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By Gail Hook, Barris Ontario Canada Reproduced from Compute! Sept 1982  – Formatting cleaned up, pictures and links added Nov 23 2018 by

jum-butterfield-c64-world-of-commodore-teachingIf there was such a thing as a Commodore God, it surely was Jim Butterfield.  Author of many highly technical programming books, lead presenter at countless meetings, and by all accounts one Hell of nice guy.

In this in-depth profile of COMPUTE! Associate Editor and Columnist Jim Butterfield, he discusses the future of computing, his background  and hobbies, and his views on topics ranging from computers in education to the  appeal of programming.
The Butterfield homestead is a modest brick house within walking distance of  downtown Toronto. It is comfortably cluttered with books” plants, computers, and  three cats. Even the attic is pressed into service as storage space  for whatever books and computers Jim .Butterfield cannot  cram into his small office.

The office, in fact, resembles a crowded depot for a changing assortment of  computers including four Commodore PET’s of varying screen sizes and ages, a VIC-20, an Atari 800, a KIM, a Rockwell AIM, and an Alpha, a European machine.  Stacked next to the computers is a “disk tower” consisting of two Commodore double disk drives (a 4040 and an 8050), an Atari 810 drive, and an ancient Commodore 2023 printer perched on top. Bookshelves along one wall are overflowing, and every available inch of floor space is carpeted with piles of  diskettes, papers, and still more books. Yet, amazingly, Butterfield always  seems to know into which pile to dive for what he needs.

One of the three cats, the Siamese, possesses a similar  instinct. With a feline knack for homing in on the center of warmth and attention, she often dozes atop whichever PET is on and humming. The main occupant of the office Butterfield meshes with the environment, too. He speaks with a gravelly voice in the measured phrases of someone used to teaching or  being quoted for publication. Middle-aged and greying, he brings to microcomputing an almost childlike curiosity and sense of delight, a fascination  which led him first to an absorbing hobby and finally, in early 1981, to a new career asa freelance writer, consultant, and teacher. Today he is recognized as  a premier expert on Commodore computers, as .a prolific writer and perhaps most of all as an unusually coherent voice in the seemingly impenetrable technical thicket of personal computing.

A Change of Careers

jim-butterfield-c64-courseLike most career changes, the switch surprised Butterfield as much as anybody.  For 24 1/2 years he worked for Canadian National/Canadian Pacific Telecommunications. He quit solely because the company decided to move far away from central Toronto, and he would have spent so much time commuting there would  have been none left for his hobby. For Butterfield, it was no contest.

“When faced with that choice, I really had no choice and I quit.”

Actually, it was while working for CN/CP in 1964 that Butterfield was first  introduced to computers although personal microcomputers were still undreamt of in those days. Butterfield spent a year as a programmer of a rather specialized  computer, a Collins C840 1. FORTRAN and COBOL were coming into use at the time, but  the Collins didn’t use any such advanced languages. Programmers had to do almost  everything in machine language. Butterfield soon moved into other areas of the  company, but a little more than ten years later his interest was rekindled by a  new invention microcomputers.

“I decided to find out what this ‘micro’ stuff was all about and started  watching the current magazines,” he says. “1 finally decided to purchase when I  saw a completely pre-built machine called a KIM 1, which had a 6502 microchip in it. That turned out to be like a return to the past. Everything we had been doing a dozen years before on the large $1.5 million computer, we were doing again on this little $250 board including making the same mistakes.”

KIM And The Start Of Social Computing

One machine led to another, and Butterfield began sharing his knowledge with  other microcomputer users, as well as writing about his discoveries. He had  gained some writing experience many years before in western Canada, where he was  born, as a “continuity writer” for a couple of radio stations. (Butterfield  smiles, “That means I spent about a year of my life writing commercials.”) As the users of early microcomputers  began comparing notes, it wasn’t long before a cult of sorts sprang up. Indeed,  the emergence of microcomputers as a basis of social, and not merely technical,  interaction is the facet of the field that Butterfield enjoys most. In the  earliest days of “roll your-own-computers,” he notes, everyone had a different  machine, which crimped the sharing of information. “Suddenly,along came the KIM.  ‘ Everybody had the same computer. An amazing thing happened -and this is multiplied many limes over in the Commodore line -people built asocial life around microcomputers.

The thriving Toronto PET Users Group (TPUG) is a case in  point. Butterfield had what he calls a “Machiavellian influence” on TPUG founder  Lyman Duggan, whom Butterfield persuaded to hold the first meeting in his basement one summer evening. While Butterfield firmly rejects any organizing chores, he contributes a great deal as a friend of the club, speaking at monthly  meetings “An amazing thing happened … people built a social life around  microcomputers” and sharing his expertise.

Butterfield admits, “It’s getting harder to know what to talk  about at those meetings. There are a number of people who have the ability to track down any part of the machine they want to go after, and who are quite skilled at machine language. As a result, my sympathy is with the beginner. I’d  rather bore ten experts than lose the bulk of people, so I try to keep things  fairly simple”

Butterfield’s sympathy for beginners is well known and shows in his articles.  His writing is informal and witty in spite of its technical content. “I try to write it as I would say it. I do a lot of presenting material to both kids and  adults, and I try to keep the same style in my writing. Also, whenever I can, I slip in a simple example program. Then, even if the readers can’t understand  what I mean, they can run the programs.”

Light Consulting

jim-butterfield-videoButterfield also indulges in what he calls “light consulting,” principally for  Commodore. In the spring he went on a western Canadian promotion tour for the  VIC-20 computer. He’s also frequent invited to shows, such as the PET Show in London he attended in June. He finds this part of his work “really great fun”  because it provides opportunity for travel.

Lecturing and teaching, such as the machine language course he  conducts each month for a special interest division of TPUG, provide him with feedback about problems and areas where people need more information. He has a reputation for being generous with his time, and his phone in open from 10  a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Friday.

“If somebody phones me up and asks a question which shows they just haven’t  bothered trying it themselves. then I will sometimes be a little short, because  it does seem like a waste of my time,” he says. “But most people who call do so  because they’re stuck on something. It’s just a question of getting another  opinion. If I get a number of inquiries in a certain area, that’s usually a signal that it’s time for me to write an article about it. It’s a very good way  of keeping posted on what’s bothering people at the moment.”

Butterfield is equally generous with his software. He rarely sells any of his  programs. “I would like to foster an environment where people pass out their software with reasonable generosity. I think that by showing a good example, I  might sort of lead the way in that.” Often he distributes his work on TPUG’s  library disk.

Still, Butterfield vehemently supports an author’s copyright:  “I believe very strongly that the person writing an original program has the right to do as he chooses with that program. If he chooses to sell it or to request that it not be copied except for a fee, then he has absolutely that right.”

However, he feels that a person who takes money for software  is obligated to support that program by upgrading it and furnishing the means to  modify it, if necessary. “That’s another good reason to give programs away. I  really feel that most people who put down a lot of money for software feel that  they are not buying a disk or cassette tape, but they are buying a service..’

Interestingly, Butterfield believes the problem of software  piracy might lessen, not grow, with the increasing business use of  microcomputers. He laughs, “If an employee ran to the boss and said, ‘Chief, I  think you should give me a raise because I just saved you $500, I lifted a copy of a program,’ I really don’t think very many businesses would stick a cigar in my mouth and give me a promotion. They would more likely start keeping an eye on me.”

Butterfield thinks that renting software eventually may be the  best way to distribute it. A yearly fee could be charged for its use. In return, the user would receive continuing support on such things as upgrades, newsletters, information, warranty, and documentation.

Something Unprecedented

In Education Given his multiple interests in computing, writing, teaching, and making life  easier for beginners, it’s only natural that Butterfield is a strong advocate of  introducing children to computers early in school. ” As I understand the  writings of Seymour Papert [author of Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas], the earlier a child becomes exposed to computers, the better it is likely to be,” he says.  “I have seen no evidence to contradict this. It  seems to me that more important than anything formalized we teach young people  about computers is that we get them familiar with the concept, we get their  fears allayed, we make sure that the usefulness of computers is understood at an early age. By the time a student gets to high school, computers are an oddity.  There’s something not quite natural about them -something manufactured and solemn.

If you use computers in grade two or three you simply  understand that they’re around and they’re going to help you whenever you feel  like using them.”  Teachers are faced with devising methods of guiding  computer studies and providing resources for students, some of whom could soon  outstrip them in programming ability. This can be an intimidating task, but  student enthusiasm should make it stimulating and challenging as well. “We have in the microcomputer one of the most incredible forces that has ever happened in education,” says Butterfield. “I’m not talking about games; games don’t last very long. Students are begging for access to this logic device. It has no precedent. I don’t know what specific educational objectives are precisely to be  served. All I know is there must be something in the whole phenomenon, some need  in the young mind that causes an intense urge to interface with the computer, to try things, to make the computer do things.”

Part of the appeal, he believes, comes from the creative nature of programming.  “Programming is creative not necessarily in the most visible sense. If you write  yourself another Space Invaders it might end up looking like everybody else’s. I sometimes like to compare programming, especially machine language programming,  which is more exacting, to doing a jigsaw puzzle. Why would you sit there for two or three days and put in all this effort when you know that the end result will be a rather crummy looking picture? The point is that you will have felt  you have accomplished something, that you have brought together a number of  skills, and even though it’s the same as everyone else’s, in a sense you have created it. It’s the same thing with programming you feel so good when it all comes together, when it all works.”

Expert Debugging

But what if it doesn’t work? When you’re the ranking expert, what do you do when  you get stuck on a problem? “Well, when you reach a certain stage, and it really  isn’t all that hard to achieve, then you have control of all parts of the  machine.  Once you get to that point, and there are many people who have achieved that, you don’t have to ask anybody. You can go in there and look for  yourself. One of the messages that I try to deliver to people is, ‘If I can do  it, you can do it.’ Because often there isn’t anything in the problem that logically you can’t look all”

The Future Of Personal

Computing As personal computer enthusiasts grow wiser and I more mature in the next few  years, so will their machines, Butterfield predicts. Memory will be cheap,  machines more powerful and at the same time less expensive. The biggest single change will probably be a move toward better human interface.

