Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Ancient Geek


Photo: The HP Computer Museum

I thought I’d indulge myself and treat you to a short series of old geeky technology posts. Complain as much as you like, I just need to get this stuff out of my system.

I am constantly to be found staring open-mouthed at technology these days. Sometimes it is because I’m an old man and I no longer find myself in a state of instant empathy with it all, sometimes it’s because it’s stopped working or is doing something unutterably dumb. More often, though, it is because I’ve been stopped in my tracks at the wonder of it all – remembering how it used to be, I’m sometimes amazed at how it is now.


You see, the first computer I programmed was an HP mainframe, back in the mid-1970s. I rather fancy it must have been an HP 2116B. It was programmed using punched cards which we had to mark with pencil, a little like filling out lottery tickets. My first ever program?

10 Print ‘Hello’
20 goto 10

How’s that for a slice of brilliance? Move over, Gates!

I didn’t get to use the computer at school very much because I wasn’t any good at maths and only kids that were good at maths or that the maths teacher ‘liked’ were allowed to use the computer. One kid was so good he could make pictures of Snoopy on printouts. The teletype terminal for punching programs into the paper tape puncher was a later addition and then, finally, VDUs. That's what we used to call screens, kids. Visual Display Units. You can stop laughing now.

They don’t seem quite to have known how things were going to go – I remember clearly being taught a number of looney number bases, including binary, octal and duodecimal. I used to cry in rage and frustration over duodecimal, sitting up late at night struggling with it as the rest of my nightly three hours of homework sat undone. Of course, these were all totally useless and it was years after I left school that I taught myself hexadecimal – the actual number system that we all ended up using with computers.

It’s worth remembering that at the time most academic institutions outside of major universities used to ‘time share’ computer time on commercial systems. I recall the school's HP was supposed to cost the equivalent of a detached house at the time. And apart from flashing reassuring lights across its front panel, it wasn’t very good for much. History tells us that it had a magnetic core memory that could store, as standard, (*gasp*) 4096 16-bit words.

That’s a good deal less than a talking greeting card stores today...

17 comments:

SDM said...

So your first program was an endless loop ?

I'm sure the administrators of the mainframe must have been thrilled about that :)

Love the blog, BTW. Keep up the good work.

Mita said...

This is waaay too geeky for me. I only got into technology in the last 15 years - when its been interesting.

Paul O' Kirwan said...

I started in 1979 and used to have to load these punch cards on behalf of researchers. Mainframe was several million US$ then. We used to have to re-boot using a panel similar to the one in your pic.

N said...

HAHAHAHAHA VDUs....I mean the books used to say that, but I never thought people actually used the term when they talked about computers!

Made my day!

EyeOnDubai said...

I share your pain. Having started with punch cards - as schoolkids, we were bused 300 miles to spend a day playing with the nearest mainframe in the Robert Gordons Institute in Aberdeen.

And last week, I picked up an external drive for the equivalent of 100 pounds.

It stores a Terabyte of data. A Terabyte!

AbuDhabilist said...

Gawd...

I like to remind poeple of the computer I bought in the early 90's that was a 486 dx 4-100, with a neck snapping 4 meg of ram AND a cavernous 540meg hard drive.

I remember saying to someone at the time (as I opened windows for work groups) that there was "No WAY I will be filling 540 megs"

How it all changes!

HOWEVER - I'll not complain ever again about the 'good old days'. My good old days didn't involve filling out betting cards for hours.

I also had a 14'' screen (XVGA) that displayed photo's in 256 colours. NOT the most excellently name VDU of old.

Thanks for the memories!

He said...

I just translated your blog into Arabic - the first paragraph of this post mentions something about "psychological treatment". I turned it back into English immediately and left it as it is. :)

Media Junkie said...

i was just going to point out the endless loop thing too....

i'm hoping that was your last experience in programming :p

guy said...

I know the feeling! First job was on an ICT (International Calculators & Tabulators - later became ICL) 1500! A machine that had 20 000 characters (6 bit ones!) of core memory and could perform one program at a time.
No operating system - you worked it by literally pushing buttons...
No Disks of any sort, just mag tape.
To run a program, you "commanded" the machine to load a small deck of cards (the IPL pack) from the 80 column card reader which then caused it to read the program off the mag tape deck (always deck 6) and go from there.
Punching cards manually was standard practice (I could probably still do it, albeit a little more slowly).
Amazing how far we've come in such a short time...

Doug said...

Reminds me of a Douglas Adams quote:

Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Brn said...

"I wrote an entire database program using only zeroes"

I just missed using punch cards. Anytime we complained in Computer Science, our prof would tell us horror stories of having to enter machine language commands one at a time via toggle switches when he was a student.

Bush Mechanic said...

I still love the old HP1000. Originally with the reel to reel link tapes then 9" floppy drives and a 10 Mg hard drive that took two of us to lift and put in the skip. You see, it had the red flashing lights that counted. It used to hypnotise us. Those flashing lights said "I'm ok here, you can relax" If the lights didn't flash, it was no longer cool.

It had 8Kb of memory and when that was expanded to 16Kb, we were scratching our heads in bewilderment. Who would ever write such a big program to use all of that memory. Then along came Zork.

Oussama said...

You bring back memories, I had to take Fortran V at University and guess what, using punch cards at the time it was fun. Then as I started my career I thought an IBM AT or XT were the ultimate in hardware, imagine 10 to 16 MB of hard disk with 5 1/4 in floppy disk. Why not I remember when we used to load programs on audio cassettes. We certainly have come a long way

alexander... said...

It was indeed a circular program which is broken by pressing ESC as eny fule no.

It was wot we woz taught to do first. It wasn't until many years later I was to discover FOR, NOT, IF, THEN and the many other wonderful words that made up the beginners' all purpose symbolic instruction code...

KJ said...

Why are all my friends geeks!

Mich said...

And I thought I was ancient! Hahah... love the memories :-)

Farouk said...

Thank you for these memories..
Yes and the computer “that had a magnetic core memory that could store, as standard, (*gasp*) 4096 16-bit words.” occupied a TWO large rooms space (!!!) at my university – Early 70s.
Have you ever experienced the (minimum 50) punched cards Slip scattered on the floor and you had to regroup them in order? Unfortunately I have had this experience more than once.

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