postheadericon TECH TALK: On the Eve of Retirement, a Fond Look Back

Today I officially retired at the age of 55 from my IT-related career, so I thought it would be appropriate for a fond look back at the way that IT once was.

Forty years ago (almost to the day) I used my first computer. It did not have a monitor or a keyboard that I was allowed to touch, and it was housed behind a counter in a room that I was not allowed to enter. The IBM/360 was a monster of a device, and filled a small room with toggles, blinking lights, and large pushbutton switches ala the bridge of the Starship Enterprise in a 1966 Star Trek episode.

To operate the computer, I sat at a keypunch machine (resembling a small piano) and typed in what I wanted the computer to do. This ½ day activity produced a stack of keypunch cards that I handed to someone behind the counter, who would then return to me a printout of the results the next day. In this case, it was my homework.

Computing back then, to say the least, was not much fun.

But 30 years ago, almost to this day, I got my first personal desktop, the IBM PC XT. It was large by today’s standards, had a keyboard and monitor – albeit it was a phosphorous green-on-black display with no resolution to speak of, and had a floppy drive for disks that resembled CDs, only floppier. But it was my own, and I could do what I wanted with it, when I wanted. That was when the fun really began.

My fun however was limited to an 8MB harddrive and 128kB of memory. That’s not a typo, that’s about 1000 times less then I have sitting on my desk today. It ran PC-DOS as an operating system, and I could program in BASIC and print out the words “Hello World” on the screen. Woo-hoo! Now we were really having a ball. But I did use this computer to type up school papers and work reports in WordPerfect, and even print them out on a dot-matrix printer that sounded more like a ripsaw when printing then anything else.

Then about 20 years ago to this very day, things really started to get exciting. I was working @ IBM with hypertext (the precursor to HTML) to produce online help files and just beginning to write web pages for what was then to be the new World Wide Web. This was indeed interesting, as everything was done by hand inside a crude text editor, and then rendered out to see the results. What HTML did for us was to eliminate the rendering (waiting), and we finally had instant publishing across a loose network of computers all over the world.

This rocked the socks off for everyone involved, and the results of our R&D in the late 80’s can be seen on any YouTube or Facebook page today. In short, online publishing had reached the moon.

But Mars and the rest of the cosmos were to come next for both media publishing and global communication. I just think it interesting to note it was all started in backroom cubicles with folks who loved to dink with computer code and hardware bits. We would cable up monstrosities of circuit boards and then program all sorts of crazy algorithms just to make “Hello World” come alive with color, animation, video, sound, and eventually touch and vibration.

Now on the eve of retiring from all things based in chips and pixels, I have say that the folks who brought all this to us (personal computing) had the spirit of NASA, whose immortal words on the flight deck of Apollo 13 also rang true in our IT circles: Failure was not an option.

We wanted to see computers in the hands of everyone on the planet, and did not want our children to ever have to do something as painful as punching out a deck of cards and then waiting a day to get a printout of their homework. We wanted better for the next generation to come.

Considering that my wife just got a smartphone for less then $100 that can surf the web and play Angry Birds, I think we actually succeeded. What say you?

This article first published in on 9/9/2011.


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I'm retired, and I walk my dog... a lot.

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