Sunday, April 20, 2008

Computers and me - before PCs

Miriam Midkiff on the Ancestories2:Stories of Me for my Descendants has posted a prompt to write about the computers I have known and their impact on my life. Ahem... this may take awhile, given my prolix nature and my known affection for logical machines that follow directions perfectly. I'm not going to follow Miriam's prompts exactly, however - I'll do it in a chronological order.

1) I loved mathematics, geometry, trigonometry, calculus and differential equations in high school and college (1958-1966). I carried my Keuffel and Esser slide rule to school every day and became expert at doing calculations using it - logarithms, trig functions, multiplying and dividing, etc. After all, this is how the world really works - according to scientific laws and equations. I still have the slide rule, and I used to show it off to young engineering graduates who hired into my company - they were amazed by how we "did calculations" back in the dark ages.

2) My father had a primitive adding machine that only added numbers. As a boy, I would challenge him to beat me with the machine - I would do the sums on paper and he on the machine. I was competitive! When I got my first job in 1964, the company had what I call a mechanical "threshing" adding machine - it could add, subtract, multiply or divide numbers - making lots of noise and finally showing the result. In my second job in 1965, the company bought a four function electronic calculator that did these things silently in mere seconds - a tremendous improvement. But they could only afford one of them. In 1966, we got one that could do square roots too! When I joined Rohr in 1967, they had the threshing machines. In 1972, Hewlett-Packard offered a scientific calculator that did arithmetic, trigonometry, powers, logarithms and much more - only $395. I got one immediately. In 1975, the HP-45 with even more functionality and speed came out for $495 and I got one of them too for myself.

3) I saw my first computer keypunch machine at San Diego State in 1965. I took a FORTRAN programming class and used the keypunch machine to punch rectangular holes in cards so that the Univac 1107 computer could read the card and execute FORTRAN program commands. I became very proficient at punching holes and writing FORTRAN computer programs. The programs could be used to solve engineering and scientific problems that used algebraic or differential equations.

4) When I joined Rohr in late 1967 as an Aerodynamicist, they had a Univac 1107 also, and were just purchasing an IBM 360 computer system. They used coding forms with 80 columns and keypunch machines located in the office area to create the programs and data, then you put the cards in a box with a rubber band around them, and trudged about 200 yards to the computer center and submitted your "job." The next morning, you went back to the computer center and retrieved your box of cards (hoping that they hadn't shuffled them in the mean time) and any computer output that resulted from your job. If there were errors, then you debugged the program and/or data and resubmitted the job that afternoon. The maximum random access memory that you could use to run your program was 368 Kb as I recall.

5) For 12 years, my job was to create, debug and run FORTRAN programs to simulate aircraft flight paths, aircraft performance analysis, aircraft design, engine inlet and exhaust flows, especially around aircraft parts designed by my company. When I left in 2002, we still used these programs, and many more written by myself and others to simulate more complex flow fields, aerodynamic loads and other phenomena. I loved doing this - it was my creative outlet for many years, and provided significant job security because nobody else knew how they worked (heh heh!) even though I dutifully wrote user's manuals for them.

6) In 1979, the company finally invested in remote readers and printers - we could put our boxes of cards into a reader near our desk and receive printed output when the jobs were completed. By now, the computer was an IBM 3033 which was used for all company computer needs. By this time, I was using the computer and my programming skills to analyze things of interest other than my work, such as radio wave propagation.

7) In 1983, the company invested in a Digital VAX 11-780 computer system that could be run without cards. We exported our cards onto a tape, ran the tape into the DEC, and it created files that we saved in an account. Each of us had an account, and set up directories and run scripts and shared them with each other. Each scientific group in the company had standardized computer programs. We also started buying or leasing computer programs to perform specific calculations that were industry-wide accepted programs. We started out with one terminal for each group of 10 users, but by 1992 or so we had a terminal for each user, if they wanted one. The Digital system grew with more capacity and speed in later models until about 2001, when the company shut it down, and we migrated all of our programs and data onto PCs.

8) The company finally brought Personal Computers into the company in about 1997, but on a shared basis. It wasn't until about 1999 that each person got a PC on their desk to perform all the computer functions necessary to perform their job.

Of course, PCs were in my life before that - and I'll describe my experiences with them in another post.

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