Began In 1960s As An Enthusiast...

In the late 1960s I was a technician in a government research establishment, and computers were just starting to come into actual use in the Department. There was an analogue computer that one of the scientists had in a newly established lab...
We were using electromechanical Marchant calculating machines, and sometimes an Original Ohdner hand-operated one to do our number crunching; slide rules as well. Then the first electronic desk calculator appeared, just as I was going to leave to get married... I was fascinated by it, and its speed of operation. It had neon Nixie tubes as its display...

There followed a year or two of schoolteaching; then I applied for an overseas job in a factory. There, they had an Olivetti desk calculator which had I think 12 or 14 programmable steps - but I wasn't allowed to touch it. They gave me an old Wang desktop computer whose manual had been lost, and asked me if I could figure out how to work it; but I had little success. They weren't "user-friendly" in those days! Again, in this lab, the number-crunching was by slide rule or pencil and paper.
Then I managed to rake up the money to buy a Hewlett-Packard hand-held programmable calculator - an absolute gem of human ingenuity... it had I think about 25 program steps, ten working memories, and literally heaps of pre-programmed maths functions that you could program in using one step - fantastically powerful, and very well made. To think that all that power was programmed onto a chip the size of my finger nail, was so astounding... it was more powerful than the company's mainframe computer. If you looked inside the back of the calculator, you could see the chip.

Eventually the lab got some Sharp programmable desk computers; these were a breeze for me to program, and the Assistant Chief Chemist at the time said he couldn't understand how I managed to use it so easily - well, it seems that one has to have the particular type of brain that can - some others of the staff could program and most couldn't.
One of the staff was also a computer enthusiast, and bought one of the early kitsets for making up your own microprocessor... I was most envious; but it really was a simple demo model - couldn't do real number-crunching - not very practical.

Again I went teaching for several years; and then in 1983 got together enough money (about $200) to buy myself one of Sir Clive Sinclair's ZX81 BASIC-language computers, that you stored the programs you wrote on a tape recorder, and used your TV screen as a monitor. Sir Clive aimed at making computers available to the average person; as the desktop computers of those days, like the Commodore 64 and Atari and others I can't name at the moment were over a thousand dollars, and out of the question for me.

The ZX-81 was a real marvel of computing ingenuity... The British computer whizzes of those days were streets ahead of the Americans when it came to brilliant design. Some of their concepts were very advanced. The ZX-81 had two chips - one 1 KiloByte one that contained the BASIC language interpreter, and one 1 KB one that was the working memory. You could program it in BASIC, or you could program it in assembly language; you could PEEK and see what was at a particular memory address, and POKE something into memory to alter what was there. The display was through an ordinary file, which you could look at and edit if need be. Someone wrote a book explaining all the ins and outs of the programming and all the functions, which was very useful if you wanted to experiment... I knew that computer inside-out!

Well, I only had it for about 3 months, when I left schoolteaching and applied for a technician's job at a university - and got it, because the professor wanted someone with computing knowledge, and I was the only person of 6 who applied that had any - computers were so new in that country then. My first project was to try to make a Gas chromatograph integrator for my prof - he had a quote for a Hewlett-Packard one for $10,000 - I said I was sure I could program a computer to do the job, and the computer could be used for other things besides integrating, and would only cost about $3,000 (a BBC computer). So the prof said "how can I be sure this will work?" and I said "Give me a week, and I will write a program on my computer to test the principle of the idea".  So that's what I did. The results had an error of about 5%; but it confirmed the principle, so we bought the BBC computer and I spent the next 8 weeks refining the program until the error compared to a chart recorder and hand-integrating was acceptable (about 2%). Getting that done was a real thrill, I can tell you!

I have had a number of computers; my latest is a Compaq laptop. I would like a Mac, as I think they are superior to Intel / MS Windows; but they are also a superior price - too expensive for this pensioner!
Waiwera Waiwera
70+, M
3 Responses Jun 5, 2010

Thanks for your comment, ThinkingGuy... Yes - the Mac people evidently decided to keep their secrets close... and it does have disadvantages.<br />
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The BBC computer had a four-input analogue-to-digital facility. Thus I was able to hook it up with an output amplifier from the gas chromatograph, and arrange it with two inputs, so that if the most sensitive input went too high and out of range, the second input was scaled down by a factor of ten, and the program was made to select that input and scale the result up by ten - so it covered the range that the chromatograph put out.... that was a very useful feature (actually why we bought the Beeb).

I learned on FORTRAN IV punching cards. It was amazing to me that a machine could take a series of holes in a stack of cards and translate that in to a rather complex calculation.<br />
You started way before I did, and it is good to see the history of how things happened back then. Who knows, one of my profs was English...<br />
Thing of it is, the PC allowed cards to be added back then. These days I use servers to monitor smog at several different power plants and oil refineries to produce reports to the federal and state government per their regs. If Jobs made one mistake with the Mac it was not allowing it to be expandable.

Thanks, eyeno, for your comment. I did enjoy my time computing! A program is like a machine - a virtual, digital machine; its such a thrill when such an invention works properly and does what one intends it to do! But that doesn't often happen first off...