Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Stone Age Computing

In this Atlantic article from 1982, James Fallows tells readers about his new modern marvel, an Optek rigged to a 12-inch TV screen, two tape recorders for mass storage and running Electric Pencil, the whole held together by yards of cable. "I'd sell my computer before I'd sell my children. But the kids better watch their step. When have the children helped me meet a deadline? When has the computer dragged in a dead cat it found in the back yard?"

The process works this way. When I sit down to write a letter or start the first draft of an article, I simply type on the keyboard and the words appear on the screen. For six months, I found it awkward to compose first drafts on the computer. Now I can hardly do it any other way. It is faster to type this way than with a normal typewriter, because you don't need to stop at the end of the line for a carriage return (the computer automatically "wraps" the words onto the next line when you reach the right-hand margin), and you never come to the end of the page, because the material on the screen keeps sliding up to make room for each new line. It is also more satisfying to the soul, because each maimed and misconceived passage can be made to vanish instantly, by the word or by the paragraph, leaving a pristine green field on which to make the next attempt.

My computer has a 48K memory. Since each K represents 1,024 bytes of information—each byte representing one character or digit—the machine can manipulate more than 49,000 items of information at a time. In practice, after allowing for the space that The Electric Pencil's programming instructions occupy in the computer's memory, the machine can handle documents 6,500 to 7,500 words long, or a little longer than this article. I break anything longer into chunks or chapters and work with them one at a time.

My own memories of the dawn of personal computing revolving around the original IBM PC running an integrated set of programs one of which called Peachtree something. I was conscious of being late to the party and often came across what seemed to be incomprehensible equipment, all of which had the faint aura (then) of science fiction. There were 8-inch floppy disks. Single line LED displays. Acoustic couplers that fit telephone handsets in an era when most handsets were enough alike that they could fit a coupler. There were terminals on which one typed and awaited a response from the actual and remote computer. And occasionally you would encounter punched cards. These were paper objects processed produced on wonderfully smooth mechanical consoles which contained data and computer instructions on a pattern of holes which you submitted to a compiler. The more savvy scrawled drawings on the side of the stack to create a visual cue to enable reconstructing the pile in the event you tripped and fell on the way to submitting it the computer, which was often tended by priestly acolytes wearing white coats in a glassed-in, airconditioned room. There were Diablo printers and lineprinters. And scads of documentation in huge binders on the wall.

It was all very primitive, yet that early computing scene was charged with an excitement akin to the discovery of first love; something you can only see with the eyes of innocence and for all its wonder, tinged with a sense of loss.

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific - and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise -
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.


Blogger Charles said...

Queen - Under Pressure (Live At Wembley Stadium 1986)

7/17/2007 06:01:00 PM  
Blogger Charles said...

US Pro-Abortion Organizations Begin Major Assault on Peru - Part 2

The assault is reported to be funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

7/17/2007 07:34:00 PM  
Blogger El Baboso said...

Except that it was Balboa that stood on that Darien peak, not Cortez; and the peak wouldn't been in Darien but rather just north of present-day Panama City; and the hills in that part of the country aren't too high (that's why the built the Canal through them for chrissake) -- not really peaks at all; and given the thickness of the jungle in those parts, he probably wouldn't have been able to see the ocean until he hit the grassy coastal lowlands. The canopy is just too thick to see far there.

Other than that, I applaud the artist's poetic imagery.

7/17/2007 08:06:00 PM  
Blogger Mike H. said...

A PDP 11/70 with 64k of static, core memory with a hard drive that had a stack of disks that you dropped down into a receptacle and had virtual cylinders. The rest of the room was filled with tape transports for archiving data. It had the best version of Lunar Lander that I've ever seen. The original in fact.

Believe it or not the system that I worked on, AN/TYQ-2, had the first 'Finger On Glass' we called it POG because it started out as a penlight. Circa 1958, fielded in 1965.

7/17/2007 08:19:00 PM  
Blogger wretchard said...

