BackLog is a new feature for BootLog and the place to share your memories
of the glory days of consumer electronics and computing from the 1940s to the 1980s. We begin the series with some choice reminiscences
from Robert T. Street, who has been trying to tame the beast for over 50 years
ANY OLD IRON – 1955-1961
By Robert T. Street
So, you think you are
sitting pretty, do you – with your laptop and maybe a fancy mobile ‘phone. Let
me disillusion you – you are a slave. “Oh,” you say, “don’t talk drivel”. Well,
just think, dear computer user, you are virtually totally in the hands of
someone else – probably Microsoft, Apple and/or Oracle. Is that a bad thing?
You have to decide. As for me, I’m still not sure.
An early Ferranti computer,enough boxes to fill the ground floor of a house, but with less memory than the SIM card in your mobile phone
I started in the computer
business at what was then the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment or AWRE for
short, at Aldermaston. This was then populated by two classes of people, the
Scientific Class and the Experimental Class. To be a member of the former, you
normally had to have at least a 2.1. in some scientific subject. For the latter
any old scientific or Maths. Degree filled the bill.
I arrived there in 1955 as
an Experimental Officer. I was initially under the wing of Nick Hoskin (still
around?) who gave me a cyclostyled and scruffy manual for the Ferranti Mark One
Star, then the only computer there. “Write a program,” he intoned. “What to
do?” I asked. “Oh, I don’t care – solve some equations, any equations”.
Nick was one of the saner
members of that establishment. I sometimes wondered whether the many Scientific
Officer, Ph.D. holders there achieved their qualification as a form of very
belated, bizarre revenge on others, who when the current Ph.D. holders were
children, had denied them access to their gangs, because they were physically
inept or games-incapable. One Scientific Officer there cut off his eyebrows as
a joke: another pee’d down the front of his trousers so often, that you could
actually see the steam rising in an over-heated room. Others were odd in their
own fashion. Sic transit gloria mundi.
But the Ferranti Mark One
Star – yes, it filled a room at least the size of the ground floor of a modern
detached house. It had some peculiar number of 36-bit words, maybe 32k. Its
storage comprised magnetic drums, which took aeons to rotate. Input was from
paper tape and output via a Teletype. The binary operating system was written
by Alick Glennie, whom, I am told, has retired at the age of 80 t0 some
Scottish fortress. Vacuum tubes and drums were grossly unreliable and it’s a
wonder that any program actually functioned. But they did - occasionally.
This situation was made for
IBM, which lost little time in moving in with the 704. This was still vacuum
tube controlled, but, at least it had magnetic tapes and a Hollerith 80-column
card reader. Plus, of course, Fortran 2. (I often wondered what happened to
Fortran 1, but IBM kept very quiet about that).
An IBM 704 still based on valves but with the added refinements of magnetic tape and a punched card reader
AWRE had to wait a while for
the solid-state 7090, then Stretch, but this and its successors have stayed
there, as far as I know, ever since. Are you still above ground, Les Underhill?
If you would like to entertain, amuse or educate us with some pithy recollection of early computers then drop us a line at: firstname.lastname@example.org