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Computers Have Come a Long Way Baby
Like many of us, there are times when I cringe and cringe at a webpage loading slowly or how long it takes to download a file. And, being a programmer by trade, I sometimes wonder to myself how limited the command set is for a particular programming language or how slow a particular PC is to update a large database file. But at times like this, I can calm myself down by closing my eyes and thinking back to when I first worked with computers.
In 1972, after returning to the army (and a semester of high school) I decided to move to Tulsa. My aunt had an accounting practice and was trying to do computers, and I thought it would be interesting to help her while I was looking for a job. After a good deal of research I suggested that he should buy a Litton 1241; it seemed reasonably easy to operate and there were several software packages that came with it. The local sales rep had sold a lot of them and his customers included several accountants, so it seemed like a perfect fit.
Unfortunately my aunt didn’t know how to use a computer so I decided to stick around a little longer and try to transfer some of her workload to her shiny new computer. And it was a real computer for the time. It had a magnetic drum memory that could hold 64 bits of data and 128 program registers, each of which could hold four instructions. There was no monitor of course – the printer doubled as the input screen. And because internal memory was volatile (your data was lost when you turned off the computer), the 1241 also had a paper cassette/disk drive. All of your data files were cut onto paper tape as you completed a task, and read through the paper tape as you ran the task. The 1241 also comes with a free electric paper clip that has a top clip to keep your tapes neatly in the bins.
1241 was actually very fast once you loaded your data from tape, assuming you could do with those 64 data records. Any major application had to be done in stages; For example a job costing package available from Litton had to pause several steps in between to record intermediate data to tape and then read it back for the next step. All in all, not exactly a quick burner if you’re running something very complex.
After a while, I managed to teach myself how to program the darn thing and eventually got offered a job with the local Litton office. I got a lot of experience there with the 1241, but over the next few years Litton made great strides in modernizing their computers. First came the 1251, which was basically a 1241 with a bigger drum. I set up a demo for the manager of the local Coca-Cola bottling plant and he was so impressed with the speed of the new system (it sorted 2,000 items in just two hours) that he bought one on the spot.
Next came Litton in 1281, who introduced magnetic book cards. No rolls of dirty paper; 1281 data stored on magnetic book cards. At the time it seemed like a great step forward and we immediately set up for a great demo prospect. The sales manager and I worked through a complete demo the night before our show and everything went smoothly. The next morning in the actual demo absolutely nothing worked — like the frog in the old Warner Brothers cartoon the 1281 just sat there and occasionally bled. It turns out that there is a set of “microroutines” on a special ledger card that must be loaded each time the 1281 is used for the first time.
1281 was followed a few years later by 1300; a much more modern system. The 1300 had a monitor and tape drives for storage. It was so impressive that we actually made an appointment with Walmart and went to their headquarters to make a presentation for them. When they showed us their data processing area, it looked like old times – by golly, they were recording everything on paper. There were large pieces of paper tape everywhere and stacks of paper clips scattered all over the floor. Walmart didn’t buy from us but they recently revamped their computer department — which probably has a lot to do with Walmart growing rapidly over the next few decades.
Let me say what I forgot; newer is not always better. We once tried to upgrade a construction company in Oklahoma City that had a Litton 1230 (basically a teletype with a mag punch and paper attached to it). The customers separated us. The boss’s wife ran their job cost estimate program and worked at the front desk and the only way she could tell when to start running another estimate was by ringing the teletype at 1230 at the end of each job. We could offer all kinds of new features but we couldn’t ring that bell for it.
Programming those systems was fun too. Of course sometimes it takes some skill to save complex programs with only a few commands and save registers available. Do I miss those days? You bet – until I decide to browse some merchandise on Amazon or check out the latest stuff on YouTube. Perhaps the best part of remembering those times is that it reminds me of how far we’ve come and makes me more tolerant of that slow web page.
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