El Baboso,

Thanks for the information. There goes another Hollywood moment.

7/17/2007 08:54:00 PM  
Blogger James Kielland said...

Thanks for this, Wretchard. I also have my memories of that era. The first real computer I worked with was a TRS-80 Model III with a whopping 64k and a 5.25" disk drive. Of course, this was something I only used at the school I was attending: the idea of buying a computer with 64K and a real disk drive was simply too extravagant at the time.

When I finally did get a home computer I decided to also purchase a modem, which was a little less than $300 for 300 baud. I desperately wanted a Hayes 1200 buad modem, but that was over $1000. But 1200 buad! The thought of it was mind-boggling.

For some reason I'm also reminded of the glory days of dot-matrix printers, such as the Gemini 10x and various Epsons; which could print at a blistering 80 characters per second! There was also the daisy-wheel printers for those of us who had an urgent need for "letter quality printing." All of these printers were so loud that I remember there was quite a business in creating acoustic enclosures to take a few decibels off the edge of the ruckus.

7/17/2007 09:27:00 PM  
Blogger lugh lampfhota said...

As a young engineering student, I cut my teeth on DEC PDP4L with shift register boots and paper tape programs. I remember the awe of IBM 370S and then DEC mini-computers that required less than a room sized footprint. My first home computer was a TI994A with a Myarc floppy drive, 64k memory expansion and modem. Those were the days when only geeks knew what to do with a computer.

7/18/2007 12:29:00 AM  
Blogger RWE said...

I learned computer programming in the age of punch cards. A huge pain, made much more excruciating by the fact that the Lords of the Machine would change trivial things occasionally, just enough to make the programs you developed the previous year not work any longer.

My first home computer was a Sinclair ZX-81. It had a film keyboard like a cheap calculator, 4K of RAM and a modulated VHF output that went to TV Channel 4. I had to modify both the computer and my 1965 vintage 13 inch TV for direct video to get a usable picture. Before that it was like trying to tune in Augusta to get re-runs of Star Trek on a Sunday afternoon. Inputting programs was by means of cassette tapes. But it was fun. Useless, but fun.

My first real home computer was an Atari 520 ST. Awesome machine. Ran GEM, the most bulletproof operating system ever devised. Had no hard drive; the OS was on ROM and programs were loaded via 720K single sided floppies. And it worked so much better than the Zenith Z-100’s we had at work.

In retrospect it is astonishing how much capabilities have improved and even more incredible, how much reliabilities have decreased. Nothing much went wrong with the ZX-81 and 520 ST. The first PC I had, running Windows 3.1 at 40 MHZ, worked absolutely fine for an incredible 7 years before being retired, still working fine. It has been a much different story with the ones running Windows 98 and later OS.

7/18/2007 06:56:00 AM  
Blogger exhelodrvr1 said...

The floppies with AUTOEXEC.BAT files that were different for the specific program (read "game") that was being run; the memory being so limited that you had to be aware of exactly what was being loaded each time you rebooted, or you wouldn't be able to run the program.

7/18/2007 10:27:00 AM  
Blogger RWE said...

Exhelo: Yes, and I recall being really P.O.ed that I could not just go ahead and run Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe on my 40MHZ 386. It even had a terrific new upgrade: a CD ROM drive!

So I had to figure out what was wrong and then how to go into the autoexec.bat file and change the memory allocation so to enable more to be reserved for the game. At first attempt it took about 15 sec to be able to look out the side of the cockpit. Added more memory reserve and then it worked fine.

However, that experience did enable me to set up some of our computers at the Pentagon to run properly.

7/18/2007 11:25:00 AM  
Blogger Elmondohummus said...

Hehe... DEC, TI, Trash-80's... it partially feels like only yesterday, but in some aspects feels a lifetime away. I first learned basic at the hands of the venerable TRS-80s, then on one of the first affordable home computers - the Commodore 64! But I remember the old days of the TI's, the Sinclairs, etc.

