Early Computing


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The earliest computer, the Antikythera  is thought to have been made in 87 BC and was probably made in Rhodes, which specialised in automata.  It calculated the position of the planets and moon. It appears to have been made very portable, with instructions for other users. Shades of things to come ! It is the earliest known example of an analog computer–a series of over 30 bronze gears interact to calculate the position of planets based on a user-input date. Astronomical clocks with the degree of technologically advanced construction and calculation power on par with the Antikythera Mechanism didn’t appear again in Europe until the 14th century.

Earliest computer

Charles Babbage proposed an analytical engine in 1834 which, had it been built might have looked like this. Unfortunately, Victoria engineering was not quite up to the job. However, a working model of part of his engine was build and resides in the Science Museum.

Babbage Analytical Engine


One of the earliest visionaries was Paul Otlet  Paul imagined a Google or Wikipedia style collection of information, accessible by people around the world. His collection grew to 15 million index cards.
Otlet's Early Internet

The micro computer museum has been quietly growing in Haverhill for some years.  Now, at last, it has been launched in its natural home, Cambridge.  See http://www.computinghistory.org.uk/ and http://www.computinghistory.org.uk/pages/13587/A-Museum-for-Cambridge/ I take no credit for this but am pleased to have worked in Cambridge for twenty years while this revolution was gestating. I was also pleased to have set up the Cambridgeshire Careers Service, first with BBC micros, then from 1982, with IBM PCs, when most local authorities (and our bosses at the Department of Employment) were stuck with the CP/M operating system, which finally faded as a result of the success of Microsoft and cheaper PC compatibles such as the Amstrad PC-1512.

Twin Floppy Amstrad 
Twin floppy disk, no hard drive but a revolution, nevertheless.  And it had colour !

A good Youtube video of the development of Windows through the years can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vPnehDhGa14

The first webcamj

I remember it well !

It is difficult to imagine that the current fashion-conscious Apples could have grown from such a crude original !
First Apple

The Telharmonium was the first electronic organ and was invented in 1897 by Thaddeus Cahill. One version weighed 200 tons and, at concerts, most of the mechanism was in a separate room below where the audience listened to the performance. A version existed until 1962. . http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telharmonium  Video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PPlbXl81Rs0

A long video showing the early developments is at http://waxy.org/2008/06/the_machine_that_changed_the_world/

The earliest laptop computer (the Grid Compass) was the result of a design by Bill Moggridge.  Bill was an Englishman, who became the Director of the  Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York. Remarkably the Grid Compass which originally retailed at $8,150 (£5,097) flew on board every Space Shuttle mission from 1983 to 1997.!  Bill was the antithisis of the inventors of the Apple, who were content to lock themselves away.  He believed in cooperative design

The Grid Compass.  The first laptop

GRiD Compass laptop on the Space Shuttle in 1985

Grid Compass on Space Shuttle 1985

Want to load nostalgic games with your Windows version?  Download a program called D-Fend Reloaded at http://dfendreloaded.sourceforge.net/

Big men, bad decisions :
"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers" Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM,  1943
"There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." - Ken Olson (President, Chairman and Founder of Digital Equipment Corporation) at the Convention of the World Future Society in Boston in 1977.
DEC continued to make minicomputers and tried to ignore the IBM PC which finally overwhelmed it. Ten years later the final remnants of DEC were sold to Compaq.

In 1980 The size and cost of 20Gb of memory was over£400,000.  By 2010 memory was cheap and post free !

comparison of memory cost and size

By September 07 the population of the world was estimated at 6.5 billion. Of those 1.24 billion (19%) used the Internet !  Which is surprising if you eliminate young children, old people, the illiterate and those beyond the reach of electricity.  41% of Europeans and 70% of North Americans are connected.  One must conclude that this is more important than the invention of printing and must contribute billions to each country's economy. With small networkable computers now available from £40 many more people will be joining in. Who would have thought when I got hold of the first £1200 IBM PC in the early 80s that just over 20 years later the hardware would cost so little. My 15" Acer laptop with 3gb RAM, 320Gb hard disk, camera, Windows 7 a DVD writer cost under £250.

