Ming the Mechanic:
My computer infancy

The NewsLog of Flemming Funch
 My computer infancy2003-02-20 22:23
8 comments
picture
by Flemming Funch

This is the front panel of an HP 3000 Series II minicomputer. Not a good picture, but the best one I could locate. It was my first hands on entry into the world of computers. That was around 1975-76.

I went to high school in Denmark where I grew up. "Holte Gymnasium" (the name of the school) wanted to be very progressive and top notch, so they had invested a considerable amount of money in this computer, which made it possible to introduce computer programming classes to students who wanted them. Most of the math & science types signed up, and a considerably smaller group stuck with it and became computer nuts. I was in the Fortran class. The other choice was Algol.

There was a whole room set aside for the computer. The CPU itself was like a small refrigerator, and its harddisk was about the same size. 10MB I believe. The way you started the computer was that you punched in several binary words on one of the sets of 16 lighted switches on the front. That formed the binary instructions to read in the boot loader. The boot loader, the program that would actually start the operating system, was read on hole punch tape. You know, a paper streamer with holes across, each column representing one letter. The program is read in, and it figures out how to load the actual system from the harddisk.

We didn't have any terminal with a screen the first year or so. What we used was teletype machines. Looks like an oldfashioned telex machine. A big electric typewriter. It could be used in online or offline mode. If you type commands to the operating system, it would answer by writing on paper. Or, you could sit and type in a program, which goes directly onto punch tape. And then you would go and insert the punch tape in the tape reader, type a command on the teletype to load it, and the computer reads it in. And you can then store it on the harddisk and run it.

Typically what we would run would be little programs that printed out multiplication tables or square roots or something. Seemed like magic at the time, when the alternative was to use a slid erule or look the approximate answer up in a book. And later we got into little games, implementing known algorithms for solving little matchstick games and that kind of thing. But then there was also the Star Trek game. A lively action game where you're the Enterprise hunting Klingons. The graphics consisted a little 10x10 square of ASCII characters printed out on the printer after each turn, showing what is going on in the current sector. Kids today would probably not be able to fathom how anybody could use hundreds of hours on playing that, but it was rather addictive.

One could reserve the computer in one-hour blocks after school. Every night the lights were on in that room way into the night, and it wasn't unheard of that somebody fell asleep there. There wasn't really more than a dozen or so people who really got into it, but they filled up the whole schedule. Myself and my buddy Morten filled up many slots. So did another aspiring programmer who went on to considerably greater heights with what he learned than I did. Anders Hejlsberg who was one grade below me, wrote what later on became the revolutionary Turbo Pascal compiler after he finished high school. And later on he was leading the projects that developed Borland Delphi, and Microsoft C#. I wonder what he learned on that teletype machine that I didn't learn. Maybe he went with the Algol class and spent less time playing Star Trek.

Anyway, I just wanted to mention some ancient history, since many younger people today are born after that time, and have a hard time imagining a world before 3D graphics and Internet connections. And they probably wouldn't think of finding great joy in producing page after page filled with square roots.


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8 comments

21 Feb 2003 @ 05:40 by tdeane : Hey, Ming, are you the one?
(chuckle) who I have saved the programmed instruction course, copyright IBM 1961, 1963 for? Don't know if it is of any course or other value, but it is one of those things I have sensed would be important for someone to have. They're yours if you or someone you know can use them. Love ~ Tricia  


21 Feb 2003 @ 13:19 by ming : IBM programming
Heheh, maybe you've better hold on to it. It could be a collectors item.  


22 Feb 2003 @ 17:32 by b : haha, good beginnings Ming
I too had early teletype experience pre computer. In the late nineteen fifties the U.S. Army sent me to teletype school then, stationed overseas in Italy I daily operated hi speed teletype equipment through land lines to their stations in different countries. Typing on paper and perforated paper not only in clear text but converting to code groups. Wall machines about the size of a refridgerator were used to transmit the perforated paper about an inch width wide. Fed into a slot starting with a directional url, the msg was immediately sent to the desired location. So young and naive was I that I didn't study how this all worked then. I just took the systems for granted that they were there and worked. I wanted to get out in the field and action.  


22 Feb 2003 @ 17:56 by ming : paper tape
There's something kind of satisfying about those old-fashioned mechanical ways of doing things. Like, when I wrote programs on paper tape, you had a kinestetic sense of your program. You would take your program home with you on a roll of paper tape. You could fondle it in your pocket. You could hold up a length of tape and ponder the pattern of the numbers. And if it was a large program, that would be obvious from the diameter of the roll of tape. Harddisks are so ... impersonal.  


22 Feb 2003 @ 19:29 by vibrani : teletypes
More than twenty years ago I worked for Universal Studios and the big thing there were word processors, the new big Xerox machines, and telex and teletype. I used to manage the communications dept. there and sending the studios communiques was part of my job. I loved those punched out paper tapes and the SOUNDS it made going through the machine, and knowing that on the other side of the planet someone was receiving this special code that would be translated into words. Sometimes we could type back and forth pretty much live, too, and that was a rare treat.  


24 Feb 2003 @ 16:52 by tdeane : Oh Wow!
Didn't realize anyone would have any experience with paper tape here. The first typesetting machine I learned to use was paper tape, so I understand what it is like "reading" the dots (a process which was wonderful food for the imagination); my work also involved proofreading, which also meant precise, accurate splicing. I can't help but wonder if the advantage of that old method was a reverence of accuracy, because repair was so costly and time-consuming.

By the way, if you know of a collector for the Fortran material, send him/her my way, and it is happily theirs for naught. I've always found keeping things for the purposes of investment to be a waste of time, energy, space, and money, unless one is expert in a particular field. Love ~ Tricia  



24 Feb 2003 @ 19:14 by ming : Punch
And then there are the punch cards, of course. I experienced those in college, when one needed to talk with the mainframe. There the big fear was that if you dropped your stack of cards, your program would be all messed up. The cards weren't as satisfying as the tape somehow.  


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Other stories in
2012-05-03 00:04: An evolving path
2012-01-02 13:52: 2011 Accomplishments and 2012 Aims
2011-11-17 02:20: Your inner piece
2011-02-01 00:05: Slow Mo Flow
2011-01-22 18:40: Recognition
2010-08-23 00:36: Where's Ming?
2010-07-20 14:24: Getting other people to do stuff
2010-06-22 00:27: Inventory
2010-06-19 23:10: Conversations
2009-10-28 12:31: Then a miracle occurs



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