Today we take personal computers for granted - they're getting
almost as common as color televisions. When the Class of 1971 graduated from
Wilton High School, things were just a wee bit different! There were still
many black-and-white TV's around, and if your color TV had a
remote control, it used ultrasonic sound to change the channel and adjust the
volume (if you were lucky!).
Of course, CD-ROM's didn't exist (do your kids know what it
means to sound "like a broken record"?), and we used slide rules to
do math calculations (I really wish I hadn't thrown my precision
Pickett 6-inch one away - it would make a great coffee table conversation
starter...). We dialed the telephone, wound our watches (my kids
can't read a clock with hands), and the cashiers at grocery stores actually
knew the price of many common items because there were no barcodes! Almost
every car had a carburetor (fuel injection, what's that?), many didn't have
seat belts, and the Datsun 240Z had just come on the market at the
"high" price of $4000 (my new 1970 Volvo sedan cost $2850)!
Those of you who are too young to have been around back then
as well as those who were, but didn't take an interest in computers may find
the following trivia of interest. These are my own recollections, which may
not be accurate!
Along about 1968, Wilton High was the lucky recipient of a
Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-8/L digital computer. I believe we were one
of only four schools in the state to have a computer at that time. The
computer was strictly for academic use - I don't recall that the school administration
itself had a computer (classmates, help me out here!). My memory is that the
complete system cost something like $20-$25,000.
The hardware (installed in a 6-foot high 19-inch wide rack
mount cabinet) was an 12-bit processor, with 4 kilobytes of magnetic
core memory that had a cycle time of something like 1.6 microseconds, which
yielded a processor clock speed of about 700 kilohertz! The computer
was assembled with discrete transistors (what's an integrated circuit,
anyway?) which were interconnected by wire-wrapped circuits. A
model ASR-33 teletype was connected to the PDP by a 110 baud current
loop interface, and it sported a "hunt and punch" keyboard, a
roll-paper printer (did we have paper towels in those days?), and a
10-character per second paper tape punch/reader for offline storage. It also
had a high speed paper tape reader (300 cps?).
To boot the computer, you manually entered about 20
instructions on the front panel switches and then loaded the operating
system/language interpreter from fan-folded paper tape. The Basic-like
interpreted language was called Focal, and some of our most advanced programs
would produce X/Y graphs (always with a relatively short Y axis and a much
longer X axis!) or run overnight to generate prime numbers.
As I recall, the PDP was strictly for use by seniors. However,
I was "close" to certain people in the math and science departments,
and so I gained access to the PDP shortly after it arrived, when I was in 8th
grade. By the time I graduated, I thought I didn't want to see a computer
again! Somehow, somewhere, sometime when I least expected it - I got sucked
back in to them! For the past 20 years, it's how I've made my living.
I'm composing this text now on a portable 300 megahertz
computer with 128 megabytes of memory and 14 gigabytes of disk
storage, not to mention the 56 kilobaud modem, the 1024x768 24-bit
color display, etc., etc! What's next?
Here are some offsite links if you're curious: