A STORY FOR CHRISTMAS

Copyright Dr Alan Solomon, 1986-1995

It  was  Christmas  eve  in the small software house, and all the junior
programmers were huddling round the fire, trying to keep warm.  "Tell us
a  story, Daddy", they implored the Chief Programmer, "tell us about the
bad old days." I threw another wodge of  printout  onto  the  fire,  and
began to reminisce.

"Once  upon  a  time,  there  was  no  IBM  PC",  I  began.   The junior
programmers shivered, as little  goosebumps  crawled  up  their  spines.
"But  there were computers.  They filled a room, and you programmed them
by punching holes in paper tape.  A big program was thousands of feet of
tape,  and if there was a bug you had to edit the tape by making a whole
new one.  If the edit was small,  you  used  a  hand-punch  and  a  tape
splicing machine.

"If  it filled a room, it must have been powerful", said the most junior
programmer, with awe in her voice.  "Yes, we thought so too.  It had  8k
of memory, and each memory word was 39 bits.  It was an Elliott 503, and
we loved it.  All the input was on paper tape, and so  was  the  output.
To read the output, you ran the tape through a separate printing machine
called a Flexowriter, which printed at nearly 5 characters per  second.

"What  did you program in ?" asked one of the programmers?  "In Algol, a
kind of early Pascal" I answered.  "Then we got an  Elliott  905.   That
had  a line printer, so we all wanted to use it.  Trouble was, there was
no compiler, or even assembler.   We  started  off  writing  for  it  in
machine  code.   Each  instruction  had to be hand-translated into octal
(hexadecimal was for computers with word lengths that are a multiple  of
4).  It had 18 bit words, and we missed our lovely long 39 bit words.

"Tell us about punched cards", said Angela, the most junior  programmer,
impatient  to  get to the good bits.  "We thought punched cards were the
greatest thing since sliced bread.   You  could  edit  your  program  by
replacing  cards, even if they were in the middle of the pack.  That was
on a DEC PDP 15.  It didn't have Algol, so we used Fortran.  We kept our
programs on cards, and on things called DEC-tapes;  little reels of tape
that held about 120k.  It also  had  a  disk;   a  megabyte  of  on-line
storage.   One  day,  we  doubled  the memory from 16K to 32K;  that was
great, as it meant we could spend more time writing  programs  and  less
time worrying about how we'd fit them into memory.  The line printer was
fast;  about 4 lines per second.  It was  so  noisy  we  kept  it  in  a
separate  room.  If you wanted to annoy the computer operators, you made
the hammers all go up and bang down in  unison;   that  made  the  whole
building shake and reverberate.

"What  are operators, Daddy?", they chorused.  "Ah yes", I said, "You've
never met one, have you?  Operators are nasty people that  come  between
me  and my computer.  When we used the 503 and the 905, we had the whole
machine.  It was like a big personal computer.  In the early days of the
DEC,  it  was the same.  Then we thought, let's put our runs on packs of
punched cards, and get someone to feed them through for  us,  and  mount
our  DEC-tapes, and bring us our printout.  We thought we'd get more use
out of our computer that way;  we hadn't realized that it meant that  it
wasn't  ours  any  more.  We found ourselves leaving packs of cards in a
queue in a tray, and calling back every 10 minutes to see if the job was
done  yet.   And  if something went wrong with your program, you went to
the back of the queue.

"What  about  screens,  Daddy?"  said  one  of  the  older  girls.  "The
operators started calling themselves computer managers;  instead of just
running our jobs, they started telling us what we could and couldn't do.
They started making up rules about small and large jobs, and priorities.
When  we heard about a computer that you could link to several VDUs, and
you could have one VDU per desk, we thought we'd get our computer  back,
so we got an HP3000.

"And did you get your computer back?", asked Jennifer (but she knew  the
answer).   "No,  we  didn't.   We got the HP3000.  The operators started
calling themselves the DP Department, and moved  the  computer  off  the
premises,  putting  in  comms lines so that we could use it.  The day it
moved out, four of us went out and got maudlin drunk,  because  we  knew
we'd never see a computer again.

"It actually turned out even worse than we'd feared.  The communications
were unreliable, the computer was shut down promptly at five  each  day,
and  the  terminals were not on our desks, they were in a terminal room.
We had to beg for disk space and for tapes to be mounted, and we  got  a
delivery  of printout just twice a day.  When a few other people were on
the computer at once, it slowed down to a crawl.  The DP department told
us  not to be so selfish whenever we complained.  They said we'd have to
get a bigger computer.

"What did you do, Daddy?", asked the littlest programmer.  "We suffered.
And we yearned for our Elliott 503, with its 8K of memory, punched tape,
and no DP department.

"Then one day, one of us brought in a Sinclair Spectrum manual.  We  all
laughed  at  first,  but  he  showed us how it had 40K of memory, how it
could  do  floating  point  calculations,  how  the   screen   refreshed
instantaneously.   That  little thing was better than our old 503!  Even
the cassette tape was better than paper tape.  Someone else went out and
bought  a home computer magazine, and we found you could get floppy disk
drives that were as good as our old PDP15 disk drive, and fast printers.
You could get a real computer for a three figure sum!

"We  decided  to  look around.  We looked at Apples, Apricots, Siriuses.
But it was clear that there was one machine that stood out, the IBM  PC.
The  deciding  factor  was the availability of software;  there was much
more for the IBM PC than anything else.  So we went to the DP department
(who by now were calling themselves Information Systems Department), and
asked for an IBM PC.

"They said they'd do a study of our needs.  We said  we  didn't  want  a
study,  we  wanted a computer.  They said they'd have to look at how the
micro would integrate with the mainframe, and they'd do a study.

"We asked if it would be OK to spend a  couple  of  thousand  while  the
study  was proceeding, and they said yes, so we rushed out and bought an
IBM PC.  We unpacked it, plugged it in and fired it up.  Oh, the joy  of
having your own computer again!  The freedom, the independence.  We were
actually very pleased when the Information Systems Department decided to
get  HP150  micros  (on the grounds that they had an HP mainframe) as it
meant they'd be uninterested in our IBM.  We found the IBM so  good,  we
got  a  couple  more, out of the desk calculator budget, then more until
everyone had one on their desk.   People  stopped  using  the  mainframe
altogether.   We  got  so used to fast spreadsheets, full screen editors
and Turbo Pascal that using a mainframe was like  going  back  into  the
stone age.

When  the  jumped-up  computer  operators  (by  now  calling  themselves
Corporate Information Resources) saw what we were up to, they  began  to
panic,  and  set  up a Micro Support Centre to try to take our computers
away from us again.  They  offered  us  micro-to-mainframe  links,  they
offered  us  1000  megabyte  file  servers,  they  offered us Local Area
Networks linked to fast laser printers.  But there's NO  WAY  we'll  let
them get their grasping hands on our computers ever again.

"Heed  this  well, little programmers.  Don't let anyone get between you
and your computer, and don't let anyone share your computer.  We've been
lucky enough to get our computers back from the operators this time, but
we might not be so lucky again.


There  was a long silence as the little programmers took this in.  "Will
Father  Chistmas  bring  me  a  computer,  Daddy?"  asked  the  littlest
programmer.  "Yes, Angela.  Now you are three, you're old enough to have
your very own computer." And so she did, but that's another story.