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Write Your Own History! My Life (so far) With Computers


I was born in 1957.  I am an electrical engineer.  I have not gone out of my way to be involved with computers, but they have been a part of my working life and eventually my home life as well.  My generation saw the adoption of the personal computer into the workplace.  The changes were profound, and sometimes unexpected.  Nearly anyone at the time that I am writing this can tell the same story, but few may understand that it is a story worth writing down.  Here is mine.

Playing Around

Being the son of a Southern Bell cable repairman, I had access to discarded telephone equipment when I was growing up.  I remember when I was in the sixth or seventh grade I built an electric calculating machine into an abandoned brief case.  I used a telephone dial for input, stepper relays, and light bulbs for output.  It would only add, but seemed high tech to my young mind.  In fact, it looked just like a brief case-sized calculator I saw in a 1960’s Superman comic book.  Not quite a computer, but a fun toy.  Although I was intrigued by computers, I was drawn towards other branches of electrical engineering.

High School

My high school was built in 1970 as something of a model modern school.  We had access to several new technical marvels for our enrichment.  One was a portable video camera and matching reel-to-reel video recorder (that I used to tape my bemused girlfriend).  The most fascinating device was a Monroe programming calculator owned by the Physics Department.  It was purchased for student use rather than school administration and it cost about as much as a new car.  The Monroe was very close to being a real computer.  You could build a software program by hand on paper.  You then punched corresponding commands into paper computer cards using a stylus and a hand-held jig.  The Monroe read the cards and executed the program, pausing for you to enter program data on the keyboard.  It then printed the results on paper tape.  This was my first exposure to primitive programming.  When I brought my brand new $135 Texas Instruments SR-10 calculator to school about 1974, the head of the Physics Department regretted that the school had invested in the Monroe.  He said everyone would be far better off if an SR-10 was permanently screwed to each student desk in the Physics classroom.  We did not realize that soon everyone would have hand held calculators.

A Monroe like the one we used.  Note the card reader on the right.

The jig that we used to manually punch commands into the paper cards.

Thanks to Rick Bensene and his excellent website http://www.oldcalculatormuseum.com for pictures of the Monroe and card punch above. Visit there to learn more about the Monroe and many other early electronic calculators.


When I went to college in 1975, all Louisiana Tech electrical engineering students took two programming courses using the FORTRAN programming language.  We wrote simple programs and ran them on the University’s IBM 370 mainframe computer.

An IBM 370 computer from the 1970s.

From the IBM archives

The 370 filled a large room in the basement of the college administration building.  It was used for college business, payroll, research, and programming pukes like me.  My experience was a far cry from writing a program today.  Step One was buying a stack of blank IBM computer cards at the university store.

Some fresh IBM cards from Louisiana Tech.  See–they even were printed with the university seal.

Next I wrote the commands on a paper tablet.  Once satisfied that the program was correct, I’d hike down to the university computer center where I would stand in line to get access to one of the card punch machines.  The blank cards went into a hopper on the machine.  I’d then type each line of code—one line per card.  The machine typed the command in English on the top of the card, while punching the corresponding commands as a sequence of holes in the paper card.  I then punched additional cards with the data that the program was to manipulate.

An IBM card punch machine—stuff your blank cards in and start typing!

Also from the IBM archives

When satisfied, I stood in line at the window to the computer room where an operator took my cards as well as billing information for the computer time.  Mainframe computers like the IBM 370 multitasked many tiny jobs like our class projects at once.  Computer time was billed by the second as I remember.  Your program may take a few fractions of a second to run, and your department was charged $20 or so.  We were seriously warned to carefully check our programs for endless loops that could cost thousands of dollars of computer time before the operator killed the program.

The operator stacked my cards with others and fed them into a card reader the size of a refrigerator.  If I had the time, I could wait for the results.  Such results consisted of the returned cards and a printout on a continuous piece of paper 17 inches wide.  It listed my name, charge number, cost, and finally the good stuff—the program, the data entered, and the resulting answers.  If the program was flawed, I received what could be pages of error codes to analyze.  Since the computer ran (and was tended) 24 hours a day, students could toil away with their programs most of the night in the work room of the computer center.  As you can imagine, we spent many frustrated hours in that basement computer center trying to get projects working properly.  I remember one girl who alternately cried, laughed, yelled, and otherwise had a nervous breakdown during the two minutes it took the big printer to dump out all the error codes for her failed program.  I was once particularly miffed when I discovered one of the card punch machines correctly printed what I typed on the card, but punched holes for a different command.  By the time I graduated I was so tired of my many hours in the basement computer center that I built a bonfire of all my used computer cards and printouts.

