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My First Computer.
Computing in 1972

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My First Computer . . .

          My first experience with a computer was in 1972. I was a kid from the backwoods who was in the Big City for the first time. I was attending college at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. During my first four semesters, I spent a lot of time in the gleaming new Computer Science Building. 'Comp Sci' for short. My studies involved a lot of 'Comp Sci': learning FORTRAN for Engineering Applications, Assembly Language, COBOL, Basic and C.

Our Univac 1108 was one of only five in the world           The Computer Science Building was nearly a city block square. It was the home of one massive computer: The Sperry Rand Univac 1108. It was something of a marvel because, at the time, our Univac was one of only five in the world. The others were in use at Lockheed Aircraft, The United States Air Force Global Weather Central and Shell Oil. But, our Univac was the only one that was open for public use. So, it was a common sight to see engineers from those other places working to perfect their software on our machine before loading it into theirs.

           The second floor was dedicated to tape drives - the memory. The basement level was input (card punching machines, card readers) and output (printers and teletypes) . The CPU's were in a never-land upstairs. You couldn't get near them unless you had a long white lab coat and a security badge. But you could watch from a glass-walled promenade which circled the workspace.

           Because I was an under-grad, I had to submit my software programs punched line by line onto index cards. Post-grads and professionals got to use the teletype machines and the ticker-tape machines to input their programs directly. Those men were the subject of much envy because using cards was a real inconvenience. And, of course, they could play with the Univac to their heart's content because they had huge balances in their computer time accounts. Under-grads were assigned only a few seconds.

           My programs were punched line by line onto index cards about the size of a standard envelope. One line of code for each card. The key punch machine looked like a massive typewriter coupled to a printing press. When I touched the 'return' key, the machine would load an index card into the cutting head. With the press of each key, a set of holes would be punched in the card. WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! Every key stroke resulted in painful noise as the punch smashed holes in the card. With that card completed, I touched the 'return' key again. The machine would ferry the completed card to a stack and load another index card into the cutting head.

           Programs punched on cards were difficult to handle. As my programs became more sophisticated, the card decks became quite large and heavy. I would keep mine in shoe boxes to protect the cards from dirt and rain. Juniors and Seniors working on very long programs would frequently be seen pushing their card decks loaded on two-wheel dollies. Card deck horror stories were common: . . . A student drops his deck and spends all night putting them back in order. . . A student gets his deck shredded in the card reader. . . A student gets caught in the rain and his deck warps from the moisture.

           In those days, you didn't just go out to the store and purchase a computer. Actually, it was unheard-of to purchase a computer at all. Big computers were leased from the manufacturer . Leasing was the wise way to have a computer because the lease contract also included service. Service was a constant 24 / 7 chore.

           Technicians worked rotating shifts to keep as much of our Univac running as possible. Lubrication and upkeep on all of the moving parts, bearings, carriages, rollers, drives as well as changing worn or burned out parts kept as many as ten Computer Technicians busy . Crashes, outages and downtime were commonplace. There was a bulletin board in the basement where the latest outages were posted.

           Aside from maintenance, the Technicians were also working on improvements. I remember being awestruck by the blinding speed at which the Univac 1108 could handle calculations. Originally, the 1108 could perform about a quarter million cycles per second. With upgrades, Sperry Rand Technicians got the machine to whir away a speeds in excess of 1 MHz ! (Yes, I said ONE 'Meg'.)

           Aside from Technicians to keep it running, the Univac required a staff of Operators to keep it fed.

           A staff of Input Operators loaded the cards and then retrieved the cards from the other side of the card reader. They would lift the heavy decks of cards onto angled racks which could be accessed from the public side of the window. To run a program, I would hand my deck of cards to an Operator and he would give me a ticket. Then, I could watch through the window as the operator would remove the rubber bands from my deck of cards and place it on a conveyer. The cards would travel down the conveyer into the card reader. When time permitted, the Input Operator would walk to the other side of the card reader. He would pick up my program deck and wrap rubber bands around it. I could retrieve my program then by showing my ticket stub.

           Walking over to Output, I would again show my ticket stub. An Output Operator would sort through piles of paper and find my document. He would hand me the document along with a statement showing the computer time I had used and the amount of time I had left on my account.

           The Attendants in the memory rooms were responsible for keeping the computer's memory banks loaded with the correct information. Consulting clipboards, they would retrieve the proper tapes from the data library and push heavy wagons loaded with massive spools of magnetic tape from the data library to the memory room. I am guessing there were fifty tape drives in the memory room at the time. Tape drives were white steel cabinets the size of an armoire with two tape spools looking out of a glass window.

           It was a lot of work to satisfy their hunger for magnetic tape. In true weightlifter form, the Attendants would have to 'press' the bulky tape spools to eye level and push them onto the tape drive spindle. After locking the tape spool on the drive spindle, they would quickly thread the magnetic tape through several rollers and then attach the tape to the center of another empty tape spool. The attendant would then close the cabinet doors and press a red lighted button. The tape drive would come to life as the attendant would move down the line and repeat the process with the next drive.

           When the Univac would read the information on the magnetic tape, the spools would silently spin one way, then abruptly reverse directions, then forward again, then backwards. I remember how quiet and almost surreal the memory room was. In the middle of an all-nighter, when I needed a break from the noise of the keypunch room, I would go upstairs and watch the tape drives 'dance'.

           At the end of one semester, I had a little computer time left on my account. For fun, I wrote a loan amortization program to make the Univac calculate a payment schedule for an investment my father was contemplating. Today, such an amortization is a simple application on any spreadsheet software but it was not so easy back then. It took a couple of afternoons to punch all the cards and 'debug' the program. But, finally, the Output Operator pushed a small stack of folded paper under the glass screen. It was a very pretty printout, if I do say so myself. Boxed columns for date, principal, interest and balances. Even a year-by-year report of interest paid for tax purposes.

           I sent the amortization printout to my father as a surprise. (Maybe I was showing off a little.) My mother told me later that he carried it with him to the Post Office and to the barbershop to show anyone who would look. He proudly boasted, "My son knows how to run one of those computers!"

           I can't say what I was doing was "running" the Univac. I would go as far as saying I was "using" it. It took a lot of people to actually "run" a Univac. But I was pleased with my father's pride.

Yessiree - Bob! A computer-generated spreadsheet ! Wow! A miracle of modern technology!


Happy New 2005!     2005.01.02

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