Stranger Fruit

Just reminiscing about computers

Over at Page 3.14, there’s a post where us old farts reminisce about computing when we were young ’uns. I’m quoted as saying

"My first computer was a ZX81 (Timex/Sinclair here in the US). Had 1k of memory. Taught myself assembly.

In high school and college, virtually everything was hand written. Didn’t even use a calculator until college (wasn’t allowed in high school – I remember log tables!)"

Below the fold, I give some more reminiscences. Gentle reader, feel free to add your memories as comments.

These are somewhat free-form and disjointed …

My first computer was a ZX81 (Timex/Sinclair here in the US). Had 1k of memory. Taught myself assembly.

My second computer was a Commodore 64 with a tape drive for storage. I eventually bought a floppy drive. Made me the envy of my friends. Played Ultima. A lot.

I first learned to program in 1980 on an Apple ][ in Comal (an obscure European
language). Then learned Assembly, Forth, Basic, Pascal, Fortran and C.
Gave up at that point.

Generated my honors thesis (’89) using Waterloo Script on a Vax/VMS. No WYSIWYG there folks. Killed god knows how many reams of paper just trying to get tables to line up. Often had to tweak the Applescript by hand. Figures were hand drawn.

Remember using chat relays (CERN) in ’87 on the mainframe.

Used Wordstar at home with a slow dot matrix printer. Had to use KERMIT to get files from the mainframe to a floppy to home.

First PC in our department appeared my first year of grad school. Statistics still required use of the mainframe, in fact all my analyses before graduation in ’93 were on the mainframe (using SAS).

Remember installing the first TCPIP stack on the aforementioned departmental PC. Tech support people were clueless.

One word … Dongles.


  1. #1 Don Smith, FCD
    October 24, 2007

    You aren’t old.

    I wrote my first program in basic on a teletype at 110 baud dialing into an IBM mainframe on which our school was buying time. (1969)

    I’ve also put togther simple programs on analog computers using wires.

    My third job was writing TCP/IP stacks for use on various mainframes.

    (And I use to walk to school in the snow uphill BOTH ways! 🙂

  2. #2 peter
    October 24, 2007

    So many memories from which to choose… Consider what follows as an incomplete collage:

    Sprite Graphics on a TI994a

    CPM on an Osbourne Professional (dipped my toes– never even got to the point of wading)

    Using sines and the built-in toolbox on the Apple IIgs to make a “scary voice”

    Pokes, peeks and hires on the Apple II

    Technosis– our Apple IIgs based bulletin board


    Fractint on an EGA monitor

    6502 Assembly (again with the toe-dipping)

    Kernighan and Ritche

    Turbo Pascal

    Phone Phreak Manuals

    The 2400 Baud modem I had to put in the freezer in order to get temporary functionality (I grew up in Alaska, so one could leave the modem outside the window in winter)

    VAX terminals (two per dorm)

    NeXT computers (cubes and slabs)

    Usenet and gopher

    Kermit and Z modem

  3. #3 ArtK
    October 24, 2007


    Started with programmable desktop calculators (Monroe/CompuCorp), that we’d program with these die-cut cards, using octal coding. Programming it to write out “FOX” or “DOG” (ok, we were 12yo boys, what do you expect) depending on a switch setting — get a girl to put her hand over the card reader and…

    Submitting FORTRAN programs coded using mark-sense on punch cards — yes, I know the full Hollerith code. These were run on an IBM S/360 model 64, but got sent to the mainframe by pony express (it seemed.) We’d send our jobs downtown in a bag and get the results back two days later. That made us really, really careful about syntax errors.

    Later, an IBM S/360 model 25, with 64K running DOS/PCP (a very early and small IBM OS.)

    I still have my S/360 assembly reference card and OS/360 Field Engineering Handbook. Did my first OS/360 MFT sysgen at the age of 16.

    Programmed an Apple ][e in Pascal and 6402 assembly — even designed a custom board for it and programmed the ePROM.

    One of the first Macs, and a Lisa, because you couldn’t program the Mac without it. Came with an outboard 5MB hard drive — huge!

    Ah, memories. I’ve got more computing power in my cell phone than I had in that first mainframe — and that mainframe ran the business office of a major university.

  4. #4 John Lynch
    October 25, 2007

    I’ve got more computing power in my cell phone than I had in that first mainframe

    Heh! Yeah. There’s probably more memory in some electric toothbrushes today than the 1k that was in the ZX-81 that I managed to program Breakout into.