I heard that there was a terminal locked away in the Electrical Engineering building where you could type your program directly into the computer, watching what you typed on a television-like screen.  You could entirely bypass the cursed card punch machines.  But, alas, this terminal was only for graduate students.

In the late 1970’s some engineering students were trying to build their own computers.  I had a friend who did, but it didn’t lead to any financial success.  Some computer science and electrical engineering students also toiled away with a PDP-11 mini computer and learned programming in classes using the first generation of single board computers such as the KIM 1 pictured below.

My specialty in college was automatic control systems.  This field was dominated at the time by analog rather than digital devices, so I didn’t have any computer classes other than the FORTRAN courses.  Well, I did work with other computers, but not like any seen today.  Before digital computers were very powerful, analog computers were used to model complex systems such as regional and national power grids.  As an electrical engineering student with a specialty in automatic control systems, I spent a lot of time with the department’s analog computers.  Modeling a problem consisted of wiring jumpers on a jumper panel and adjusting the gain of the many operational amplifiers precisely.  The results were then read via meters on the computer or from response-verses-time printouts produced by a chart recorder.  These levels provided the response of the modeled system to different stimuli.  Each student had his or her own jumper panel that plugged into the analog computer.

Me with one of Louisiana Tech’s analog computers.  Note the jumper panel for programming at my left shoulder.  The amplifiers were adjusted using the knobs above the jumpers.  The output was sent to the chart recorder behind my head (I see the waste basket is full of discarded charts—programs always need tweaking!).

My senior project in automatic control systems was a broom balancer (a classic problem used in automatic control classes to illustrate the formulas used for system control).  I modeled the device on the analog computer above, and built a corresponding machine with the help of an electrical engineering technology student.  The finished device was controlled by an on-board analog computer.  The final machine not only worked, but responded exactly as the model created on the big analog computer said it would.  We actually wired the big chart recorder seen above to the broom balancer and chased it through the halls recording its responses.  The analog computer is now a forgotten relic of the past.

One of my senior papers was about distributed control of chemical processing plants.  Up until that time chemical refineries had thousands of uncoordinated analog control loops for individual process segments.  These control loops were uninformed of the larger processes.  Plant operators watched dials on giant control panels to make big picture decisions about process adjustment.  Distributed control in the late 1970s carried the possibility of using tiered digital computers to adjust individual process segments optimizing the larger process.  Anticipating my employment in the petro-chemical industry, I thought this background would help my career.  Turns out that it didn’t.

Computers and the Workplace

I secured my job with Texas Eastman Company (part of Kodak) early in my senior year.  Rather than hire me as a control systems engineer, they needed power engineers.  Oh well; I took a few power courses.  When I went to work for Texas Eastman in 1979, there were no personal computers on anyone’s desk.  The company had two mainframe computers and a mini computer—the mini was still far larger than a desktop.  The IBM mainframe was used for business functions.  The DEC mainframe I believe was used for scientific research work.  The mini (I believe a DEC PDP-11) modeled either mechanical or chemical engineering problems.

A PDP-11 from Wikipedia

The electrical engineering department to which I belonged did not have a computer at all.  We did all our calculations on paper, using hand-held scientific calculators and various charts.  The electrical engineers performed all the calculations needed to design and maintain large and sophisticated power and motor control systems, determining the correct time/current settings for circuit breaker coordination throughout the plants.  We did lighting design as well.  We created relay logic diagrams for motor and valve control on our tablets.  We had about five engineers and maybe eight drafters.  When the engineers completed the calculations and plans, we worked with the drafters who drew up the plans and built bills of material.  All engineering reports were written by hand (we wrote reports every afternoon on project progress).  These hand written reports were given to our boss who prepared a hand written summary for his boss.  Higher in the food chain certain managers had secretaries who typed their reports on an electric typewriter.  There was no cut-and-paste and no email.  As a consequence, interpretations could be added as the information traveled upward.  We joked that this process was like the game of whispering a secret to people sitting in a circle.  The final report might bear little resemblance to the scrawlings set down by the first engineer.

If an engineer needed something typed he or she wrote it down on paper, then gave it to a departmental secretary who typed it up.  If you found an error, the secretary used white-out tape in the typewriter to repair the problem.  If you needed a document to be modified slightly for several audiences, Eastman had two special secretaries who were trained in the use of special word processors.  These were computers about the size of a small piece of furniture that recorded the memo on a magnetic card the size and shape of the punch cards I was so fond of in college.  They only kept the document for about a day after you said it was needed, then erased and reused the card.

One of the more interesting projects I led at Eastman provided mainframe computer access throughout the plant.  We installed dumb terminals (meaning that they had no local computing ability) in all the process buildings.  To do this we installed what today would be called a large local area network.  It covered about 64 buildings and involved miles of cable as well as stacks of modems.  Unlike today’s networks, it used radio frequency coaxial cable and carried analog television signals as well.  It was essentially a cable TV system with RF data modems.

Slowly, desktop computers started to appear at Eastman.  One of our new electrical engineers brought his own Commodore SX-64 computer to work.  Unlike the typical Commodore 64, this unit contained the computer, a floppy drive, and a super-big 5 inch monitor in one unit.  He used it for word processing, to the bemusement of our management.  The rest of us trudged along without computers.

The sleek Commodore SX-64 with built in drive and monitor.  This was the first color, portable computer.  No the one my co-worker used at Eastman didn’t have joysticks.

From Wikipedia

About this time my family got a regular Commodore 64 for home use.  It was a coordinated gift—the processor came from Cyndi’s sister and brother-in-law.  The expensive disk drive came from her parents.  It used your color TV as a monitor.  There was no hard drive.  All programs were either on plug in modules or on 5 ¼ inch floppies.

A Commodore 64 without the floppy drive.

From Wikipedia

Shortly after a friend of mine at work justified the purchase of an IBM PC or XT computer for his group.  He and several other engineers analyzed Texas Eastman’s utility bills for slight calculation errors (our electric bill was millions).  Avoidance of the cost of the computer seconds on the company mainframe justified the purchase of the desktop computer, even if it took far longer to perform the same calculations.

My break came when Eastman purchased a trunked radio system from Motorola.  I coordinated radio purchases at the time.  The system came with an IBM AT desktop computer to monitor system health.  I located the computer at my desk and arranged for a modem line connecting it to the radio site.  Suddenly I had word processing and some calculating ability in my cubicle.  How nice!  All this was DOS—white letters on a black screen—no Windows, no mouse.  We had recently begun to send primitive emails between certain users who had access to dumb terminals across the plant.  Since I had also arranged to have a drop from my RF LAN network at my desk (the only one in electrical engineering), I could mimic dumb terminal operation on my IBM and actually have something like email–but only to certain plant engineers and to none of my management.  I also had a television demodulator that could feed my computer screen, giving me access to the plant security video system (the other justification of our RF LAN).

The manager of a local commercial trunked radio system we used as a backup had one of the early DOS-based portable computers.  It was lug-able and had a printer in a small suitcase.  He could carry it with him, but it had to be powered from an outlet to work.  Pretty slick for the time.

In 1989 I left Eastman and went to work for Motorola.  The culture was quite different.  I soon realized that Eastman, with secretaries and drafters supporting engineers, was the office culture of the past.  Motorola’s structure was modeled on what would become the future for most American businesses.  There was no staff of secretaries and no draftsmen.  The engineers did all their work from start to finish, including calculations, drawings, and supporting reports.  This necessitated that each engineer have a computer.  There was one secretary who took our phone messages, but she was soon replaced by voicemail.  Although the IBM AT was the current technology at the time, I was given an old IBM PC or XT since I was the new kid on the block.

An IBM PC like my first at Motorola.  Note the two floppy drives.  Many early IBM PCs had no hard drive, but only the two floppy drives.  Early personal computers used one floppy for the program disk, and a second to store data.  Fortunately, my first Motorola PC had a hard drive.  I think it was 20 meg.