My earliest attempts at 'computing' were somewhat dirisory.  I was working for the Careers Service in Coventry and decided to devise a punch card system which help me to select types of work for school leavers, based on their interests and abilities.  I created a number of cards with loops at the top and used a knitting needle to fish appropriate cards from the batch.  I did not realise at the time that similar punch card systems had been had been invented by Herman Hollerith (1890) (the Hollerith company later became IBM) see here and even earlier by Jacquard (1820 ) here .  The punch card was also used by Charles Babbage here who spent his time developing a computer-like machine whilst Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge (1820 - 1839).

In 1966 I became Area Careers Officer, Cambridge.  I got my first computer (a Sinclair ZX81) in 1981.
On this diminutive machine I started to devise a system that would enable me to select a job applicant for a specific vacancy.  I called it Jobsort

ZX81

The program I wrote would select individuals from 325 entries based on their career choices (the data was saved to tape on a standard tape recorder). The program was written on the machine with a capacity of 1k bytes ! I could see the future when this type of program was applied to more sophisticated machines.

The menu of my first job selection program 

But in 1982 I got access to one of the first IBM personal computers in the country and immediately saw its potential for the Careers Service.  

The County Computing Department was keen to have all council departments connected to their mainframe computer but I was having none of it.  I had earlier run an experiment connecting a Teletype terminal to the DEC minicomputer at the local technical college. The idea was (again) to keep records of all school leavers and their career choices so they could be matched with job vacancies.  But the system was terribly slow and the input girl spent all day fetching and amending records.  The Teletype machine (a noisy typewriter terminal in our office) worked. But it had no screen and the requests for information had to be typed in and longer printouts had to be collected from the Tech, a mile away.  

A Teletype terminal

In the end I gave up on that. So much for mini computers.  The nearby Social Services Department also decided to buy a mini computer.  This giant machine had to be hoisted by crane to their first floor office and a window taken out to make way for it!  I just wonder how long that very expensive piece of hardware lasted before being replaced by desktop PCs

Attempts to get computing facilities via a telephone line and a local screen connected to the county mainframe were just as fraught, often with corruption due to bad lines; and the speeds were abysmal.  But computing departments feared what would happen once people started to be independent (and, horror of horrors, use their initiative !).

Even before the IBM PC arrived I had introduced comparatively cheap BBC computers to each office (there were five main offices in the County) along with dot matrix printers The Beeb had an on-board word processor..  This was quite satisfactory, although the request by the Area Manager to have six copies of a long report by 5 pm on the day it was installed in the Peterborough office was not appreciated ! Someone had to teach the staff word processing first.

The BBC Micro 1980

A 'Beeb - 'BBC Micro around 1980

The BBC computers were also linked via modem to the University place allocation system so, when the A level results came out, there was intensive use of that.  The main problem there was that the system was inadequate and getting through was difficult.  It was not helped by other offices up an down the country leaving the connection on because of this difficulty.  In the end no-one could get in touch but, at least, it showed what might be done with such equipment.  At this time the Internet had not become a common facility, though universities were linking to each other - often using BBC computers for this.

Around that time I wrote a couple of articles, imagining what the future would hold :

My article about how laptops would be  Second article
1980 : My article  imagining the possibility
   of a tablet PC as we know it today
1981 My article imagining uses for a micro

The Osborne1 'portable'
The Osborne 1 'portable'.

Cambridge was always involved with the development of computers. Indeed one of my colleagues had worked on early developments of large valve based computers in the University Mathematics Laboratory. The power required by these computers and the heat generated was incredible. By 1967 their Titan Computer was capable of serving 64 users at any one time. . It is astonishing to think that a UMPC (Ultra Mobile PC) measuring about 6" x 5" and working from a small rechargeable battery has more computational capability than the Titan did then.  Since 2001 the University Computing Department has been housed in the William Gates ('father of microcomputing') Building, Cambridge.

Collossus computer

The early Collossus Computer

Although we were told by 'County' that we had to pursue the IBM route for any PC purchases, the price of an early twin floppy IBM PC, at over £1000, was prohibitive and we were pleased when Amstrad and other companies produced 'clones'.  And  they had colour screens instead of green ones ! But the saying at the time was "No-one gets the sack from buying IBM".  I used to live dangerously in those days.