  5. #5 Ex-drone
    October 25, 2007

    I can remember typing my first computer punchcard and then scratching my head trying to figure out how to scroll it up to type the next line.

  6. #6 blf
    October 25, 2007

    My first (electronic) computer was also a desktop Monroe, which among other things, I succeeded in programming to play some variant of the game of Nim.

    Technically, that wasn’t my first programmable computer; that would have been a plugboard (from Edmund Scientific?) with mechanical sliders (switchbars) and lightbulbs. I have (vague!) memories of a doing a multi-bit 1-complement adder on that.

    Then got access to some IBM mainframe across town at the state college (as part of a high school course). Programmed by punched cards; output was a line printer. Generally could get one run a day, and since we were there only one day a week, did a lot of “desk analysis” debugging. I have vague memories of learning (more) about sorting algorithms.

    That was followed up by access (for the same course) to a PDP-11 running what I think (now) was RSTS-11 at the local community college. Initially programmed by punched cards, but later allowed to use the VDUs (VT-52(?) as I recall). The final assignment was to program integer division, in Fortrash, using only addition and subtraction. Never fully debugged that (but got extra points for trying to handle all the cases).

    At university, spent loads of time on the PDP-10 (running TOPS-10), learning Simula, assembler, and numerous other languages. Eventually become one of a small group of “student admins” who looked after the system (and the replacement VAX-11/780) after hours. Also got some access to what became the Internet, back in the days when there still IMPs and it was called (D?)arpanet.

    Got access to the High Energy Physics lab, where there was a VAX running this weird thing called Unix, a language called C, a typesetting system built around troff, and a Versatec printer which produced the nicest-looking (and smelly!) output I’d seen up to that point. (At the time, on a scale of 1-10, troff was a 12 or so; and actually having an appropriate output device was even further off the scale.) The network was mostly UUCP over (at best) 1200 baud phone lines. Never looked back, I’ve been a Unix, C, et al., person ever since.

    First job was Unix (kernel) programming on a variety of microprocessors (Z8000, M68000, x86, et al.), including the Apple Lisa and the PC.

    Weirdly, never actually had an electronic computer of my own (ignoring pocket calculators, mobile phones, and the like) until this millennium. A PC running Linux. Now tend to use LaTeX rather than troff, still use a lot of C, and a considerable amount of scripting. The inkjet printer produces output almost as good as (what I remember of) the Versatec, but is faster and doesn’t smell. There’s A/V (I watch DVDs on the computer), broadband Internet access, and so on, most of which I wouldn’t have believed back in the days of that Monroe.

    I’ve never used DOS (other than as a boot-loader), Windows (other than as an X-terminal) or the Macintosh (at all!).

  7. #7 HP
    October 25, 2007

    My Dad was an EET working for General Motors in 1961=2 when they purchased the first commercial IBM 360s. He was one of about seven volunteers to learn to program them — in Assembler. This would make him one of the first generation of non-scientists/mathemeticians to write commercial software applications. He was later contracted out to NASA to help develop telemetry software for Gemini and Apollo. I have his first debugging tool — a 15-inch rule marked off in picas, for checking column alignment.

    I don’t take after Pop. I never had much use for computers until there were mature desktop applications I could use for real work. I think my first computer was a PC/XT I used primarily for word processing.

  8. #8 Mike P
    October 25, 2007

    I’m young! So here’s my recollections for all you old fogeys to laugh at:

    I actually can remember the days before my family had a computer. They weren’t totally ubiquitous in households yet. But we finally broke down and got a computer in 1993. It was a Hewlitt-Packard something-or-another with a dot matrix printer.

    I used to get 3-2-1 Contact magazine, and one of the regular features was a programming section where you could program simple, mostly text-based games. So I spent a lot of my time programming things in BASIC and then fooling around trying to reverse engineer the programming language. Also, I was 8 years old so I wasn’t very successful. But I did succeed in programming a text-based game called Mothership where you had to decide (guess, really) whether or not to turn left or right to avoid an asteroid, or shoot right through it. I think there was a random number generator somewhere in there to keep it interesting.

    In school, we played Math Blaster and Word Cruncher a lot, and when the teacher wasn’t looking we’d all switch over to the bootleg Oregon Trail we installed on the computers.

    First started using e-mail in 5th grade and accidentally (had some trouble with the address book) sent a message out to nearly everybody in the school district that said “You suck at e-mail.” I wish I was kidding.

    I could go on and on, but everything after that pretty much pales in comparison to the first time someone showed me you could enter 5318008 on a calculator and turn it upside down.

