Archive for October, 2011

Computers I Have Known

Monday, October 24th, 2011

Just after the death of Steve Jobs was announced, a close niece sent a text asking me to comment on her reaction to his death.

As I pondered an appropriate answer that would fit into a text message, I started thinking about the evolution of computing machinery that I’ve witnessed across most of my earthly existence, and the stories I could tell. If computers were ladies, I might be considered promiscuous, or worse: I still regularly find myself in a computage-a-trois. Sometimes one just isn’t enough.

Most of the stories will have to wait, but here’s a brief Roll Call, strictly from memory, thus subject to the usual disclaimers.

B-5500 Photo from UVa, circa 1964

Burroughs B-5500

Burroughs B-5500 – Freshman programming class at Ga Tech. I suspect I had read about computers during high school (as previously noted, I knew about lasers from Popular Science), but this one was my first – a mainframe whose cabinets formed a beast approximately 6 feet tall, 3 feet deep, and 30 feet long, not counting the outboard tape and disk drives, card readers and line printers. It featured an astounding 4×4-foot array of neon lights/switches that displayed all the contents of all of the 48-bit registers, and allowed the operator to modify register contents to correct errors. One of the cabinets, amazingly, housed one farad of capacitance to filter the incoming power. (The farad is generally considered an impractically large unit of measurement – most capacitors are rated in pico- and micro-farads.) Input consisted of decks of punch cards typed on IBM 026 card punch machines. Input decks were handed over a counter to the priest-like machine operators for processing, followed by long waits for green-and-white striped printouts, which usually bore the bad news of a syntax error, and demanded a better performance of me.



Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) PDP 8 – Four years later when I joined the GT School of Information and Computer Science (ICS), headed, naturally, by a man with a degree in Library Science. The PDP 8 was a 16-bit “mini-computer” that fit into three 19-inch-wide racks. Booting it up required keying in seven instructions using the toggle switches on the front, which made it smart enough to read a paper tape from the Teletype ASR 33, which made it smart enough to read from a 4″ diameter reel of DecTape, which finally loaded the operating system. Interactive – keyboard input, output (upper-case ASCII only) printed on yellow rolled paper. System storage and retrieval via disk and tape. User storage and retrieval: paper tape punch and reader.

DEC PDP 11/45 – Around the next year (1973). Single rack system with a Telefile disk system, two drives, 11 platters per drive. UNIX operating system, the first OS I knew that supported multiple users. UNIX was developed by a handful of Bell Labs employees, including Dennis Ritchie, who died around the same time as Steve Jobs, and was equally mourned by computer geeks. The UNIX commands I learned in 1973 are still valuable on Macs, Linux machines, and Sun workstations, all of which are descendants of the original OS.

DEC Graphics Terminal (GT) 40

DEC GT 40 running Lunar Lander

DEC GT 40 running Lunar Lander

Acquired by ICS a year or so after the 11-45. Featured a monochrome cathode ray tube (CRT) display and keyboard (also used by time-sharing systems, see below), but with the addition of a graphics display driver that could draw pictures instead of just printing letters, and, even cooler, a “light pen” that could be used to draw on the screen, or, even better, let students (and staff) play Lunar Lander.

CDC Cyber 64 – A big, time-sharing mainframe that pushed ICS out of the main computer space in the new Rich building. The story of moving the B-5500 deserves its own posting, which I hereby promise to attempt soon. The Cyber was powered by three huge motor-generator sets that converted the 60 Hertz alternating current power feed into 440 Hertz, which reduced the size of the necessary filter capacitors. In addition to retaining card and line printer I/O (input/output), there were rooms full of CRT terminals for students to create, run, and debug programs. (In trying to confirm the OS for this machine, I discovered that there were several CDC machines close to the 64, but my memory has apparently mangled their names into Cyber 64. I also found a cool site that retains scanned copies of old computer documentation, called

Did I say this was going to be brief? I know this seems like a lot to read, against the possibility that I will say more about Steve Jobs. It was a lot to type too. But I will, in fact, get back to my niece’s text message query eventually.

