Growing Up With Computers


As another birthday comes closer with its ugly reminder of how short life is, it makes me think of you younger folks.
Because while you grew up with computers, my situation was just the opposite – computers grew up with me.
ENIAC, the first electronic programmable computer (in essence, a building sized scientific pocket calculator) was patented just short of five years before I was born. From the application:
...With the advent of everyday use of elaborate calculations, speed has become paramount to such a high degree that there is no machine on the market today capable of satisfying the full demand of modern computational methods. The most advanced machines have greatly reduced the time required for arriving at solutions to problems which might have required months or days by older procedures. This advance, however, is not adequate for many problems encountered in modern scientific work and the present invention is intended to reduce to seconds such lengthy computations...
From the ENIAC patent (No. 3,120,606), filed 26 June 1947.
The monster was switched on in fall of that year. It was the prototype for all computers that followed later, including the one you are reading this on.
As I was taking my first breath, having been pulled into the world with forceps after a 72 hour labor, the phrase “rock and roll” was still three months into the future. The computer as we know it today did not exist, although ENIAC, the keyboard-less and monitor-less prototype, was almost five years old.
By February 1949, when the ENIAC completed the computation for Project Chore, an Ordnance Corps contract with the University of Chicago, operating difficulties had been reduced to a minimum. Running times were longer, down times shorter and reduced in number. The Chore contract and others completed during this period proved the ENIAC's worth. Other machines, among them the Bush differential analyzer and the Bell relay calculator, would have required a prohibitive length of time to complete the problems that were assigned to the ENIAC, and the latter was much faster than any digital system then in existence.
The ENIAC led the computer field during the period 1949 through 1952 when it served as the main computation workhorse for the solution of the scientific problems of the Nation. It surpassed all other existing computers put together whenever it came to problems involving a large number of arithmetic operations. It was the major instrument for the computation of all ballistic tables for the U.S. Army and Air Force.
In addition to ballistics, the ENIAC's field of application included weather prediction, atomic energy calculations, cosmic ray studies, thermal ignition, random number studies, wind tunnel design, and other scientific uses. It has been noted that no electronic computers were being applied to commercial problems until about 1951.
EDVAC and ORDVAC, both faster than ENIAC, began to share the Computing Laboratory's work load with the ENIAC in 1953.
Before ENIAC, a computer was a human being whose job was doing arithmetic. Electronic computers were completely unknown to most people outside science and the military before the 1952 election, which is what brought computers into the public's awareness.
In the summer before the 1952 Presidential election, a Remington Rand employee contacted Sig Mickelson, CBS's news chief, and said he thought Univac could predict the election results by feeding it numbers obtained in previous elections. Mickelson and Walter Cronkite thought it would be entertaining nonsense, and agreed to add it to the election night coverage.
The night of the election, Charles Collingwood was in Philadelphia with Univac, and Cronkite was in the news studio with a fake computer, a stage prop made out of a teletype machine, blinking Christmas tree lights, and other dramatic nonsense. Yes, the news was presented as entertainment even back then.
All the polls had said that it was going to be a tight race. Univac made a prediction at 8:30 pm; Eisenhower would win by a landslide.
Nobody believed it and Cronkite didn't report it. Late that night when the actual election results came in, they realized that the computer was right and the pollsters were completely wrong. Univac was incredibly accurate in its prediction, being off on the popular vote by 3% and the Electoral vote by less than 1%. CBS was incredibly embarrassed, and when they realized that Univac was right, they finally reported it.
Univac, the most powerful computer in the world, was the star of the show.
A musical Hallmark card has more computing power than Univac.
My interest in these monsters started with a 16mm film a grade school teacher showed about these “electronic brains.” It told of ENIAC, the story of Univac and the election the year I was born, and showed a technician shutting one down for debugging. “Imagine,” the narrator said, attempting to emphasize how accurate these devices were, “if the teacher would kill you every time you got a question wrong!”
I was hooked.
In 1964, my family went to Texas on vacation and saw what I remember as “the World's fair”. Google, however, tells me that the World's fair was in New York that year. Whatever this exposition was, it was there that I met my first computer, and played my first computer “game”.
The game was “States and Capitols”, and I wished that they had one of these things in my school. This was a lot more fun than a paper and pencil test!
They had the thing hooked up to a loom, and they had monitors with primitive light pens. You could create a design for a cloth bookmark, and the computer/loom combination would weave a bookmark with your design!
It was the coolest thing I had ever seen in my life. “I want one!” I said. My dad just laughed. The thought that a human, let alone a middle class family, could own a computer was as outrageous as the thought of a device that could cook food with radio waves, or a device that would save TV shows for later viewing. Little did I know that one day I’d have a computer far more powerful in my pocket!
