Memories of Computers Past

Harry Keller 80By Harry Keller
Former ETCJ Science Editor
& President of SmartScience

When Jim wrote about 5-1/4″ disks, it triggered a cascade of memories from my half-century of computer experiences. Today, it’s all miniature flash memories.

Seriously, I remember 8″ floppy disks. I had a bunch of them, now long gone to the landfill. I worked in the computer industry before ANY floppy disks existed. Oh, we had removable disks and were careful not to drop them on our toes.

8-inch, ​5 1⁄4-inch, and ​3 1⁄2-inch floppy disks. Wikipedia photo and caption by George Chernilevsky, 6 June 2009.

It gets worse. I remember working with punched cards — myself! I even edited the binary cards returned to you after a compilation to save time. Woe betide the person who dropped their cards if they were not sequenced. If they were, then you had access to a card sorting machine. Old movies showed them as though THEY were the computer. Ha ha ha. 

A punched card from the mid-twentieth century. Wikipedia photo and caption by Pete Birkinshaw, 6 Nov. 2010.

No. That’s not the beginning. I worked with punched paper tape on a Flexowriter and (years later) a teletype. Yes, I edited those too by hand. My first program was about ten feet long.

Friden Flexowriter used as a console typewriter for the LGP-30 computer on display at the Computer History Museum. Wikipedia photo and caption by ArnoldReinhold, 1 Feb. 2014.

That first computer I worked on had vacuum tubes in it. And its output was on clay tablets that you baked in the sun. I say that because you wouldn’t believe the truth.

I wrote FORTRAN for my Ph.D. thesis on an IBM 7094, the top computer of its day. It had a 32K memory that was the size of a wall full of filing cabinets. There’s a fun story about that memory bank. It was all magnetic CORES (where the term “core dump” originated) and was cooled with circulating oil. It kept having random bit errors. The entire story is too long for this note. The onsite IBM techs tore their hair out for weeks!

Operator’s console for an IBM 7094 at the Computer History Museum. Wikipedia photo and caption by ArnoldReinhold, 27 Jan. 2012.

Today, you have many more times (geez, GIGAbytes!!) of memory and computing power in your pocket. DO NOT TRAVEL BACK IN TIME WITH ONE OF THOSE IN YOUR POCKET! It will morph into a room-filling computer and crush you to death.

The first Atlas, installed at Manchester University and officially commissioned in 1962, was one of the world’s first supercomputers, considered to be the most powerful computer in the world at that time. Wikipedia photo and caption by Iain MacCallum (“email from my father, Iain MacCallum”), 31 Dec. 1962.

It seems as though the computer industry is playing limbo. “How low can you go?” The prices go low while the size goes small. They will make it under that stick, and you are the winner as long as you aren’t buried under a software snow storm. I hope that I am not going too fast for everyone here.

I was once paid $250,000 (not all for myself, had to hire help) to automate a steel mill. The project was a big success and was never installed. Who says that computer programmers lack a sense of humor? I laughed all the way to the bank.

I have had a number of dental problems and now sport two implants. I hope that my next one is enough in the future to include a computer.

2 Responses

  1. Thanks, Jim and by extension Harry Keller- I realised I am old- if I saw and used that technology. Thank God we have seen the reincarnation of the same.

    • You’re welcome, Prof Boruett. Harry has experienced, first hand, the very early days of computers. An advantage of age is that we see patterns of innovation and can’t help but be amazed at the exponential speed of change. IT is taking us all on a wild ride, and we’d better hang on tight. Haha. -Jim

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: