Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Computers: In Our Family For 47 Years, Part 1


Riddle
: What kind of computer screen fixes itself?

The Wayback Machine
Today we will be traveling back to the time of prehistoric computers. Come with us now to the slower, simpler years of the gigantic Computersaurus Rex.

I don’t like this computer; I wish that I could sell it.
It won't do what I want it to, only what I tell it!

My attitude toward any electronic device is that I don’t expect it to work the way I want. I’m very happy when it does, and feel it’s my fault or my lack of knowledge when it doesn’t. This is also pretty much my attitude toward life.

I look at computers the same way I look at cars -- I don’t want to know what makes them run, I just want to get somewhere so much that I need to learn to drive one. I got my driver’s license 50 years ago, but I’m still using a beginner’s permit for the computer (and I’m REALLY glad there’s no competency test involved).

I never learned to type, but I saw the value of typing ancestors’ names into a database, then with the push of a button print out what I had hand-copied over and over so many times. I started entering family names 20 years ago and haven’t stopped yet. In the early 1980s, just about the time I became a professional genealogist (meaning I got paid for giving a talk), I began to see that computers were going to be a necessity for the rest of my life.

Grampy had already brought a steady stream of them into the house for his business use. Do the names Osborne, Commodore, Victor, Kaypro, Sharp, TI (Texas Instrument), Tandy PC-1 or TSR 80 (both made by Radio Shack) ring a bell? Didn‘t think so. How about BASIC, COBOL, FORTRAN, PARSEC, IBM punch cards, paper tape programs, floppy disks, dot matrix or bubble memory? No? Well, Grampy owned, programmed and loved them all.

“Do Not Bend, Fold, Spindle or Mutilate”
A colored IBM 'job card'.
The rest of the cards in the program were light tan.


Photo: The IBM 026 Printing Card Punch

Olden Times
Grampy says:
I first saw a computer in 1961 as a freshman at Tufts University in Medford, MA. The mainframe computer was located at Northeastern University in Boston. It was about the size of a bedroom; programs for it ran on IBM punch cards (thousands of them) which were transported to it in a shoebox. The first card in each program was colored and preprinted with the essential job-card password and syntax. Each card had to be exactly correct or the program wouldn’t run (we didn’t have the term “crashed” yet). Then it would be back to a huge punch card machine console in the key punch room. Key punch noise was loud, especially when many punches were being run at the same time in one room. You had to hit the keys really hard.

Each stroke of typing had to be correct, as it punched a small rectangular hole in the 3x8½" card which was 80 columns (letters) wide. If it was mispunched, you muttered under your breath, hit the release key to move the current card out, duplicated up to the error on the next blank card, then continued punching from that point. When you released this card (or it auto-released after column 80) you quickly grabbed the bad card out of the flipper as it was being stacked and threw it into the often-overflowing wastebasket.

What a surprising disappointment when your painstakingly-written program didn’t run! It took hours to find the error, correct it and try again, then turn in the stack of cards and wait days for a printout. That printout was our homework, to be turned in to the professor. It was as wide as a newspaper page, with tractor-feed strips that had to be torn off the edges on both sides. It had light green stripes to help keep your place when reading across the long lines of computer code.

Computer time was by appointment, and just to make it more fun, freshmen got the 3 a.m. time slot. At least there wasn’t much traffic on my drives into Boston.

Now the average household in the USA contains more computer power than existed in the whole world before 1965.

The Good Old Days
I remember when:
A computer was something on TV, in a sci fi show of note.
A window was something you hated to clean,
And ram was the cousin of goat.
Meg was the name of a girlfriend, and gig was a job for the nights.
Now they all mean different things, and that really mega bytes.

An application was for employment. A program was a TV show.
A cursor used profanity. A keyboard was a piano.
Memory was something that you lost with age,
A CD was a bank account,
And if a disk was floppy, it meant your back was out.

Compress was something you did to the trash,
Not something you did to a file.
And if you were unzipped in public, you'd be embarrassed for a while.
Log on was adding wood to the fire,
A hard drive was a long trip on the road.
A mouse pad was where a mouse lived,
And a backup happened to your commode.

Cut you did with a pocket knife, paste you did with glue.
A web was a spider's home and a virus was the flu.
I'll try to stick to my pad and paper and the memory in my head,
‘Cause although I hear nobody's been killed in a computer crash,
When it happens they wish they were dead.

Riddle answer: a Christian Science monitor.

2 comments:

The Steveo said...

This blog post is great!
I've heard of the Commodore before, and I thought Texas Instruments only made calculators.
And I've used floppy drives before! But I haven't used one in years, since USB flash drives replaced them. New computers don't even come with floppy drives anymore.
Grampy's description of his first computer experience was very interesting! I really can't imagine a computer being the size of a bedroom, especially when I carry a laptop in my arms as I walk to my classes.
I loved the poem!
Thanks for the wonderful post =]

Anonymous said...

It's so amazing how technology has become so efficient, faster, and smaller through out the years! Twenty years ago, kids had battery-powered boom boxes on their shoulders with one album inside. Now I have 600 songs in my pocket. I'm very grateful for modern computers. They've made me a spoiled brat, most certainly, but a very happy one indeed. I'm in love with computers.

B

p.s. I loved the line, "nobody's been killed in a computer crash"