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.