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PC & Tech Authority - - INBOX - Geo C

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

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