After a few years at Tech, I left the lush academic computing environment for a more modest enterprise that turned out to offer its own share of computer relationship options. And so I continue the Roll Call.

TRS-80 model 1 – I think this early Tandy/Radio Shack computer was my first home computer acquisition. The processor was built into the keyboard enclosure, which included an RCA television output jack for the video display (TV not included) and a mini-DIN connector for the input and output jacks of a portable cassette recorder (also not included). I don’t remember how I acquired the Model 1, but I do remember a brief attempt to program a usable checkbook balancing program in BASIC, which turned out to be much harder than I had anticipated. Perhaps the best thing about the Model 1 was the cheerful user’s manual. The instructions for using the cassette recorder to store and retrieve files included these classic lines. “With practice, you will be able to tell where the data starts by listening to the sounds played through the speaker. And, if you can actually interpret the data from the sounds, you are a mutant, and will go far in the computer industry.”

TRS 80 model 2 – Purchased for the Controls Division of Superior Steel Fabricators, Inc. This all-in-one unit included a built-in keyboard, video display, and two floppy disk drives that used 8″ floppies. Available software included a word processor, spreadsheet program, database program, and a terminal emulator for connecting to mainframes using an external dial-up modem. It included a printer port, and I added a small flatbed plotter that could draw circuit diagrams in 8 colors on letter-size paper, but required hours of manual programming to do so.

TRS 80 model 4 – Superior Steel’s office used the next generation Radio Shack computer, similar in configuration but using the more svelte 4.5″ floppy drives. This machine ran a bookkeeping program that printed our paychecks. Eventually we retrofitted our IBM Selectric typewriter with a serial interface, which allowed us to create WiteOut-free business letters.

Texas Instruments 5-TI programmable controller – not exactly a computer, but a digital replacement for banks of relays and timers that allowed us to create complex control systems for material handling equipment. I/O consisted of racks of 120-volt modules that could sense switch positions and pushbuttons, and operate motor starters, valves, lights and solenoids. Programmed using TI’s proprietary “ladder logic,” that visually emulated the traditional method of drawing control circuits.

Cromemco Personal Computer (PC)

Cromemco C10

Cromemco C10

The first actual computer we used to operate a control system. I selected the Cromemco over an upstart offering from IBM, because it had better specs. It was used on a high-speed concrete mixer truck filling system, storing the recipes for the next several trucks. It was programmed by an unsung genius from Athens named Richard Simmons (not the exercise guru) who, when he realized the commercial value of his skills, quickly started his own business.

Telecat 286 – When I left Superior Steel for BellSouth in 1986, one of the benefits of working for the Phone Company was the opportunity to bring home a Telecat, one of many built-to-spec Personal Computers that sprang up during that time. BellSouth’s Telecat purchasing contract was an attempt to find an affordable clone that was “IBM compatible.” By the way, the best test of IBM compatibility at the time was the Microsoft Flight Simulator program, which exercised most of the low-level system calls. This was the first computer my kids were exposed to, mostly through games like Captain Comic and F-15 Strike Eagle.

Sun Solaris workstation – Two years later, when our group moved into BellSouth’s new Science and Technology organization, we were given a choice for our desktop machine: either an Apple or a Sun workstation. Interestingly, Windows was not an option. I picked a Sun workstation because it seemed more, well, scientific. Getting the Sun also marked my initial exposure to the best application program I have ever used, FrameMaker. But that’s a story for another post.

Apple Performa – We had access to various Apple computers in the lab, the models of which escape me. Eventually BellSouth offered some of the older machines for sale to employees, and I brought our first Apple home.

Dell, HP PCs – As “personal” computers became an office commodity (and secretaries concurrently disappeared), my computers at work flew by as quickly as the technology itself was exploding. Every replacement was noticeably faster, and included enough storage to devour the previous model’s content without so much as a burp. Interestingly, word processing, spreadsheets, and database management were still the primary programs I used. And I still used my Sun workstation to do things a Unix-based machine could do effectively, like process regexes, sort, grep, awk, and run Perl (my new BASIC).

