LIVING COMPUTER HISTORY
I enjoyed the Excellent Working Wonders article by Nicole Kobie, in the June 2017 issue of PC & Tech Authority, please compliment her for me.
It took me back to my early days of working with computers and revived many old memories. They were exciting times—it didn’t feel like work. I was being paid for what I enjoyed doing; it went on for years; a very stimulating time; always learning and computers evolving fast.
These days when people ask what career I followed, I say, ‘I worked through computer history, when computers filled rooms and data input was via punched cards’
I started in 1966 on a very basic IBM 1401, it consisted of only 4K bytes of memory, with punched cards in, punched cards out, and a line printer. No programming languages existed back then, all programming was in machine code. I was working for a newspaper company and one use they made of the ‘unit-record’ computer was keeping track of magazine subscriptions. Each subscriber’s details would be punched into one or more 80 column punched cards. These trays of cards would be fed into the card reader and bills or address labels would be printed on the line printer. It was back in the days when you could see and touch the data!
Back then, my brain was working at top speed, I remember being aware I could think about 3 or 4 things at once: While coding, which was methodical (all the machine instructions were written on pre-printed forms), I would be thinking about what to cook for tea and what would I do at the weekend…
A few years later I worked at a computer bureau on an EE KDF-6, which had evolved from the LEO you referred to in your Working Wonders article. That was when English Electric (EE) had taken over development. The KDF-6 had 3K 16-bit words of memory, 5 mag tapes (1 o¢ine), a printer (on or o¢ine), paper-tape reader, paper-tape punch. It was a clever design, being able to have the printer o¢ine, and select print lines from a magnetic tape via a plug board. Again, programming was using machine instructions, but here you could write a record to the magnetic tape or the printer, then go o£ and do other calculations. The trick was not to alter data in the write bu£er till the operation was complete.
In 1972, I was involved in early communications work, to print online invoices in a grocery warehouse. We linked remote PDP-11 computers in the warehouses to a central machine. Each remote computer had multiple LA30 matrix printer terminals, to print the invoices. This was before any o£-theshelf communication solutions and software was available, so we had to develop our own communications protocol to: validate each block of data, cater for breaks in transmission, resend data if it wasn’t valid, check for duplicate data, etc.
By 1975 I was working for Digital Equipment. I worked on PDP-11s (with its numerous operating systems) and VAX computers. I spent many stimulating years first as a Software Specialist, then as a Senior Instructor teaching customers how to get the best out of their VAX/VMS systems. Early in this period, I went to the USA for 10 months with my family, on a big Government project, to help develop a transaction processing system. My major contribution, was writing terminal driver software for a transaction processing block-mode terminal, the VT61.
In my final years in the computer industry, working at Ergon Energy, I was heavily involved in a project developing a new Electricity inventory system, using fourth generation tools (Oracle database, Forms, SQL, C programs, CASE tools). To nicely balance that mainframe work, I also became familiar with PC’s and Microsoft products. I became skilled in MS O®ce, diving into VBA to do the odd tricky work. I enjoyed supporting users and helping them with their problems and designing solutions for them. Often passing data between di£erent o®ce products.
Today I’m involved in a U3A Mystery of History group, where members take turns to present papers on history topics that interest them.
Ben Mansill replies: Fantastic letter, Geo , thanks for taking the time to tell a great story, and with a bonus photo, too! If other readers would like to share their tales of computing history (and it can cover any era), do please get in touch, we’d love to share it!
Below: Geo£ teaching at DEC in Auckland