Full-screen editing, color, sound, and graphics will be almost  universal arid easier to use. Peripherals such as light pens, paddles or joysticks will simply plug in. Features such as upper/lowercase letters, now viewed as optional by some companies, will be standardized. There will be some moves toward better languages, but, Butterfield says, “BASIC it appears to be indestructible at present.”  I more specifically, Butterfield offers some opinions on the future of microcomputer manufacturers: “I think we can say with some certainty that IBM will survive, not necessarily because of the merit of its products, but because IBM will gather around itself a massive amount of support.

Radio Shack is very strong. Like IBM it will probably survive  for reasons not directly associated with quality. This is not a reflection on its quality, but it has access to so many outlets of its own that it can support continuing sales. Atari has so far suffered from its games image.

“One of the most interesting phenomena could be Sinclair ,” he says. “Sinclair  has introduced a series of small, not very powerful, but remarkably inexpensive  computers. While people who are used to the speed of, say, a PET or a VIC would find some of the existing Sinclair computers very slow, we can’t ignore the fact that Sinclair through Timex is going to sell an astonishing number of machines.”

Butterfield foresees a very interesting battle between these less expensive machines, which are likely to be sold in every corner drug store, and the more powerful products. He notes that people tend to be loyal to a  product line, and so far Sinclair’s line has a clearly defined top end. Whether  this situation will change as a result of demands from buyers of machines such  as the ZX-81 who want to upgrade their systems remains a matter for speculation.

As computer prices drop, it is likely that people will begin to see a computer as an affordable tool for the family’s financial management, entertainment, and  education. Wider distribution of machines will affect society in several ways.  Already, of course, people use home computers in a limited way for business, and more commonly for enjoyment and exercise of mental agility. “People test  themselves against their computers by asking, ‘Can I make the computer do this task?’ People also go to the computer for something resembling relaxation.

“I was talking to a microcomputer owner who is having  difficulties in his business. He told me he goes home, speaks to no one, and  works on his computer for an hour or so. Only when he shuts the machine off does he say ‘hello’ to everyone. He finds the computer a very great pacifier in some sense- perhaps he takes his energies out on it. He feels that he comes out of  that environment more of a human being, and his family is very understanding of it.”

Butterfield also feels that people armed with the facts rather  than the myth of computers are better equipped to cope with society. “The most  important change that small computers have brought is they have restored to the  individual a sense that he has control over the events around him. Not only can his computer calculate a mortgage as well as his  bank can, but he has control in that he will not simply accept any nonsense the computer prints and mails to him.

Essentially, it’s related to the question of competence. If you can handle these little beasts, then in one sense, at least, you are more competent. You understand more about some of the things which are happening in  the world around you. That in itself is probably one of the most profound things microcomputers do.”

As we become more aware of a computer’s true capabilities and  limitations, we also may better assess the complex arguments about artificial  intelligence. Butterfield defines it very simply: “A computer which adapts its  behavior based on what it has learned from external sources is showing  artificial intelligence.” He cites a game called “Animals” as a simple example  of a program which learns from the user. ” Animals says it will guess any animal you can name. The first few times, you’re going to name an animal it has never  heard of.  It will ask you for more information about the animal and put it  in its list. Eventually you will run out of animals you know, and then it will  know as much as you do.”

Videotex is another computer-based system with great possibilities for the future- one which he fears will not reach its potential.  “I wish I could see a stronger future for videotex. Things like Telidon, Prestel  and so on have a conceptual problem for me. They seem to be predominantly  one-way only communications systems, perhaps a little bit like television, only not as effective. You have a few people communicating to a lot of people. I don’t view that as a good move, or even a typical move in this day where people are getting competence in their own hands. I think that if Telidon were more of a two-way interface, if more people could contribute, then you might have more of what 1 would call a lively medium.”

Rest & Diversion

Now that Butterfield finds himself constantly occupied with computers, he must force himself to get away from them for relaxation. Prowling around whatever city he happens to be visiting is one of his favorite diversions. He adds, “I do play the piano quite badly. Occasionally I go and dig, dandelions out of the garden if I have time. But there is a little bit of change in the order of  things. Since my hobby has become my work, I can’t do it all the time.”

In many ways, Butterfield has achieved celebrity status. He is much sought after by the micro computer community around the world and does  enjoy the travel. Yet he remains very approachable. “It’s really great fun. It’s  nice to be invited over to England. But simply if any part of it is intimidating  to others if I, hear people say ‘Well, that’s all right for Jim Butterfield ‘-then I feel …’not good. Essentially, what I’m trying to say is, ‘If I can do it, you can do it.’


Jim was born in Ponoka Alberta but spent most of his life in and around Toronto Ontario Canada.

Jim Butterfield died “after a very courageous battle with cancer, Jim died in Toronto in the early hours of 29th June, 2007

Jim was always available to and he always approved our requests for reprint permission.  We will miss him.

Want to know more about Jim Butterfield?  We just updated The Dusty Crystal Ball Nostalgia Unearthed While Packing from the man himself.