old computers

Multitasking in the “Mad Men” Era

by Joey deVilla on January 15, 2010

square root

Here’s a great video from 1963 featuring the great-granddad of today’s web servers and cloud computing systems. It was just posted by Boston’s Computer History Museum titled Solution to Computer Bottlenecks. Filmed in May of that year, it features MIT Science Reporter John Fitch – who has a classic 1960’s announcer’s voice – interviewing MIT computer scientist Fernando J. Corbato, the guy behind Corbato’s Law (“The number of lines of code a programmer can write in a fixed period of time is the same independent of the language used”).

The subject of the film is the then-new approach of timesharing, which Corbato describes as “connecting a large number of consoles to a central computer”, which made the great (and very necessary – it even gets mentioned in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers) leap from batch to interactive processing possible. Here’s the video; enjoy all the retro-tech goodness:

This may have been really deep nerd stuff back in 1963, but today, it the sort of thing that you might see covered in a grade school class. Even if you’re not a programmer or IT pro, I think you’ll find it entertaining.

Some Gems from the Video

A computer terminal in one’s office isn’t unusual in this day and age, but back in 1963, such a thing must’ve been incredibly super-1337. Here’s the console in Corbato’s office, which he introduces by saying “Here’s one of the consoles we might be using in the future.” Even to the reporter of that era, it looked like an ordinary IBM Selectric typewriter:

1963 future console

The general principles of digital computers haven’t changed much since those days. Corbato describes memory as “a bunch of pigeonholes” that store numbers, some of which function as data, some of which function as instructions.

memory pigeonholes

The concept of a CPU, the program counter stepping through memory and looping already existed in 1963:

cpu program counter

He describes the new setup “a set parallel consoles which are not all near the computer in fact, most of them are remote…and let the users use these with a reaction time of a few seconds instead of a few hours.”

7090

He says that eventually they’d like to switch from “typewriter” consoles to "graphic displays”, but at the time there were still some kinks to be worked out.

One of the “elaborate advanced ideas” that he hints at but says is beyond the topic of the film is going beyond hooking up dumb terminals to the mainframe and attaching smaller computers to it as well, such as the DEC PDP-1 and 1620:

advanced elaborate ideas

When discussing the hard disk and its capacity (9 million words), Corbato has to explain to Fitch that it isn’t a big whirling disk on which you store tape, but a platter coated with a magnetic material like tape. This is old hat to us in the 21st century, but at the time, disks weren’t household items:

hard disk

At the time, disks had been around for about a year. Corbato confesses that there are still some problems with them: they “haven’t figured out how to keep things from getting mixed up”.

And on it goes with ideas that are still in use today: programming languages (“a particular synthetic language which is largely technical, and which is to some extent algebra too”), the organization of different programs in memory at the same time, multitasking with a scheduler that determines which program gets the processor’s attention at the moment, file loading and management by the operating system, the concepts of “brute-force solutions”, context switching (which they can “keep down to 10%”), input validation and even the phrase “it’s a feature”.

The line of Corbato’s that I love most is his prescient statement about usability and demand: “We’ve really made the computer extremely easy to use here. And so it’s very clear that in the long run, we’re going to increase in the need for computer time by a large amount.”

This video is all sorts of old-school awesome. If you’ve got nothing to do on your lunch break, check it out!

This article also appears in Global Nerdy.

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Portable Computing in the “Mad Men” Era

by Joey deVilla on October 20, 2009

Are there any computers available today that come in that particular shade of blue, with matching chair?

1960s computerClick the photo to see it at full size. Photo courtesy of retrofuture.

This article also appears in Global Nerdy.

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An Ad for Dharma Initiative Computers

by Joey deVilla on March 25, 2009

This article originally appeared in Global Nerdy.

This ad won’t make any sense if you’re not a follower of the TV series Lost. However, if you are, you’ll find it amusing…

Ad for the Dharma Initiative's computers: "Chat with your family and friends -- even when they're miles away."
Click the ad to see the original on its Flickr page.

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Help LinuxCaffe Sort Through Their Tech Stuff!

by Joey deVilla on March 20, 2009

This article originally appeared in Global Nerdy.

Jawas carrying R2-D2 in "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope"

Tim Hildred of LinuxCaffe writes:

We have in our storage space a veritable heap of donated pre-loved electronics, some of which we hope to recycle and repurpose, some of which is probably junk. What we need as a small team of people who, in exchange for coffee and snacks, will help us sort it out.  There will probably be some spoils as well, as those who help should be able to help themselves to some things. So, bring your friends, help us make our heap into something workable, help the community to thrive, and help your blood-caffiene levels to remain stable. We’ll love you for ever.

The sorting will take place in two shifts:

  • Tomorrow, Saturday March 21st, from 12:00 noon-ish until 4:00 p.m.-ish
  • Wednesday, March 25th, from 5 p.m.-ish until 9:00 p.m.-ish.

If you’ve got a technical bent, some free time and community spirit, come on down to LinuxCaffe and give them a hand sorting through their donated electronics!

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“Owns Home Computer”: A News Report from 1981

by Joey deVilla on January 29, 2009

This article also appears on Global Nerdy.

TechCrunch points to a news report from San Francisco-based TV station KRON that dates all the way back to 1981, when home computers were 8-bit wonders like the era of the Apple ///, TRS-80 and Atari 400 and 800. The piece on how some people are reading their newspapers by logging into Compuserve, and how someday, we’ll all be reading our newspapers and magazines on our computers:

Back then, a computer in the home was very unusual, hence their underscoring of this interviewee’s name with “owns home computer”. It seems quaint now, but back then, that was pretty 1337:

Still from news report: "Richard Halloran: Owns home computer"

The TechCrunch article points out a couple of lines in the piece that stand out given our 2009 persepctive. The first is from the San Francisco Examiner’s David Cole:

This is an experiment. We’re trying to figure out what it’s going to mean to us, as editors and reporters and what it means to the home user. And we’re not in it to make money, we’re probably not going to lose a lot but we aren’t going to make much either.

The other memorable line is from the reporter:

This is only the first step in newspapers by computers. Engineers now predict the day will come when we get all our newspapers and magazines by home computer, but that’s a few years off.

This is Joey deVilla, signing off from one of those Dynabook-style computers.

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