However, I did manage to build a computer of sorts from plans out of a Popular Electronics magazine. This “computer” was actually an electric slide rule, made out of a couple of pieces of wood, a battery, a switch, two potentiometers and a voltmeter. It actually worked, although you weren't going to plot any moon shots with it.
Yes, I was quite the nerd, reading science fiction, building electronics, and using a slide rule. By the time I was ready to graduate high school, though, I had sworn off of electronics. Discrete components were out, integrated circuits were in, and I didn't see the fun in them. I mean, hooking the leads from an amplifier circuit to a speaker and a battery and a jack wasn't all that demanding.
By 1972 I was in the US Air Force as a driver, working on the flight line in the Aerospace Ground Equipment (AGE) unit. One cold, snowy night a half hour from the swing shift's quitting time, a call came in for two air conditioners way over on the other side of the base. My tractor had a top speed of about ten miles per hour – I was looking forward to a beer, and here I had to drag these damned air conditioners out. I was going to be working late. Hell!
A half an hour or so later I arrived at the facility, swearing, with air conditioners in tow. To my amazement there were two guys standing outside in the snow waiting for me.
“What the fuck do you need a God damned air conditioner in the snow for?” I demanded.
“Oh, man,” one replied excitedly, “this is so cool. You have to see it!” These guys were bouncing around like kids at a birthday party. One showed me around as the other hooked up the hoses from the air conditioners and turned them on.
Inside was what looked like a library. Every room was filled with rows and rows of what appeared to be bookshelves. However, instead of books, these shelves held printed circuit boards. There must have been thousands of them. I was duly impressed, and had nerdily forgotten about the beer I had wanted so badly. I was standing inside a computer!
“Cool. But what is it for?” I asked.
“Ahh,” he said, “come in here,” and led me to yet another room. This room was huge, and had little in it that I recognized. It was straight out of a science fiction movie, only less corny looking.
“Okay,” I replied stupidly, “what is it?”
“It's a C5 simulator! Come on inside!”
And inside the contraption was the cockpit of a C-5A cargo plane, at the time the largest aircraft in the world. We had several C5s there at Dover, which was, of course, why they needed a C5 simulator. And two SUV sized air conditioners to cool the contraption's roomfuls of circuitry.
It was identical to a C5 cockpit, right down to the bolts and carpets. The only difference was that the windows were ground glass rather than clear, for projecting images on.
They let me “fly” it. It was incredible! It sat on hydraulics, so when you accelerated, it felt like acceleration. Likewise banking, diving, etc. You could even crash the thing! This was even cooler than the other computer I had seen back when I was 12.
Again, I lusted after a computer of my own.
In 1974, the first PC (or “microcomputer”) was intro-duced, and I missed it. It was the Altair, with switches on the front for input, lights for output, and 256 bytes of memory. That's right kids, not gigabytes, not megabytes, not even kilobytes. Bytes. It was nothing more than a toy for nerds, having no practical use whatever. So it was probably a good thing that I was in Thailand at the time or I would have probably blown the three months' pay on one.
A few years later I met my first privately owned computer: a “pong” game a friend had. Yawn. Yes, Pong was as mindlessly boring in 1978 as it is in 2005.
By 1982 I had gotten out of the Air Force, gone through college, been married for six years, and was living in Florida and working at Disney World. There I met even more computers, mainframes all. I never got closer than eye shot, but that was closer than most people ever got. These com-puters controlled the amusement park's rides, animatronics, and just about everything else.
By then, the Commodore Pet had come out, and the Apple, and the TI-99A, and a few other makes. I wanted one badly, but didn't have the money. Finally, Britain's Sir Clive Sinclair did what Apple later claimed to do – made a computer “for the rest of us.” Unlike Apple's “rest of us” which was “those of us normal, non-nerds only with a boatload of money,” the Sinclair was affordable. Only a hundred bucks! ...which was still a lot of money to me at the time, but I could scrape it together.
I learned to program in BASIC. I then proceeded to learn how to program it in machine code, since its 1 MHz chip that also powered everything about the cheap device was simply too slow for the games I wanted to play. I had to design and write the games myself, since there really weren't any that I could find.
A year later, I got another computer, this one in color! It was a Radio Shack MC-10. I fiddled around with it and figured out how to hack its text-only display into graphics with software, and sold a few copies of the graphics program I wrote for it.
We moved back to Illinois with our new baby, where I parlayed my knowledge of computers into a paying job. I still work there today, writing programs, writing reports, and helping clueless users. I still have my soldering iron despite swearing off of it (and still use it), and I build my own computers now. The baby's younger sister just turned 18, and the wife is now an ex.
The computer sitting on the desk here in my apartment is several orders of magnitude more powerful than that first computer I saw at the exposition in 1964, and even orders of magnitude faster than the computers that calculated the moon shot trajectories. It was worth the wait!
Do you remember your first computer?
Mar 30, 2005

 

 


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