From there we proceeded to the 10Mb hard disk IBM PC XT, then the faster, 20Mb AT, still working on rather dim green screens and with the Wordstar word processor.  The AT had a big box and I discovered that they would sit upended by the side of desks.  The 'tower' computer has been invented - at least in the Cambridge Careers Service. Before that I had had some desk shelves built so the computer and keyboard could sit underneath and the screen on top.  Deskspace was always at a premium.

Early computer

IBM PC AT on its end  - I even invented the tower PC!  Dreadful IBM green screen on a specially built shelf

Printers evolved from the Epson RX 80 dot matrix, with 8 dots (each dot clearly visible) and working at 80 characters per second, to Juki daisywheels, which were even slower (about 16 cps) but produced excellent correspondence-quality results.  Both types were noisy and not suitable for open plan offices. Eventually, I was able to go out and order a dozen Brother laser printers and all at once the sound, speed and quality problems were solved.  They worked splendidly until I retired in 1988. They were supplemented on individual desks by the early HP Deskjets, another quiet, quality printer.  With these printers I was able to introduce downloaded fonts, even with the old Wordstar program (before Windows arrived) and folk were able to produce impressive looking reports.

Laser and daisywheel printers

Juki daisywheel printer (becoming redundant) under a Brother laser (switched between the two)
Note the footrest !  I was always keen on the right ergonomics.

animated dinosaur

The mainframe 'dinosaur' we were being persuaded to use !

Around 1985 the Applied Psychology Unit of Edinburgh University had developed a program that I instantly recognised as what I had been looking for in those early days of 1956  i.e. Something that would match the interests of school leavers with potential jobs and lead them to the information that would help them choose. It was called JIIG/CAL  :  Job Ideas and Information Generator/ Computer Aided Learning. Pupils would fill in a form, answering questions about their interests. The marks were similar to those made on a Lottery Card.  This was then scored by hand using a template and the results passed back to schools and developed in Careers lessons.  The stumbling block was this marking, which would have been laborious. The Mainframe Department quoted us three weeks to do this job.  Well, they had to have someone punch in the results, which would then make cards, which would then instruct the dinosaur to produce printouts.  But they were thousands of 'punches' in arrears - things like the wages ! So we were stymied.  I then heard of a programmer (Willy Wong) who had managed to link a BBC computer to an automatic mark reader (again, like the Lottery machines).  But most of our computers were IBM PCs. Fortunately the program had been written in BBC Basic and this was very similar to the Basic program which Bill Gates had developed.  I typed in the program word for word and with a little tweaking we had our 'fast' 386 IBM PC working with a VERY fast Brother dot matrix printer and a mark reader churning out page after page of results (Job ideas and appropriate book lists).  We had reduced the mainframe proposal for this job from 3 weeks to one hour for each school !  My faith in the desktop PC had been justified !

At last I had achieved what I had set out to do back in 1956 when I experimented with bits of card and a knitting needle !

One of the cutest little PCs that I have owned was the first Compaq Laptop SLT286.  For more detail see HERE

Early Compaq laptop

It was brought out around 1990 when Compaq began to realise that there was a future for laptops. It is very well thought and and beautifully made, with a detachable keyboard and loads of sockets at the back so it could be attached to various peripherals. The original price was over $5000 and it shows.  I can assure you that I didn't pay that price.  It was used by a couple of my daughters for word processing and finally returned to me when they got something better.  It didn't even have a colour screen but it had a 40Mb hard disk.  I put Windows 3.1 on there with a basic word processor and a couple of games. Last time it worked I played a game of chess on it.  Unfortunately, it seems to have died and I have offered it to the Computer Museum.

HOWEVER.. The wheel has come full circle due to cheap disk space and broadband speeds.  It is now possible to get FREE access to 25 Gb of web based hard disk space on which you can keep your photographs, documents and even programs (see Mediamax.com).  These can be accessed from ANY computer that can access the Internet.  So, eventually people will be able to do most things with an inexpensive computer they can carry around with them. Fortunately, initiative, which was frowned upon in the days of the dumb terminal and mainframe computer, has not been stifled and people's computing skills all over the world are increasing at an incredible rate.  Long live the PC !


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