History Lesson: Before There Were PCs…

I saw a forum posting on Zunescene.com where a person was commenting about having some trouble with his Calculus class, and it made me think of the days when I was a young engineering student in college. That was about 20 years ago, back in the days when there were no “Personal Computers”. No PC’s or Apple Computers, but only large mainframe systems.

When I was learning Fortran programming in college, fortunately I didn’t have to deal with computer punch cards. Instead, we had the brand new “timesharing” system where our files were stored on a shared magnetic tape and our main interface was a DECwriter terminal. This terminal was essentially a large printer with an attached keyboard (no monitor). So, you typed in your program line-by-line and it printed out on computer paper via a dot matrix printer head. Editing your program was done using anarchic text substitution commands (it makes me shutter thinking about it). No highlighting with a mouse and changing text as you would do today using Notepad on your Windows PC.

When I was studying for a class or doing homework, I often went to the library to find some text books on the subject. Since there were no computers, I had to search manually through a card catalog system (what’s that, you might ask?) and then try to find the book on library shelf. Often times, the books that I was searching for was already checked out and I had to put in a recall request with the library. Of course, this would take about 1-week before the book would possibly show up. In most cases, the book sat on a shelf in a professor’s office, and they didn’t need to return the book for 4-weeks from a recall notice.

Jumping to present day, most students would simply do a Google search from their laptops connected to the university WiFi (or coffeehouse WiFi) to get the answers they were seeking. Volumes and volumes of information would appear in their screen, and their biggest task would be to filter through the data. No more late night journeys to the school library for a hunt-n-seek search for relevant reference material. Of course, I and others made it through college with an education, but a lot of time was wasted looking for information (time which could have been well spent sleeping!).

Imagine that the beginnings of the American space program was supported by primitive computers requiring computer punch cards and 5k of memory. The Apollo lunar module with a on-board computer no powerful than my HP-41CV calculator. The task was done using these ancient computer systems, but it took a lot of man hours and time to do it.

So the next time you’re complaining to yourself that your Google search is taking way too long, remember that some of us ancients survived using stone knives and bear skins. 🙂

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2 thoughts on “History Lesson: Before There Were PCs…

  1. No PCs or Apple Computers? 20 years ago was 1988. I was in college around then too. We had labs stocked with the 8088’s and a a few 286’s. Apple has been around for about 30 years. I do agree with you about people today taking for granted what we wished we’d had “back in the day”. I work in IT and one of my younger co-workers didn’t know the difference between a COM port and a VGA port on his computer, because he’d never had to use a COM port for anything. (Don’t worry, his Geek Card was revoked for the offense) 🙂

  2. zunetips says:

    Actually, it was more than 20 years ago. When I took my first Fortran class in 1983, the university didn’t have a “PC lab”. All our work was done on the PDP 11/70 mainframe computer with DecWriter terminals for access. IBM-PCs did exist (I used one as a co-op student for a small engineering company in 1982), however, those limited machines were going for $15k+ at the time (with a monochrome monitor, two 5.25″ floppy drives (one used for the OS) and no hard drives!). The only programming language on the IBM-PCs was Microsoft Basic.

    With no word-processors available, I did all of my report writing using a manual typewriter. Imagine writing a term paper and having to retype the whole thing every time you made a significant change. At that time, I bought a Timex Sinclair 1000 home computer for $100 US from a local department store and taught myself BASIC programming. Those computers used a TV set as the black-n-white monitor. My next computer shortly after was a Commodore 64 (color TV output, yeah!) with 64k of memory (still no hard drive) and priced at $500 US. I used this computer with a 8-pin dot matrix printer to do my “word-processing” (no more typewriter).

    When I graduated college in 1985 and worked in industry, computing resources were still very limited. I’ll leave those stories for another posting…. 🙂

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