Computer memories

Please forgive the double entendre in the title but, for my one-hundredth post, I thought I would reminisce about the calculating and computing equipment I have used over the years, and the amazing changes there have been in my lifetime.

My late father became interested in computers in the 1960s for use in his work, and I recall him showing me ferrite core memory and explaining how it worked. His use of programmable calculators fascinated and inspired me in my teens. He had the vision and kindness to give me the money to buy two early models of ‘pocket calculator’ while they were on sale in the high street (the HP-45 and the programmable TI-59) and, several years later when the Apple II+ was starting to become popular, he bought a second-hand Apple II+ which he brought half-way around the world to me, along with lots of early commercial software on 5.25″ floppy disks and a bundle of magazines full of Applesoft BASIC programs. These all helped me greatly during my studies and early professional life, and I will always be extremely grateful.

Anyway, in roughly chronological order, as best I can remember them …

A Multo 113 mechanical pinwheel calculator at home (my father’s, which he bought in the 1950s and which was still in use at home well into my teens).

The Olivetti Programma 101 (my father’s, for work). This was a desktop programmable calculator weighing nearly 30 kg! Actually I never used it myself, but I mention it here for interest as it was, I believe, the World’s first desktop programmable calculator. Mind you, there was not much space left on a desk for anything else when this was on it!

A slide rule (I still have my CONCISE circular slide rule) at high school. When I sat my university entrance exams we were allowed to use logarithm tables and slide rules but not one of the recently-invented ‘pocket calculators’.

An HP-45 scientific calculator in my final year at high school. Anyone remember Reverse Polish Notation?

A TI-59 programmable calculator (it had an attachable base station with a thermal printer) at university. An excellent piece of equipment that could store and retrieve programs on magnetic cards, and also had ROM modules with pre-canned programs (‘solid state software library’), although the magnetic card reader was rather unreliable. I remember the August 1978 issue of Personal Computer World magazine had an article on flowcharting using the game of NIM as an example, and I was engrossed for a couple of weeks in my summer holiday shoehorning it into the available memory of the TI-59, a real exercise in program optimisation. But possibly my most satisfying achievement was programming it during an exam to solve a problem by using the Newton-Raphson method while my fellow students resorted to recursion tables on paper.

The GEORGE 3 operating system at university, running on an ICL 1906. I initially used punched cards, but quickly moved to a 110-baud Teletype Model 33 terminal (known as a ‘TTY’ for short) with those cylindrical keys with long travel that you had to press hard and went “kerrrrchunkkk”! I also used 300-baud DEC dot-matrix printing terminals (the LA36 model, if I remember correctly).

I can’t remember the name of the OS on the CDC 7600 supercomputer at university, but I ran a lot of large FORTRAN 66 and FORTRAN 77 jobs, delivered to it as batch jobs via the ICL 1906.

Commodore BASIC on a Commodore PET 8k at work.

The RT-11 and RSX-11M operating systems on a DEC PDP-11 at work, on which I programmed in BASIC.

Applesoft BASIC, Apple DOS 3.2 & 3.3 on an Apple II+ (48k RAM, later expanded to 64k!) and, later, on an Apple //e. I programmed in Applesoft BASIC, 6502 assembler and Apple Pascal, and some years later even built an A-to-D converter card and a 240 VAC TRIAC switch card for the Apple II+ in order to control the central heating in my house.

I had VisiCalc (5.25″ floppy disk), the very first spreadsheet application, invented by two guys named Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston. VisiCalc was the father of all spreadsheets: Lotus 1-2-3, MultiPlan, Quattro Pro and Excel. I actually used VisiCalc at work. I also had the first generation of SubLOGIC’s Flight Simulator for the Apple II, the predecessor of Microsoft Flight Simulator for the PC. It used line vector graphics, redrawn at a grindingly slow rate by today’s standards, but it was good fun.

CP/M on an Apple //e with a Microsoft Z-80 SoftCard and also the less popular Digital Research Z80 card. I programmed in Digital Research CBASIC and used various applications such as WordStar and MultiPlan.

ProDOS on an Apple //c with a whopping 128k RAM. This was my father’s machine for work, bought on my recommendation, and I used to help him sometimes with programming in BASIC.

Sharp PC-1500 pocket computer. This was another of my father’s work tools, also bought on my recommendation.

MP/M on a RAIR Black Box at work. I did some 8080 assembly language programming on it but mainly acted as a system admin (several VT100-style terminals around the office were connected to the RAIR Black Box). Also some Z80 assembly language programming on a microboard for work.

