Friday, January 27, 2012

Computing Uphill, Against the Wind. Both Ways!

On the way home from school this afternoon, the girls and I got into a discussion about magnets.

Specifically, we started with a debate regarding how strong of a hold on the back of a car one of those magnetic pictures of a dog’s head could have. We decided after some discussion that “pretty strong” about covered it. The conversation then moved on to the fact that magnets would not harm a car in any notable way, but they would harm a computer. It would wipe your hard drive, but not a CD. Of course, they would be bad for floppy discs, too.

At this point there was a digression while I explained to my daughters what precisely a floppy disc was. Neither of them have ever seen one.

“Except as the Save icon!” Tabitha chimed in. Why it is still used as the Save icon is an interesting question.

I began using computers in the mid-1980s when they still used 3.5” floppy discs, though the discs weren’t at all floppy, being encased in plastic. The older computers that were still in use at the time, though, they had the 5.25” discs that actually were floppy. You could wave them around and they would undulate like seaweed under the ocean.

Lauren’s eyes grew big at the thought.

Then she asked me, “Did computers have monitors back then?”

Yes, I told her. The ones I used did, anyway – little 6” black and white monitors. Though as I came to think about it, that wasn’t always true either.

The first time I ever used a computer was when I was in junior high school, probably in 1979. It was a dumb terminal – a jargon term, not a name given in frustration. For those of you who grew up in the internet age, a dumb terminal was something that had no memory or computing power of its own but was connected to a mainframe computer somewhere else.

You can look up “mainframe” on your own.

It was about the size of a large typewriter, with grey cylindrical keys that made a zapping sound when you pushed them down the entire half inch by which they stuck up above the beige surface of the terminal.

You can look up “typewriter” too, while you’re at it.

Mounted on the right side was a reel-to-reel arrangement that fed an inch-wide strip of pink paper from the back reel through a dot-matrix hole punch and onto the front reel. When you wanted to do any actual programming – in BASIC – that punched strip of paper was your record. If you wanted to run the program again you had to rewind it, thread it through a different mechanism between the reels, and let it control the terminal like a player piano roll. Zap zap zap zap zap.

“Player piano” – it’s in the dictionary between “mainframe” and “typewriter.”

There was no monitor. Instead there was a roll of rough yellowish paper, one grade below newsprint, that fed through the top. When you told the terminal to print something, it would just type it out on the paper, one character at a time – clack clack clack clack clack DING clack clack clack clack clack.

Computers were louder back then.

We were supposed to be learning how to program, but we spent most of the time playing the Star Trek game that somebody had coded into the mainframe. You would type in command strings at the prompt, and it would spit back the result of whatever action you just told it to do. When you lost track of where you were, you could tell it to print out a map. This was highly recommended before you tried to warp your way across the galaxy, since the game was remarkably unforgiving about things like trying to rocket your way through a star.

The Klingons would stalk you from sector to sector, and your job was to kill them all. We eventually got good enough at that task that we began seeking other things to do. This is how we discovered that you could, in fact, torpedo a planet. At which point the game would print out a sarcastic little congratulations message – “Planet destroyed. Zero Population Growth thanks you.”

Does Zero Population Growth even exist anymore?

We played that game for two solid years, and by the time I got to high school it had taken the next step in computer technology by graduating from the mainframe to being contained on a cassette tape.

“Cassette tape” is located somewhat earlier in the dictionary than “mainframe.”

The game had pretty much lost its luster for us by then, but we were amused by the fact that you actually could play the cassette tape in an ordinary tape player. It sounded like a symphony of unoiled screen doors.

I’m not sure my daughters believed this story, in their world of iPods and streaming video, but ‘tis true, ‘tis true.


vince said...

I learned to program in FORTRAN and COBOL using punch cards. It wasn't until later that I got to use a dumb terminal and learn BASIC.

When I was in the Air Force, a friend of mine bought a Tandy TRS-80. I don't remember how much it cost (and I'm too lazy to Google it) but I think someone mentioned they could have bought a fairly recent used Mustang for about the same price.

The first computer I ever actually owned was a Timex-Sinclair 1000, the US version of the English Sinclair ZX80. It was tiny, had a membrane keyboard, 2K internal memory with an option 16K memory pack, and used cassette tapes and a portable cassette recorder like you mentioned for storing and loading programs and data.

Ah, the good old days.

David said...

FORTAN and COBOL - wow. That's old school!

The first computer I ever owned was a Mac Plus, with 1MB of RAM and a 20MB external hard drive that I had to buy separately. One of the things that I have noticed is that every time I buy a new computer it has more RAM than my old computer had hard drive space.

Eric said...

The first computer I ever used back in school--junior high, I think it was--actually did have a monitor: it was one of those old Cylon-grey TRS-80s with built-in monitor.

We learned BASIC, but we also learned a lot of programming concepts using LOGO, where you told a cursor ("the turtle", wasn't it?) how to draw a picture on the screen; by the time we were messing with LOGO, we were using the color Tandys, IIRC.

The dot-matrix printers sounded like the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

Good times?

Nathan said...

My first computer was a PowerBook 160 - B&W with the TrackBall.

GF and I were talking about it yesterday. There were 4 of us computer illiterate idiots in one room constantly screaming at each other whenever someone had to do more than type a letter.

"NO! Click on the THING, not the thing".

"Ooops. You clicked twice. Now you'll never find it again."

and my favorite? "You have to make it ALL gray!" (highlighting)

beatrice in Paris said...

Do you remember what an OMP was? They were all over campus our sophomore year!

Dr. Phil (Physics) said...

I had the Sinclair ZX-81 -- it was on special in Scientific American. Kit was $99, assembled $149, but you could get the assembled unit for the kit price. Which allowed me to get the 16KB memory upgrade for ONLY $49. Figure out what that is in $/GB. (grin) Of course I'd been using big iron -- CDC-6400 and CDC-6600 mainframes in college for 4 years by then.

First "real" computer -- last of the original IBM Personal Computers -- 4.77MHz and 5.25" floppies and all. (Still boots, last I checked.)

Dr. Phil

David said...

Bea, I remember Obvious Macintosh Products - that wave of Apple Clip-Art graphics that infested posters in the mid-80s.

Good thing that doesn't happen anymore.


KimK said...

We in the UW System are finally going through a painful and expensive upgrade of our human resources system. Because our original HR system was programmed in COBOL, and there is only one octagenarian on the planet to maintain it, we are moving to people-soft programming. Gotta love our state motto : Forward (slowly) .