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No, not back to Babbage, but some vignettes from the mid-’60s.
When registering for classes in college, after lining up all your classes, you were sent to the “computer” to have the tuition calculated. The “computer” was an upper-classman with a calculator sitting under a large banner which said “Computer.”
Working at a high tech company of the time:
The programmers were women and the engineers were men. Once projects started which depended on mini- or micro-computers, engineers had to learn to program. I started working in the industry during that transition. One of the women programmers (Freida Robey, thank you) helped me a lot by mentoring me and helping me write a program that my manager said they didn’t need. I finished it and he used it all the time.
The computer room was:
- A fairly large room filled with lots of large cabinets with fans.
- It had a raised floor.
- It was the only place in the building where smoking was not allowed and it was always cool.
- The input was a punched card reader and, when not used, the cards were kept in large cabinets with a press for each set of cards to keep them from warping.
- The main output was a line printer which printed each line with a particular ripping sound on the familiar striped wide paper with the perforations on the sides.
- Initially, there was no time-sharing. One person “owned” the computer at a time. My career was boosted because I was willing to take the night shift.
- The main panel had lights showing program location, data and so on. It also had lots of switches to control things. You could even single step it through the code, although that was usually not very useful.
Nerd Humor of the time
When inputting a program to the main computer, if an error was found during the pass, an error message would be printed on the line printer. I don’t know what it meant, but the message always started with “FRSOPN,” followed by an error code and a long line of asterisks. Because most of the line was the same character, all positions printed at the same time and there was a “whap” instead of the usual rolling/ripping sound. That distinct sound would cause the programmer who was trying to run the program to leap up and run over to see what the error was.
The trick was to slip a punched card with a comment character in the first position and followed by FRSOPN, a reasonable error code, and the asterisks. Usually, it would take a while for the programmer to notice the comment.
Our computer technician had a “trick” of taking a programmer’s card deck and tossing it from hand to hand. Unfortunately, he sometimes dropped the deck. Because of accidents like this, all program card decks had a diagonal line across the top so you could see immediately if any were out of place.
The computer room temperature was critical and was monitored with a recording thermometer. When I was working the night shift, for several nights in a row (it was very boring work) I would breathe on the sensor so the recorded temperature would go up about 20 degrees. This drove the computer manager nuts. He was planning on coming on to see what was happening when I confessed.
When minicomputers first came in, they were lots of fun. Like the mainframe, there were lots of lights and switches, but it seemed much more personal. Initially, everything was done in assembly language and the input was the paper tape reader on an ASR-33 terminal and the output was the ASR-printer. The minicomputers were 16 bits, so there were 16 switches for the registers. The initial “language war” was if code and data should be expressed in Hex or Octal. Octal used 3 bits and could express numbers from 0 to 7. The problem was that a 16-bit value took 6 characters to express — that is, a one or zero for the first bit and then 5 sets of digits for the next 5 sets of 3 bits. Hex expressed the value for 4 bits and was expressed as 0-9 and then A-F. Hex took only 4 characters to express a 16-bit value.
I was a Hex guy. One of the early minicomputers I worked on needed to have a “bootstrap” loader entered manually before it could be started in the morning. I got used to using a 4-finger button push to do it quickly.
The equivalent to today’s “Hello World” program as a first program in a new language was to write code that would rotate the data bits (visible on the console) at a slow enough speed that the action was visible.
Even though the programs were written in Assembly language, the compiler took two passes. This meant that the paper tape needed to be run through the ASR-33 twice. As the program grew longer, managing the paper tape so it didn’t get hung up was a major issue. I remember taping pencils at strategic points through the lab to run the tape over so it wouldn’t snag. High-speed input was when mylar tape and optical tape readers were introduced.
Memory was extremely limited. On one project, we needed to add more — something like 64K bytes (thousands of times less than in a current cell phone) and it came in a separate 4-foot high cabinet. The salesman would bring customers from miles around just to see it.
At one point, I was working with a Raytheon 703 or 704. Raytheon had just come out with a Fortran compiler and I tried it, but it always crashed at a certain point in the compile. I called our Raytheon tech support guy who said, “I don’t know what you are doing wrong, the University of North Carolina is using it with no problems at all.” I gave up on it. A month or so later, he stopped by and I showed him what happened for me. Of course, it crashed again. His response: “Damn, just like at Carolina!”
In spite of all the limitations, you could do an amazing amount with them. The company where I worked did pattern recognition and had been working with speech recognition. This was back in the ’70s where speech recognition had to be trained to a specific user and could not deal with continuous speech — words needed to have a clear separation. I developed an Operating system which could handle 4 simultaneous speakers, process the input and drive up to 4 printers and 4 speech synthesizers. My name for it was VOICE for “Voice Operated In-Core Executive”, but marketing didn’t like that and changed the name to something like VDETS.
When microprocessors first came out, I convinced my bosses to let me get one to do some testing. I got a board from Intel based on the Intel 4004 (predecessor of the 8008, 8080, 8086 and on and on). It came on a board which was about 7″ by 14″ and had a whopping 1K bytes of memory. This was divided into 4 rows of 8 chips and ran hot enough to fry eggs. If you had a question and called Intel, you talked to the guy who designed the board.
A program had to be “burned” into an eeProm — a programmable chip that could be erased using UV light. Unfortunately, the eeProms cost about $170 each. I convinced my boss to let me get 4. Then, I had to write an assembler — I used the mainframe computer and was then faced with actually programming the chips. It is amazing to remember this, but I designed and built a programmer which was driven by the mainframe. I tried the first chip and after it was programmed, it didn’t work. I rechecked everything and it seemed ok, so I tried the second chip — same results. At this point, I was starting to get worried. I rechecked again, tried the third chip and got the same result. At this point, I was really sweating, thinking I had burned up about $500 in chips. I tried the fourth and it worked fine! It wound up that three-quarters of the chips Intel sent were defective.
When the Apple II first came out, it was delivered with a manual (the “red book”) which had the schematics and all the source code.
The main thing I remember about when PCs first came out was the notion that they would never “catch on.” In particular, managers would never use them, since typing was what secretaries did.
Those were the good old days. What stories do you remember from the beginning of your career?