Vintage Computing – part 1

Posted by: Rea Maor In: Hardware and Gadgets - Monday, April 23rd, 2007

After almost a week without posts (due to private matters)
I’m starting with a new Series of articles, Vintage Computing – Learn how everything started
And hopefully see where it all goes…

Computers have evolved faster than any other man-made invention. Compare the example of cars, for instance. Many improvements to the design of the car have been made, but the over-all basic design of motor, tires, passenger compartment, transmission, etc. remains largely the same in function and design since the original prototype models. Yet electronic computers have been with us just about 65 years. Yet, have been re-designed and re-thought so many times that an alien, shown a typical example of a model of the same thing 20 years apart, would have a hard time identifying both of them as the same device.

We’ll take a brief tour-de-force fly through vintage computing, counting from those first transistor-driven computers from around the 1950s. Yes, of course, the history of computers goes further back (sure, we know about Charles Babbage, but what about the Jacquard loom of 1801, Schickard’s calculation clock of 1623, and the abacus of at least 3000 BC?), but for our purposes we’ll start with 1950. Blogs shouldn’t try to be encyclopedias.

About Punch Cards – One program still in existence today is “bcd”, a BSD-native program for translating strings into a punched card format. Here, for instance, is what a string composed of the name of this site and article would look like on a card:

|]   ]] ]  ]]      ]  ]]] ]     ] ]              |
|  ]]  ] ]]  ]] ]   ]      ]]]   ]               |
| ]               ]  ]        ]]                 |

Other versions of this program are probably available for any system, since it’s a quite trivial text-mode hack.

The punched card era is one we can barely touch on, here. Not much demand for the home hobbyist; everybody seems pretty glad to see them go. You can still probably find a punch-card machine in odd corners of the business world – doubtless the same kind of places you can find payroll programs written in COBOL. Listen for the sound of joggers clattering and chad buckets being emptied. As late as 1996, the US government still hung onto punch-card systems, for census and vote data!

But punched cards did shape some of computing’s metaphors for a number of years. For one thing, the 80-column width of text terminals was a hold-over from the punch-card era. Many other trace elements of this time are visible, such as with the encoding of keyboard characters.

IBM Stretch

The computers of this era (1950’s-1960’s) filled a whole 1000-square-foot room by themselves, and were noisy and hot. Pictures of typical office scenes of this era show that a stunning change has occurred in our traditions – women did most of the work of interacting with the computer at this time! Since women in the 50’s had traditionally been the typists and secretaries, data entry on computers just naturally got assumed to be their work, too. Counter this to today’s male-dominated IT field.

We’re just starting our journey – next we will look at the next generation of machines, the era of PDPs, DECs, VAXs, and magnetic tape, and have something we can conceivably run or emulate even today!

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