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It was worse than you thought

19 Apr 2024

Now that we all have supercomputers in our pockets, in the form of a smartphone, most people seldom give a thought to the state of computer technology some 60 years ago.

However, those of us who were born in around the middle of last century are very familiar with the image of spinning tape drives, huge racks of flashing lights and air conditioned "computer rooms" replete with banks of noisy line-printers.

Oh, and let's not forget the ubiquitous (at the time) punched cards that required huge machines to both create them and read them.

Quite often, the operation of these mainframe beasts was portrayed as simply having someone sitting at a console while others may have changed a tape or two and stood around in smart suits.

I'm not sure that this is exactly the reality of the situation.

I've been watching a few videos about the early and golden age of the mainframe, from the mid 1950s to the late 1970s and it's fascinating stuff.

It's only when you see just how complicated, massive and slow these machines were that you actually realise how far we've come with computer tech in the 21st century.

The video below is somewhat different to all the IBM show-reels I've been watching because it really does give a proper feel for how crude all this old gear really was. Watch it and see what was involved when a computer history museum set about running a trivial FORTRAN program on an old 1959 IBM mainframe where even the ability to perform integer multiplication was an optional extra.

Wow, there was an awful lot of loading, walking, button punching and effort involved in running even the simplest bit of code -- and how slow was that machine?

Compare this to the speed at which a modern smartphone can crunch numbers, process video and play your favourite tunes whilst plucking data out of the ether around us.

I just love the way the machine presented errors on the little panel on the CPU box. Given the limitations of the tech, it was actually really clever to be able to isolate the problem down to the actual memory location and opcodes involved.

Then there was the noise!

Those lineprinters were always incredibly noisy -- so many rapidly moving parts accompanied by inky bits of metal slamming into dead tree flesh. Talk about a sensory experience! It makes reading the OLED display on your phone a very calming experience by comparison.

I've been doing quite a bit of code-cutting on the Raspberry Pi system that sits behind me as I type this and I marvel at just how much computing power is now contained in this tiny SBC nestled in its 3D-printed case that is so small it sometimes gets lost in the detritus on my desk. Gigabytes of RAM, gigahertz of processor speed and the ability to suck and blow data through my network at tens of megabytes per second.

All while remaining totally silent and using less than 10 watts of power.

I love this tech.

Carpe Diem folks!

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