Alaboutnothing Official Blog

June 12, 2019

Computer Science – The Dark Ages (60’s)

One of the questions we always ask when we meet a student at Stanford University is “What is your major?”  We did it when we were driving for Uber and we still ask to this day when we meet a student.  Why you ask?  The answer is because our career was as a software developer, but our first job was as a computer operator back in the mid-sixties.  When we get and answer from the student that says “Computer Science is my major.”  We then say “get this my friend.  The first computer we ever worked on had vacuum tubes!”.  This answer blows them away every time and the best response was on an Uber ride when the young man said “No way!  I have heard of those computers, but I have never met anyone who worked on one.  You need to come to my class and give a speech!”  (We never got the invite).  So here are the details.

 Our fist job was in 1964 with an engineering company in Chicago at 20 North Wacker Drive.  (The Civic Opera House building).  We were hired to work the midnight shift as an operator and they said they had ordered a new IBM 1130 Computer but it is not ready yet so you can get used to how we work and get an idea of the direction we wish to go.  The computer we would be working on was a Control Data G-15 (See picture in upper left of this post). The G-15 was about the size of a short refrigerator and the left and right side had doors that opened to multiple banks of vacuum tubes.  On top of the box was exhaust a fan at each of the four corners and above the box was an exhaust fan blowing the very hot air out the window.  We found that on the midnight shift in the winter if we turned off the exhaust fan the computer would hear the entire room.  The G-15 had 4K of drum memory and the main input was paper tape.  The program language as machine language and the printed output came out on an updated IBM typewriter.  We used the typewriter to start each job processing.  It was an awesome job because we were young and learning really cool stuff.  They said that if we ran out of work to do we could leave and go home.  Instead we read through the comport manuals just to learn more.  Back in those days computer were mainly IBM and few and far between.  This particular engineering company was forward thinking and that is what we liked about them.  To create the paper tape we learned how to type on a “Flex-writer” which is what punched the tape we would eventually be input.  We used large movie reels to wind the paper tape on and the feed from the reels to the G-15.  On the face of the G-15 were two places to put metal rollers and we put the tape between the two rollers, then crossed rubber bands to guide the tape through as the roller spun and the G-15 read the punched tape.  We called rubber bands “Computer Adaption Devices”.  As the tape was read through from the reels we had a large cardboard box on the other end so the tape would fall into it as we processed each job.  When the tape was done being read we simply wound that tape back on the reel and labeled it.

Now we must say that the processing to the typewriter was not the fastest by today’s standards but in those days it was lightning.  Every once in awhile the tape would break and we became Master Tape Splicer’s” and have the tape back running in no time.  Then sometimes the dreaded computer break-down would occur.  An error code would print on the type-writer and we would call for service.  Usually it was one of the vacuum tubes “dying” so the guy at the other end of the phone would say “Open the left door and on the door count down four rows then over to the 15th vacuum tube and replace it with the good one.  Then we would test and “bingo” we were off and running again.  Simple huh? (We have a smile thinking about those days).

Flex-writer

 Then when they received the 1130 IBM (State of the art back then) we went to 96 column card input and out was to a bar printer along with a flat bed plotter and a drum plotter. The program language was Fortran Four and this is where we taught ourselves how to program when we ran out of jobs to process. We could go on about this computer but the whole point of this post is the G-15 where our fantastic career started.  We worked for the engineering company for ten years and the started out consultant with a software company and then eventually becoming a contract programmer.

We thank the Universe for our great career where we were with leaders in the various industries we did software for.  We had a woman’s retail store as a client and we were the first ones to receive data to and from a NCR Register. We also created a routine to set up Vendor/Style/Color/Size for specific SKU numbers. (Another first).  Then we started printing bar codes on dot matrix printers and eventually moving to bar code printers (Another first).  They had to use tungsten heads on the dot matrix printer because the print heads would wear out.  There was much more as we progressed along.  We met some great people and moved all around the country.

Note:  Back in the 60’s IBM had their main head quarters in Chicago and every man had to wear a black suite, white shirt, black shoes, and black tie.  We called them “penguins”. (Now days we would call that “Men in black”)  IBM used to give other companies money to keep them afloat so that IBM would not be considered a monopoly, but in the end they were broken up because they were considered a monopoly.  The good “old” days!

Well folks thanks for stopping by and checking out our post and if you have any questions or any invites for speeches please send us an email.  We appreciate all comments and besides the email will be a zillion times faster than the G-15 output.

We have nothing else to add at this time except the welcome all the new subscribers and send our blessing out to all and all them Kat’s.

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