Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Episode I - The Early Years

In 1967 - at the ripe young age of 18 - I began working at the DMV in my local County Council offices. I was hired under the guise of becoming a Municipal Accountant, the training for which would be supplied by the County in the form of 1 day and 2 nights a week at a local college - plus Saturdays - which really cramped my style in those days! The objective: to pass the examinations of the Institute of Municipal Treasurers & Accountants and be a career government bean counter.

It was at Sunderland Polytechnic that I was first introduced to a computer - the Elliott 803.

The Elliott Model 803

The Elliott 803 was a small computer manufactured by the British company Elliott Brothers in the 1960s. About 250 were built and most British universities and colleges bought one. It was a transistorized, bit-serial beast of a machine using about 32K of ferrite core memory. It had operator's control console, a Creed teleprinter and a high-speed paper tape reader and punch for input/output, using 5-track Elliott telecode code.

Punched Paper Tape

I learned how to create simple programs in a language called Algol - and I mean simple! I typed the program on the tape punch console and fed it back into the same machine in read mode. Making a mistake meant that I had to retype the incorrect section of code correctly and then physically splice it into the roll of tape, replacing the incorrect code. The program needed a batch of data to process, so this too was created on the tape punch machine. I remember being thrilled when my first program added a list of numbers and printed the total on the teleprinter.

ALGOL Programmers Guide

Even in my euphoria, however, I hadn't the first idea what practical use this computer could be put to. After all, I had been using a snazzy (pre-LED) TI calculator that weighed just a few ounces - so why would one need a 5ft tall, half-ton behemoth to do the same thing?

1967 Texas Instruments Calculator

Late in 1968, the college was all abuzz with talk of a new computer being constructed somewhere in the basement. They were calling it a "mainframe" and it was supposedly going to change the face of computing!

The ICL Series 1900

ICL (International Computers Ltd) was formed in 1968 as a part of the Industrial Expansion Act of Harold Wilson's Labor Government. Tony Benn, the Minister of Technology, and his cronies were hell bent on creating a British computer industry that could compete with IBM. Although popular in government, ICL never enjoyed great success in the private sector, and was eventually acquired by Fujitsu. I never did see the ICL 1900 in person, for it wasn't long before I was to transfer from Sunderland Polytechnic to Durham University to begin my hardcore training in computer science. But that's an entirely different story ...

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