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...