Sydney. Even this was hard. Going through Dad's old computers brings up old self-valuations of their house at at least 50% more than that they eventually sold it for, and Mum tells me that getting over that hurdle—that it turns out, an asset was worth what someone will pay for it—was immensely challenging for Dad.
In Sydney, they searched for a house, renting for a year, before finally moving to Glebe, and I live just a kilometer from that today (which is about 2km from the Google office). They originally looked for a large house, on land, before realizing at that stage of their lives they were happy to live in a small but well-placed apartment (one I briefly lived in again, when I was particularly broke during my studies at University).
Mum and Dad started (and stopped) a few small businesses, they travelled, and Dad continued to potter. He continued working on the web: his collection of personal websites grew and he supported my mother and my brother in their business ventures. At one point, between my studies and work, my parents actually paid me to build something on the web for them: I actually overengineered it and never really delivered, because I was too interested in perfecting the infrastructure rather than their product. In many ways, I'm happy for this, because it encouraged Dad to keep working on his own and not rely on me!
In the 2010's, Dad—I think—found his… maybe not happy, but certainly content, place. Living in Sydney, he became slightly sociable and active in his community, becoming a well-known member of the Glebe Society, building their website and attending their meetings. The society itself posted an update on Peter's passing.
Mum described this as an amazing time. My parents weren't overly sociable people during my youth, and they didn't have many friends—I have found photos of old Christmas parties hosted at our house, but they seem to have mostly been attended by their employees and their families. But to quote my mother, "for the first time in 30 years, Peter invited me to a party". (This is something I'm trying not to repeat: my daughter has lots of my friends around who I think of as her extended family, virtual aunts and uncles.)
During this decade, Dad settled into a routine of working on websites, managing the family affairs—doing tax, managing their small number of investments, etc. Some of this is the sort of thing a regular person outsources, but Dad enjoyed it, and being useful. For better or worse, after Dad's passing, we're trying to unravel a bunch of this stuff: it wasn't done badly, but like in the 90's with Dad's lack of comments, sometimes it's just hard to grok exactly what he was doing. His preferred accounting software, for example, was from 2008, and barely runs on modern Windows.
Mum and Dad travelled, even once visiting me on a work trip to San Francisco. Dad, having worked in the computer industry in its nascent days, had never visited Silicon Valley and I felt incredibly proud to show him around the Google campus.
Death and The Future
Dad was diagnosed with stage 4 appendix cancer in 2019. On admission to hospital, the staff queried his admission form: he hadn't listed any previous ailments or issues. He'd actually never really been to hospital for anything, except one operation to fix a hernia (which turns out is something you give yourself, rather than being a condition).
The rest pretty much goes as you might expect: he was quite strong for a time, even doing better on chemotherapy, as his body was less weighed down by the bloat of the cancer. After nearly two years though, Dad's hospital stays were getting longer, and he was getting weaker.
Dad made it to a number of big events in our family's lives: he met his granddaughter, which I'll always be grateful for, although I can't image that she'll remember her grandfather. I hope that I can introduce her to technical concepts in the same way as my dad did for me.
A big challenge for me now, honestly, is taking over much of Dad's website work: I'm not a Wordpress expert, and I've now learned to not overengineer or recreate something if it's not broken (but you know, PHP, security vulnerabilities, etc). So some of it will sit idle, and I'll eventually take some sites down, and support the ones with content and traffic. And dealing with the death of someone in tech is, in a way, interesting. For me, it's probably easier than most—I'm not trying to recover or reset passwords and break into accounts—because before Dad passed, he gave me access to his passwords, files, logins etc, and I can get into what I think are most of his accounts… but there's a lot.
I don't want to have to sum up my Dad, but various friends have called him a trailblazer. He won't be remembered for starting a billion dollar company, or inventing some app, and he was a private person all throughout his life. But he worked hard during a really interesting time in tech history, and is the reason I am who I am today.