From Wikipedia

This was still before Windows.  We had various DOS programs written by other engineers which performed our specialized design calculations.  We did coverage predictions on a mainframe in Schaumburg, which we accessed though a modem connected to our desktop computers.  Mine was a 1200 BPS modem.  The higher ranking engineers had 2400 BPS.  One of the local engineers was placed in charge of keeping the computers running.  If you stayed on his good side, he would give you upgrades like a faster modem.  Not too long before I showed up, the Motorola office had no IBM desktop computers—calculations were done using a Commodore PET.

As I remember, there was some primitive form of email that we used at the time.  It was similar to the system at Eastman.  I sent weekly reports to my manager in Houston using this DOS-like terminal program rather than fax printouts to him.  To send engineering designs to our sales people we had to use Fed-Ex or fax.  If the sales person had a computer and modem, you might could transfer files by dialing into his phone line–no modern email or file transfer.

About this time my family bought a word processor for home use.  It was made by a typewriter company and looked like a typewriter.  It stored your work on a floppy.  It used its own proprietary operating system, but I insisted that it be able to convert files to ASCII for compatibility with IBM computers.  That paid off.  I began writing some family history on that machine and still have those files (now converted to Word) stored on my present home computer.  I also began to piece together computers for the home from discarded parts I happened upon—not unlike my father piecing together TVs for our family in the 1960’s from discards that he repaired.  Some Motorola engineers were always building home computers.  They’d rush to the wholesale parts houses whenever the price of RAM dropped or when a larger hard drive hit the market.  Aside from having a somewhat serviceable computer at home, I didn’t get far into that hobby.

At first, I was unhappy when Windows was introduced.  I could type commands much faster than pointing and clicking (I still can today).  With Windows came more powerful computers and more elaborate programs.

Since we were involved with programming equipment at customer sites, Motorola was an early adopter of portable computers.  Like the one I saw at Eastman, the first were not very lap-able, nor did they work on batteries.

An early lug-able computer such as the ones we used at Motorola.

From Wikipedia

In that day, having a computer on the road didn’t provide connectivity back to the office—it just helped in doing local tasks.  It was an effort to carry the machine through the airport and lug it around at the customer location.  You didn’t take one unless you really needed it.

After winning cash from a technical paper competition, I dumped my home Frankenstein computers and bought our first real computer—a Sony Vaio.  It was nice to have something that came with compatible software and acted more like an appliance than a science experiment.  I have had little stomach for building computers since then—I just buy computers straight from the store—first E-Machines, then Dells as the price came down.

At work I volunteered to be a beta-user for Motorola’s new order entry system, since I would get a new 486 computer as part of the deal.  It was fast for the time and ran IBM’s new OS2 operating system.

Eventually Motorola engineers were provided laptop computers running Windows in addition to the OS2 desktop computers.  Everything other than order entry was done with  laptops.

When you traveled, you prayed for a hotel with decent phone lines.  Our 56 KBPS modems provided a very thin lifeline back to our business centers.  If you arrived at the hotel with other business travelers, you’d rush to your room and dial in before others tied up all the hotel’s outgoing phone lines.

As the Internet became popular, we rode the wave of expanded connectivity between workers and customers provided by the Internet and modern email.  We were early users of pagers, then text pagers, then cell phones, and eventually cell/PDA/computer combinations.  Each of these further erased the distinction between being in or out of the office.  We now have email and Internet connectivity via phone that is almost as robust as found on a laptop (this was written several years ago–we’ve gone further now).  This is a far cry from the days that being on the road meant being out of contact with the office and customers for hours.

As high speed connections became readily available for the office, hotels, and home; the portable office became our norm and we evolved to the Internet-based world we have today.  I can work on the road or in my hotel almost as effectively as in a company facility.  With the PDA, I don’t even have to catch up on my email when I arrive at the hotel.  I will have followed the events of the day via PDA as I traveled (hey, this was still revolutionary when I wrote it).

Widespread wireless LAN gave yet another avenue to provide unbroken computer connectivity.  Before all hotels had decent high speed connections many of us trolled neighborhoods with our laptops sniffing out available signals from home wireless systems that would enable us to respond to that important email.  Glad those days are gone–besides, everyone learned to lock their Wi-Fi.

Thanks to the continued evolution of computers, the professional world that I entered in 1979 is almost as far away from us as the age of Thomas Edison and Alexander Bell.


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