It's funny how fast the amazing has become mundane. It's not only no stretch to say that any single PC owner has more raw calculating power than was available to NASA during the era of moon landings, it's also no stretch to say that certain individual components of a modern home computer have more. And there's no wonder at this fact; only a bored shrug by the user as he returns to the web, or the spreadsheet being worked on, ignoring the irony that the millions of bytes and GPU calculations associated with the video card are being put to the bland use of coloring pixels so he can see text, not towards the calculation of optimal courses for capsules on long journeys through space.

The days of laboriously typing in code and achieving one single result - even if it were no more than a simple sprite on the screen - made things seem magical for you because it felt as if you were manipulating things in an obscure fashion to achieve a result not seemingly tied to the component elements. In other words, it was magical because it made you feel as though you were the magician creating the magic hands on. But now, we've become the observers, seeing the magic and just trusting it works. The graphic user interface (GUI) has achieved so much in forwarding computing progress, but it has come at one sad cost: The loss of wonder. It's a fair trade in order to continue progress - I wouldn't have it any other way - but it's still a wistful loss. To be a programmer now, you still need a fully functional operating system and a developer's package that runs so far over the top of the OS - let alone the hardware being abstracted way, way down deep inside your Windows/Mac/Linux/BSD/whatever computer - that it's basically an app that helps you build other apps. It's not getting your hands "on" the computer, not with all the abstraction layers between the programmer and the memory locations. It's no longer "magic". Its construction made for ease, replicability, and speed. And it allows for far more accomplishment - imagine what it would take to code just a GUI web browser in the old paradigms: You'd need to build a networking stack, graphic elements, interaction between graphic elements, etc. etc.... But it no longer feels like you're manipulating the computer. Rather, you're manipulating elements of the operating system, and pieces of the computer are simply physical elements at the end of the OS components.

Yes, objectively it's silly to think of the old days as the "good" ones. You can do so much more - orders and orders of magnitude more - with a modern computer than with an old Pet, Amiga, TRS-80, or whatever. But the "magic" is gone, and these incredible machines sitting next to me now are just tools. Nothing more.

7/18/2007 11:28:00 AM  
Blogger Wayne said...

Ah, fond memories. I cut my programming teeth in '79 on a Qantel, which had the princely total of 16K available RAM on which to run real programs (financial stuff and primitive databases). Certainly taught one to economise on code...

But the nicest thing about the Q (apart from the version of BASIC it used) was that it sported an internal data dictionary which had a dual use: as a key element of a report generator which enabled any file anywhere on the machine to be interrogated, and as a use-file generator for the file layouts needed to actually program anything file-based. And the report generator could chain output into the input of another report. And (but wait, there's more...) there was a primitive code generator, which allowed a maintenance screen to be auto-generated for any file.

It would be a decade before anything in the PC world came anywhere near that level of integration.

Ah, and those 15-inch diameter hard disks! 6 whole megabytes of storage. How in the world could you ever fill them up? We ran a financials, a land rating (sales, really) system, a fleet costing system and a bank reconciliation, on a total of 4 of those disks.

A great old system, and very happy code-cutting memories...

7/18/2007 04:05:00 PM  
Blogger Tony said...

This guy was way behind the times. I was selling "word processors" in Sydney in '79. They only cost $15,000, and that included 16K of RAM and two floppy drives that each stored a few dozen pages or so, and a magnificent Qume daisy-wheel printer.

Not only did the words wrap on the screen, but the daisywheel printed in both directions! You had to see it to believe it. Unfortunately for me, since the machines weighed about 40 pounds each, the "workstation" and printer.

You could even do this really cool thing called "re-paginate" - as long you had two floppy drives (@ $1,500.00). Then you could re-program the machine and do another incredible thing called "list-merge."

By that time you were ready to hit Bondi, or Manly or Avalon beach. Whew. Crack a few tinnies, mate, need a few neck oils. Pay no attention to that $15,000 machine rolling around in the trunk as you drive to impress the sheilas.

7/22/2007 05:17:00 PM  

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