I remember programming a bespoke database management application in HP BASIC for a client company on an early model of Hewlett-Packard microcomputer at work (for various reasons the client specifically wanted a bespoke application). I cannot recall the model, but it may have been a HP-87. One of the batch of second-hand books my father had bought for me a few years earlier with the second-hand Apple II+ was Volume 1 of Donald Knuth’s The Art of Computer Programming, from which I learned about doubly-linked lists, and I decided to use a doubly-linked list in my database application. The client was pleased with the result and, since I was self-taught, so was I!

OSC245 on Ferranti Argus computers at work, programming in the real-time language CORAL 66.

VMS on a DEC VAX at work, programming (badly) in Pascal. VAX/VMS was an excellent OS.

MSDOS 3.2 on an Amstrad PC1512, for BBS (bulletin board system) access, one or two games (the first Leisure Suit Larry was fun), WordStar and WordPerfect. When WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS was released I thought it was the height of sophistication.

RISC OS 2 on an Acorn Archimedes A3000. What a brilliant microcomputer and OS. I just had to have one as soon as I saw the 3D vector graphics lander demo of the game Zarch. I also ran the Acorn PC Emulator software so that I could use MSDOS to run applications such as WordPerfect 5.1 and Quattro Pro for DOS, an excellent spreadsheet that introduced tabbed worksheets earlier than Microsoft Excel.

MSDOS 4.x, 5.x and 6.x on an IBM PC and various clones such as the ACT Apricot at work.

INTERACTIVE Unix (Intel PC, a computer manufactured by Intel having an 80386 CPU) at work, programming shell scripts, SQL procedures in Sybase SQL Server, and IEC 1131-3 (now known as 61131-3) languages.

IBM OS/2 1.3 and 2.0 on DEC PCs at work. A really nice OS, and streets ahead of the contemporary Windows 3.1.

MSDOS 3.22 on an HP 95LX palmtop. Even its RS-232 interface was useful for hardware interface testing at work, for BBS access using my Pace MicroLin fx modem, and for printing to my HP Deskjet 310 portable printer. It had built-in Lotus 1-2-3 in ROM.

Windows 3.11 on a PC clone at work, mainly for wordprocessing using Word.

Windows 95 on a tower PC and laptops. An excellent OS for its time, and streets ahead of its predecessor Windows 3.11.

Windows Me on a laptop and my family’s tower PC. This OS had a bad reputation but I never had any trouble with it on my Gateway Solo 9300 laptop and the tower PC, both of which were heavily used.

Windows NT on a desktop PC at work.

Windows 2000 on a desktop PC at work.

Windows XP on a laptop and my family’s tower PC.

At this point Linux came into the picture in my case and slowly became my OS of choice, Ubuntu 6.06 in October 2006 being replaced in March 2007 by Sabayon Linux 3.2 as my main distribution, with PCLinuxOS 2007 as a set-and-forget choice for old laptops and PCs. In 2010 I switched from Sabayon Linux to Gentoo Linux for my main distribution, although I still use Sabayon Linux on old laptops and an HTPC.

Windows Vista on my family’s tower PC (Intel Pentium Dual Core E2160 CPU). After a few years the performance of Vista became so slow, despite periodic deframenting, that I ditched Vista.

Windows 7, dual-booting with Gentoo Linux on a laptop. I hardly ever booted Windows 7, and it was only left on the laptop in case I had a work application that could not run using WINE in Linux. I dislike Windows 7, although I found it faster and more robust than Vista, which I also disliked. Mind you, the UI of Windows 8.1 on my family’s current tower PC (Intel Pentium Dual Core G2030 3.00 GHz CPU) is even worse; what an awful OS.

Other microcomputers I’ve used through the years: Grundy NewBrain (my father’s, bought for work purposes on my recommendation) at home, and a BBC Micro at work, programming in BASIC.

I remember my first modem was a 300-baud and 1200/75-baud (remember Prestel, anyone?) Minor Miracles WS-2000, and I programmed my Apple II+ to pulse-dial it so that I could access various BBSs and British Telecom’s Telecom Gold, an ASCII electronic mail service and means of sending telexes (which I sent several times). In later years I progressed to a British Telecom 9600-baud modem for BBS use with my Acorn Archimedes A3000, and a Pace MicroLin fx pocket modem for use with my HP 95LX and Acorn Archimedes.

So, in my lifetime, calculating tools for home use have changed from a mechanical pinwheel calculator to the 2.8 GHz Core i7 laptop with 16 GB RAM running Gentoo Linux that I’m typing this on now. Amazing.