History Lesson

This is the start of a new category: Computer History. Subtitle: As seen by Me.

I figured it was time to write about something I actually knew, or rather, something I’ve experienced. Some of you may be too young (sigh) to know about your computer roots.

You’ve heard the saying by now, “experience matters.” Well, it is true on many levels. I’ll try to enlighten you with my experience with computers through the (read: my) ages.

Keywords: teletype, baud rate, acoustic coupler, typewriter, Pulsar, LEDs.

My experience with computers began with Star Trek. Not the “Next Generation” or the Star Trek movies, but the real thing. I saw the original broadcast of the 1960s TV series in my pajamas in front of our black & white television. Yes, I am that old.

I was fascinated by the ship’s computer. All of those marvelous lights. Voice recognition. That metallic voice. Those ‘tapes’ with endless information on them. The spectacularly rebelleous M5. I read the Star Trek books, too.

The ship’s computer was a duotronic system developed by Daystrom who was later killed by M5. The computer didn’t have a binary system. No, its core memory could be set to any value between 0 and 1. It was theoretically capable of knowing the position of every atom in the universe.

OK, so I was a bit of a trekkie back then. But for me, the computer on board the Enterprise held the promise of the future. My future.

Flash ahead to the early 1970s. Ninth grade to be exact. We had a student teacher for math from Rider College (I grew up in New Jersey) who one day brought in this funny looking typewriter (that’s a mechanical keyboard resembling a piano, used to imprint paper through an ink ribbon). He set it up on the desk at the front of the room, picked up the phone on the desk and placed the hand set into suction cups on the back of the typewriter.

Then he typed something on the keyboard and a moment later the typewriter typed something back! “Oooh, aah”, the class room went. Not really, I was the only one who went “ooh” and “aah”. The rest looked dumbfounded. The teacher explained how the acoustic coupler worked. Their eyes glazed over. My were locked onto this piece of science fiction right there in front of me.

At the end of the class, I went up to the teacher and asked more about this teletype. He told me about the computer at the Rider campus. I asked if it knew about volcanoes. After all, the computer on board the Enterprise knew about volcanoes. He said it didn’t, but then took the time to explain how to program it using “Basic.” Together we wrote a program to sum the numbers from 1 to 10. I was sold.

Sadly, I don’t remember this fellow’s name. I can remember all sorts of junk about Star Trek and I can’t remember the name of the person who took the time show me something that would lead to a life-long career. How sad is that? I wish I could tell him how much his time means to me today.

During the next four years I coerced my mother into buying me the latest gadgets: electronic adding machines and anything that looked digital. Before my senior year in high school I worked a whole summer to buy a Pulsar digital watch. Cost $300 then. No one except me and James Bond had one (you can see him use it in the opening scenes of “Live and Let Die”).

Anyway, it wouldn’t be until the mid 1970s that I started my career in earnest. But that’s another article.