My life in computing – the early days

Nowadays computers are ubiquitous, but when I was a spotty teenager in the seventies they were rare and unusual beasts, often locked away in air conditioned vaults and ministered to by priesthood of strange specialists who  got the beast to do things by typing strange incantations on keyboards.

Machines on the whole ran in batch mode running one job after another – multiuser multitasking environments were a rarity.

There were few books about computers, and no one really knew anything, but universities were starting to produce graduates who had written code in a high level language such as Fortran or Algol, and the powers that were were beginning to think that programming might be a useful skill of sorts.

Nothing about hardware, architectures, databases (which hadn’t been invented) but programming.

So, in my final year of school I learned to write code on coding sheets (by hand, one character per square, each line a maximum of 72 characters).

These coding sheets were then taken to the local technical college, where they were typed onto punched cards by data processing operatives, run in batch mode, and the output and card deck sent back to you – if you were lucky it worked, if not it was another week to debug the code and try again.

All pretty crude, and involving delayed gratification, but I did learn enough to write some simple code in Algol and Fortran to read some numbers, add them up, average them and print the result.

A year later, at university, this turned out to be really useful. As part of mathematical methods they taught us Algol W. Again no interactive terminal time, but you could type your own cards on an IBM 029 card punch and submit your job.

If you timed it right, you could submit your job in the early afternoon and pick up your output around ten o’clock in the evening – actually the John Honey building doors closed at ten, and there was a bit of furious bike riding to get there from wherever by 9.55.

After then I didn’t touch a computer for around three years. Didn’t need to.

No such things as word processors or personal computers, essays were written on a typewriter, and a scientific calculator was good enough for data analysis, that was of course until my final year project which generated data, and data needed to be analysed.

Things had moved on – there were now these things called packages – we’d call them programs and applications that did all the grunt work for you, all you had to do was type in your data, write a control file for the package (read this file, run this analysis, print these results), and what’s more sometimes you could use an interactive terminal to submit and kick your job off. Luxury!

After uni, I was stupid enough to try a PhD. I could be cynical and claim that in the first year of Margaret Thatcher’s social revolution it was probably the best option for a newly minted psychology graduate with a specialism in psychophysiology and ethology, but I’d be lying.

I was in love with my subject, a complete and utter psychology geek, and I did it all for love.

Now psychophysiolgy includes data collection, such as heart rate and oxygen consumption.

Today a $40 no name fitness tracker will record most of the data required – I know, I’ve got one – but then it involved individual instruments. At the time most instruments had an analogue output to drive a pen recorder. If instead you had a compute read the output voltage once a second say, you could get some automated data capture going.

Put an individual in an experiment, you could see how stressed they got doing a stressful task, like press a combination of switches in response to a sequence of lights. Loud noise if you got wrong.

And as you would expect, people got better over time at the task, and their stress indicators would go down – they felt more in control.

Then of course you could be naughty, and because life isn’t predictable, sometimes tell them they had pressed the wrong sequence even when they hadn’t. Very effective way of inducing stress, and you could show that they were stressed by not getting accurate feedback – the less accurate the feedback, the more stressed.

All sorts of implications, including things like how best to design feedback systems – one of the things that went wrong at Three Mile Island was that there were too many flashing lights and sirens that went off confusing the operators, such that they didn’t realise that they might well be having a meltdown.

Well, after a few years my scholarship ended, and I didn’t finish my PhD. In retrospect I should have, but I needed to do some revisions to my thesis, and I couldn’t afford to pay the fees for an extension.

By that time I was working for a different university doing computer support for a field station, as well as managing survey teams.

Computer support was fun, everything from helping people with wordstar, writing programs to process and munge data – such as taking species count data and plot the diversity of the data on a 1km square grid – simple now, but in 1984 a blocky colour coded map was something else, and of course for bid data sets, uploading the data very slowly over a dialup modem and then logging in and running one of these dreaded batch jobs.

And then I got a proper job …

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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