To All The Computers I’ve Loved Before

With apologies to Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias

I’m a nerd.

This is common knowledge among those who have been in the same zip code as me.  You don’t actually have to meet me in person.  It’s kind of like radiation.  No, it’s not contagious.

No, this is my grandma Effie, not my slightly older sister.

Anyway, I was thinking about something my (slightly older) sister and I were discussing a while back regarding our grandmother, Effie Wolfe, and the degree in which technology exploded in her lifetime.   Think about the degree that technology emerged from her birth in 1897 until her passing in 1987. It’s hard to imagine what it was like for her and others of her generation to have been born into a world in which technology was just in its infancy to seeing people landing on the moon.  

For example, the first electric power transmission line in North America went online on June 3, 1889, with the lines between the generating station at Willamette Falls in Oregon City, Oregon, and Chapman Square in downtown Portland, Oregon — about 13 miles.  That’s only 8 years before Effie was born and I doubt tiny Deshler, Ohio was a place where cutting-edge home electricity distribution landed first.

When I was a really small human, I remember she had a phone with no dial.  You picked it up and the local Deshler operator answered and placed your call.  My sister mentioned remembering a phone with a hand crank on it, but I don’t remember that.  

But I DO remember computers. Lots of ‘em starting with this baby:

This is the computer from the Seaview, the fictional submarine featured in both the movie and the absolutely awful TV show “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” and I vividly recall watching this show at Effie’s house.  In black and white, ‘natch.

The TV show ran from 1964–1968, and as an impressionable youngster, I was nuts for this show and its vision of advanced technology.  Mom said that it gave me bad dreams and I would wake up in the middle of the night turning imaginary knobs and pushing imaginary buttons on the wall, presumably dreaming I was operating the Seaview computer.  (Out of curiosity a few months back, I looked it up on Netflix to see what I was so obsessed with back then.  Trust me when I say the show does NOT hold up.  At. All.)

Another Irwin Allen show that prominently featured a computer was “The Time Tunnel.”  Here’s the way it looked on the show:

From the pilot episode “Rendezvous with Yesterday” September 9, 1966.

Something I didn’t know until recently, this was a real computing system, the AN/FSQ-7 Combat Direction Central.  (Click the link to the left or the photo below to learn about it.)  

This computer would show up in a whole lot of movies and TV shows including a couple more from “Tunnel” producer Irwin Allen:  

“Q7 components were used in numerous films TV series and TV series needing futuristic looking computers, despite the fact they were built in the 1950s. Q7 components were used in The Time Tunnel, The Towering Inferno [Featuring O.J. Simpson], Logan’s Run, WarGames and Independence Day amongst many others.”

“The Juice” on the loose in “The Towering Inferno.”

After all that good stuff, I found myself taking a different track into music.  I got a music scholarship to Valley Forge Military Academy in 1971.  In 1974, I believe, they offered a one-semester course in Computer Programming with FORTRAN IV.  I and my fellow students had to take our deck of punch cards on the commuter train over to Villanova University’s computer center to have our programs run through their IBM 370/168.  

I have only vague recollections of running my cards through the reader, waiting for 15-20 minutes for the program to run and then retrieving my printouts from the computer technician through the glass window.  Very old school. The computer center looked something like this 370/168 installation:

There was a watered-down version of either BASIC or FORTRAN on the Academy’s very own minicomputer, the Interdata Model 4.  

It had a single Teletype as its primary interactive device and a single punch card reader which, as I recall, wasn’t good for much since we could never get the Interdata version of FORTRAN IV to run even though it was supposed to.  It was plenty good to teach programming techniques that we could implement in our programs we took to Villanova.  

Many years passed before I did any programming of any kind.  I had access to the Commodore VIC-20 when I was in SHAPE, Belgium and I wrote a BASIC program to do TV scheduling for the American Forces Network TV station there.

When I got back to the US in 1985, I promptly bought a Commodore 64…

… and just as promptly outgrew it, replacing it with a pre-owned original IBM-PC for which I needed a bank loan for something like $3,000.  (Yes, computers were painfully expensive.)  

Later on, I upgraded the memory from 384k to a whopping 640k, which at the time was as much as you could stuff into one of these babies.  Down the road, I upgraded it again with an extraordinarily large, thought-I’d-never-be-able-to-fill-it-all-up-in-a-zillion-years 10 MB hard drive. That’s megabyte. To me, it was a huge amount of storage space.

For my nine-week school at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, I bought myself the very first Zenith laptop computer. This one came with 640k of memory, I think, and two of the newest type 3 1/2″ floppy disks, which were really no longer floppy at all. 

This lasted me for quite awhile until…  well, the divorce and the former spousal unit got the IBM and I kept the laptop.  Fair enough.

Jon and Andy hung on to that laptop for quite a few years, most of which were spent gathering dust.   

In 1987, I started working for the newly-formed Information Center at Fort Richardson, Alaska.  ‘Twas there that I met and worked for the brilliant and talented Raymond Brady, a long-time mainframe programmer and Department of the Army Civilian.  Raymond trained me on the IBM 4361 mainframe computer that was the central hub of the Command Wide Area Network encompassing Forts Richardson, Wainwright and Greely.

Publicity still of an IBM 4361.

I recall that Fort Richardson received a cutting-edge DASD (Direct Access Storage Device). Think of it as a mainframe hard drive. Raymond was crazy impressed that it was a half gigabyte system. Let’s face it — we were ALL impressed with this thought-we’d-never-be-able-to-fill-it-all-up-in-a-zillion-years DASD.

Raymond taught me about the 3270 protocol and IBM Operating System, VM/SP.  And I got to be a pretty good beginning REXX programmer.

Since I was one of the few people around who actually had one at home, I became the designated personal computer guy.

About the time Raymond and I started working together in the Information Center, the Army negotiated a huge contract to buy desktop PC’s from Zenith. These Z-248’s flooded very quickly onto desks around Alaska and throughout the Army, armed with an integrated software suite called Enable.

I can’t tell you how many of these machines I installed and repaired in the roughly two years I was in the Information Center, but it must have been well over a hundred if not more.  I got to know the Z-248 quite well.

I would be remiss were I to fail to acknowledge fellow VFMA alumnus Ben Sherburne.  Long after graduation, Ben and I unexpectedly ran into each other in the headquarters building barber shop at Fort Richardson. We wound up working together with Raymond in the Information center until 1990.

Me, Raymond Brady and Ben Sherburne in Alaska during our time together in the Information Center.

In 1990, I got out of the Army for the first time.  The Zenith laptop continued to serve me well. Then I started collecting computer parts. People would just give me their old computers that they replaced.  I sustained my computer habit over the years by rescuing the parts and pieces from these hand-me-downs and building systems that did what I needed ’em to do.  They weren’t cutting edge, but they got the job done.

Not too long after that, PC’s pretty much became a commodity. The brand you bought really didn’t matter all that much as it had in the early days of PC deployment.  In 2008, I bought my first Mac Laptop and it’s still working just fine even as I sit at the kitchen table and type this:

Samsung Galaxy S8.

Of course, even the tiny cell phone with which I snapped the photo of my nine-year-old MacBook Pro has enormous power when compared with the Interdata Model 4, the first real computer I got to use. From 64 kilobytes of ferrite core memory, to 64 gigabytes of solid state storage on my Samsung smart phone, it’s easy to see how drastically things have changed.

Just since I started in the computer business in 1974-ish with punch cards and core memory, to having access to nearly the entirety of human knowledge in my pocket is genuinely astounding when I stop to think about it.

I doubt Effie ever laid hands on a computer keyboard before her passing in 1987.  With new devices and new technology popping up almost daily, I wonder just how far beyond the S8 and Alexa-powered smart homes we’ll be in 20 years.


Comments

To All The Computers I’ve Loved Before — 16 Comments

  1. I remember from being a lieutenant and Captain seeing some of these odd-looking devices pass through the Army inventory you know as a techno peasant I hated each and every one of them but they have made life somewhat easier we had a Zenith at the division that constantly typed “zzzzz even if you weren’t standing near it

  2. Yes, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea reached its “you can’t even pretend this is serious sci-fi anymore” moment when Admiral Nelson became a werewolf. But Irwin Allen had cool computers. I sorta think we’re all like your Grandma Effie – the computers to come in the next 90 years will be as if from a different world, unrecognizable to us. And that AI world, well, we’ve all seen the movies.

  3. I agree, sir. After I posted this, I thought about addressing the AI thing. That’s some of the most interesting things of all.

    I also missed the “Lost in Space” robot, B-9. While technically a computer, it fell into a different category for me. But The Robot definitely deserves honorable mention.

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