  9. #9 KevinC
    October 25, 2007

    Did not see it or use it myself but my first experience doing something with a computer was in the Summer of 77 when I had an internship at the Smithsonian. I spent 3 months measuring stone scrappers and putting the data onto a tablet which was sent to the data processing department so they could put the info onto cards to run through the stats program the researcher was using. The researcher had to sign up months in advance to get a few hours of computer time and everything had to be ready by then or else.

  10. #10 George
    October 25, 2007

    My first hand held calculator was very basic, it did do square roots and inverse. I remember doing logs through an approximate taylor series method. Take the Sq root ten times, then substrate 1 and then multiply by 1024 to get a approximation of the natural log.

  11. #11 Ahcuah
    October 25, 2007

    Between my junior and senior year of high school (1971), I got my parents to give me a calculator for my birthday. It cost $100 (real money, back then) and had only the basic arithmetical functions (no square root, I think it did 1/x). I used to spend some time in the back row of English class working on making continuous fractions converge, or doing other mathematical series-type calculations.

  12. #12 Left_Wing_Fox
    October 25, 2007

    I’m still pretty young. First computer I ever used was a Commodore PET.

    First computer the family owned was a Commodore VIC-20. It was won at a raffle, and used solely for video games and learning BASIC programming. After that, Dad would buy a series of Macintosh systems for his job (architecture), which included the Plus and the Portable.

    At school, we had a couple TI-99/4A systems in each class from grades 1-6, Apple IIe systems from 7-9, and then a mix of Mac Classics and 286/386 PC clones from 10-12. It should probably be mentioned that I had been using a Mac Plus for 2 years buy the time I touched an Apple IIe.

    I didn’t own my own computer until 1998; a first-generation PowerMac G3 (beige desktop)

  13. #13 mark
    October 25, 2007

    Ah, you made me feel a little younger.
    Actually, I tried hard to ignore the Sinclairs and other early machines. “Who needs a computer?” although in college I did get a friend to work out statistical calculations so I wouldn’t have to do them by hand.
    Still computerless, I laughed when I heard a radio program wherein the host asked listeners who used computers at home to call in and described what they used them for. My favorite was the lady who used hers to catalog her shopping coupons, so she could check the ads in the paper, then look through her coupon database to see if she had the right coupon, and finally look through her shoebox full of coupons to find it.

  14. #14 John Mashey
    October 25, 2007

    Youngsters (mostly)…. but if you want to see *old* stuff, and you’re going to be in the SF Bay Area, the largest collection of computing artifacts is in the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, just off Rt 101 on Shoreline.

    Figure on spending an hour or two to run around Visible Storage with a docent (to hear the stories, like why there are bullet holes in Gene Amdahl’s first computer), plus some time to look at the Computer Chess exhibit, and other many other historic and/or weird systems, like the Neiman-Marcus Kitchen Computer, right next to BBN’s IMP (real early ARPAnet node).

    Disclosure: I’m a Trustee, so obviously I thinks it’s cool, but not just because I helped design some things there.

  15. #15 Mark C
    October 26, 2007

    Three good memories: 1) “volunteering” in my father’s lab or data entry on the old Univac card puncher. 2) I really enjoyed that brief obsession with Adventure (“You are in a maze of twisty passages, all alike.”). 3) Compiling my Computer Science projects on the PDP-11 in college. Oh what fun it is to debug you Pascal when it takes 20-30 minutes to compile. Some did the test: you could order and receive you pizza from Domino’s while your program compiled.

  16. #16 Sean
    October 26, 2007

    In my high school’s computer lab, I learned some very rudimentary programs in BASIC on a TRS-80 Model 3.

  17. #17 RBH
    October 26, 2007

    Typing punch cards in the stuffy basement of some building at the U of Minnesota in the late 1960s.

    Spending 8 hours a night in a clean room at Control Data Corporation trying to get 16 8-bit words on a glass slide by sputtering alternating layers of magnetic materials onto it (and failing — no one ever heard of the CDC 5500!).

    Doing the analyses for my dissertation on a CDC 6600, the supercomputer of the day, at the Space Sciences Center of the U of Minn, taking something like 400 hours of expensive time mostly running between midnight and 6:00 a.m.

    Writing my first genetic algorithm on a TI994A (saw speciation in the second GA I wrote!).

    Spending $6,000 of NSF money on an Apple II with a few bells and whistles.

    Hearing a sysadmin at the Ohio Supercomputer Center first mention the “terrible teras” in reference to storage required.

    And now, realizing that I have way more cycles on my desk than existed in the world when I was working on the Polaris autopilot computer in 1962.

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