Posted by: doctornuke | December 15, 2010

A Half-Century of Technology – part 1

It boggles my mind to think about all the things that have changed in this world since I was born on July 17, 1960. TV was black and white and only available by over-the-air broadcast, and you were doing well if you could receive 4 stations; a majority if not most commercial airplanes still used propellers; long distance calling was expensive, international calling was difficult and very expensive; construction of the US interstate highway system was just beginning, and Al Gore had not yet invented the information superhighway.

The changes that have occurred in computer technology and the internet really astounds me, as they have happened primarily during my adult life. I remember buying my first calculator, s simple four-function Texas Instruments calculator that cost around $50. Within 4 years I owned a TI-58, which was programmable and could read a magnetic card where you could save your programs. The first family computer was a Commodore 64, which was a computer within a keyboard that plugged into a TV as a monitor – I learned my first real programming language, Basic, on that machine. As an undergraduate at Texas A&M University, I got an account on the University’s mainframe computer, a large IBM system running MVS (I think) that required JCL ( job control language) to run. I learned Fortran 77 on that machine, although with all the JCL I don’t think I really understood was the machine was doing.

. . (FORTRAN program) . 
. . (data) . 

In around 1984, I got an account on two Digital VAX VMS machines. This was my first experience on an interactive computer system, and I actually began to understand how computers really work within a programming context. I also began to work on an IBM PC-AT (running MS DOS) and the first Macintosh computers. At this time, I began to learn more about networking – a new and novel concept. The internet existed at this time but the word was not in wide use nor understood the way in is today. Sending files and printing over the internet using Appletalk and DECNet was amazing, but generally limited to the local area, i.e., on campus. I even started using email and interactive chatting, but still it was usually with a guy in a different office. And at this time attachments were few and far between – you had to be pretty sophisticated to encode a file as text and include it with your email – and the recipient had to be equally sophisticated. BTW, email attachments are still handled in exactly the same way – but the encoding and decoding are handled by the email client itself. I was able to send emails to my brother who was up at the University of Texas at Austin, but email had to go through BITNET to connect two DECNet systems, and had a weird structure that was hard to figure out.

In graduate school in around 1987, I got a diskless Sun Workstation on my desk. This machine booted "over the network" from a server the department maintained. I was now in the Unix world, and computing was becoming high tech. National and even international networking became staples, and I was routinely working on a Cray machine in Minnesota and an NEC supercomputer located in The Woodlands, just north of Houston. We had an office full of Macs, and did everything with 400K floppy disks. Eventually both the operating system and the applications got so big that we had to start using the new double density 800K floppies, so that we could get the OS, the apps, and the documents we worked on all on the same disk. You would boot up off this disk, and kept everything you owned on it. You could store stuff on a second disk, but you would have to swap disks back and forth every time the computer needed something from the OS disk. What a pain. Eventually, one of the guys got an external SCSI disk and we were in heaven. You could boot and run a machine on one disk that also had all your apps on it, and just keep documents on the second disk. And if the machine was expensive enough and had enough RAM (I had just clued into what RAM meant), you could create a RAM disk that would let you copy files between disks by temporarily keeping a copy of the file on a RAM disk so you could copy files without swapping.

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