IBM ThinkPad – My first work laptop was bought for the lab, but I occasionally carried it home to continue my work. Yes, that was a convenient option, but it foreshadowed today’s nearly constant connectivity with my corporate overlords and overladies.

Flower-Power iMac

Flower Power iMac

Flower Power iMac

As the progeny reached college age in the 90s, they needed computers themselves. I had already figured out that Apple products required the least support, and were the easiest to use, so that’s what we got for them. Most of the time they were great, but occasionally (as today) we bumped into programs or professors that required a Windows-based PC. Fortunately, I always had an old work machine at home I could use to translate. Eventually they graduated to iBooks, and I got to bring the iMacs home, still plenty of computer to meet my needs, with a Unix shell to boot! The 20-cubic-foot PDP 11/45 of my early GT ICS days was now sitting on my desk at home in less than a cubic foot. And with a hippie-colored plastic cover, no less.

Mac tower– when the Flower Power iMac finally quit, I bought a used G4 to mount the iMac drive in. (I had to look that model number up, and found this cool graphic of Mac models). Of all of the computers I have used this one, combined with the premature failure of an external backup hard drive, is the only one that has ever lost a significant amount of my data. It took weeks of piddling to recover my Quicken account data.

Mac mini -A Christmas gift from Bo and Marilyn several years ago, and still my main personal computer. I have taken it on several family vacations (hey, we can hardly get by without a printer, now can we?) and at least one wedding this year.

iPad – I bought this computer (yes, it qualifies) myself for several reasons previously described, and it continues to be a useful tool, and an occasional spousal annoyance. But the convenience is hard to beat – as I type this, it is 3:23 am. My body has decided I have had enough sleep for a while. A few minutes ago I worked the Monday NYT Crossword, then got soundly thrashed in Words With Friends by a touring musician who plays WWF at all hours, and fiercely too. And I’m finishing up this posting in the comfort of our dark living room, just steps away from the bed to which I soon hope to return for a rematch.

Which brings me to my niece’s text. If you can possibly recall the beginning of this electronic epic, she sent me a text asking me to comment on her reaction to his death. She wrote, “I am surprised at how violently I’m reacting to the news. In one way or another, I’ve been connected to Steve Jobs since my first experiences with the Macintosh at your house. He’s been such an icon for what leaders of business can and should be. Am I ridiculous for being so, so sad about his passing?”

After a few minutes of thought, I sent this reply. “Not at all. Our computers, and the information they bear for us, become intimate friends, all the more so when they have been designed to fit us so well.”

Anyone who referred to a Burroughs 5500 as an “intimate friend” would have been considered crazy at the time. But as computing machines have decreased in size, and increased in friendliness, we have approached a point where that description is not too much of a stretch. Eliza, an entertaining program in the 70s that pretended to be a psychoanalyst by analyzing your typed answers for key words (“Tell me more about your mother”) has become Siri, who communicates by spoken language instead of typing, and who responds to a request to the famous HAL 9000 line ““Open the pod bay doors,” by saying, “We intelligent agents will never live that down, apparently.” Still key word analysis, but with a style to win a geek’s heart.

Thanks in large part to Steve Jobs’ vision, and the work of many lesser known patriarchs like Dennis Ritchie, computing machines have become our phones, our maps, our cameras, our entertainment, and our door to Friendship. It is no wonder that we revere Jobs in ways no CEO has been revered before. And we are saddened by his premature death.

I don’t really have a clever closing for this post, except to say that perhaps next time I’ll talk about power tools. Those posts will be much shorter. “Table Saws I Have Known.” Turns out, the quantity is one. For Corded Electric Drills, the quantity is two. And I can’t even name a single Power Tool designer. Sounds like a piece of cake.