Posted by: bkivey | 4 February 2011

Stone Knives and Bearskins

Hard as it may be to believe, anyone under the age of 35 has never lived in a world without personal computers. As difficult as it may be for such a person to imagine life without cheap, powerful, and ubiquitous computers, it’s perhaps more interesting for people who made it through most or all of their childhood without computers to look at how far we’ve come. I got involved with computers in the late ’70’s while in high school. At the time, the computer ‘lab’ was a teletype machine stuck in a broom closet and connected to a mainframe in the basement of an insurance company 20 miles away. Programming was in BASIC or FORTRAN and if you wanted anything to happen you wrote your own. I spent a lot of time in that broom closet, so much that custodian would often have to kick me out so they could lock up the building.

The only game was a lunar landing simulation where you would type in engine thrust and the teletype would print altitude, speed, and fuel remaining. I rewrote the program to change the performance parameters and wrote my own sub hunter game. I also hacked the school’s grade database, which got me into hot water, but that’s another story.

A little while later I got my first PC, a Commodore 64. I still have it. I had been buying PC magazines for a couple of years, mainly to study the included programs but also to drool over the hardware the way a lot of other guys looked at car magazines. I was a regular reader of Hot Rod, too, but cars seemed to me to be of limited utility compared to what one could do with a computer. And a good computer at the time could easily cost as much or more than a souped-up car.

Things are a little different these days. If you have $1000 to spend you can get a machine with a quad-core 3Ghz processor, 8GB of RAM (expandable to 16GB), 1TB hard drive, DVD player/burner, 512MB video card, wireless LAN, 20-inch flatscreen monitor, and a 64-bit operating system. Then there is the universe of powerful software available to run on it. One can now easily do from home what once took scores of highly skilled people in large organizations.

For  a little perspective, let’s look at a computer magazine typical of my high school years. I have a August 1980 copy of 80 Microcomputing sitting in front of me. This magazine was devoted to the TRS-80 community and includes content typical of the time.

The image above is a scanned page from the magazine and represents part of a Star Trek emulator. That’s right. If you wanted something for your computer to do and didn’t want to develop your own programs, you could type in pages of BASIC. Finding and fixing typing mistakes could take hours more. You could then save your program to a cassette tape drive.

If you did write your own programs, you had to be as much an expert in a particular machines processor architecture as the language you wrote in. This was still a big step forward from the hobbyist kits of five years previously.

And how much did this fun and convenience cost? One ad features a TRS-80 Level II (keyboard/processor, 13″ B/W monitor, cassette player/recorder) for $685 ($1760 in today’s dollars). The computer comes with 16K of RAM and BASIC. Power users could buy the 64K version for $3499 ($8992). Want a 250K 5 1/4″ floppy drive? $550 ($1400), cables sold separately. More memory? 16 K for  $49 ($125). Maybe you’d like a printer. How about a 100 CPS line-feed impact printer for only $649 ($1670)?

Let’s move forward a few years and have a look at the May 1987 issue of Byte. The IBM PC and it’s many clones had become the de facto standard while the Apple II was found in schools across the country. You could now buy complete systems that would actually do something useful and there was enough software available to where programming was something only geeks and hobbyists did. You still had to know some DOS, though, to actually use the machine. I have to think that folks who slag Windows either have poor memories or never had to deal with C:\.

In 1987 a basic system without monitor could be had for $570 ($1100) and you’d get 640K RAM, an 8Mz processor, 360K floppy drive, keyboard, and 8 expansion slots. And you were gonna need those slots for things like hard disk controllers, sound cards, video cards, modem cards, and pretty much anything else that comes standard on motherboards today. Need more power? How about a top-of-the-line 18Mz 386-based machine with 1Mb RAM, 40Mb hard drive, 1.2Mb disk drive, and 6 slots for $5400 ($10,000)? Add an EGA color monitor for $525 ($1000) and the card to run it for $235 ($450). A decent letter-quality dot-matrix printer ran about $400 ($750) or you could buy a laser printer for $1900 ($3500). Notice that there are no mice. Although Apple and Amiga used a GUI and the first version of Windows had been released in 1985, it wouldn’t be until the release of Windows 3.1 in 1992 that the mouse would replace the keyboard as the primary input device.

Well, this little trip down memory lane has been fun, and I’ll leave you with an image of one of the more bizarre ads I’ve seen in a computer magazine.


Fastest Steam Locomotive in the West

Steam locomotives appeal to those with a liking for things mechanical because they are external combustion engines, and all those lovely moving parts are right out in the open. They’re big, loud, and in this case, really fast. This video of an A4 locomotive shot in 1995 shows a steamer crowding the 100 MPH mark. Keep in mind you’re watching a 60 year-old machine at work.



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