punkwalrus (punkwalrus) wrote,

How I Ended Up in Computerland: Part 1 - Computer Camp

This is going to be part one of several parts to come.

I never really considered computers as a career when I was a kid. I wanted to be an paleontologist, veterinarian, architect, and astronomer from age 8 to 18 when reality set in that I was not destined for college. I had always considered that there were two kinds of computer users: those who used them for games, and those strange bearded me who wore suspenders you see in server rooms where computers are the size of refrigerators.

Back in the 1970s, this wasn't too far from the truth.

My father, an electrical engineer, was not fond of computers, although he worked with them. My mother told me this was why we were not allowed to have a computer in the house; my father didn't want to come home to them after a day of dealing with them. I am not sure if I believe this because my father never allowed us to have a VCR or a microwave oven. He may have been cheap.

In 1977, I got my first LED calculator. There of the first things I did with it were calculate what age I would be in the year 2000 (32), multiply past the screen (99999999 x 9999999 got a flashing "E"), and what happens when I divide by zero (also a flashing E). It was a large device for a small kid. It was about the size of a paperback book and almost as heavy when you put the 9v battery in it. I actually had this calculator until 1994, when my son broke it into tiny, tiny pieces.

One day, my father brought home a huge sleeve of punch cards as part of some educational thing he was doing. I made huge card houses out of them. He wasn't too pleased.

My first experience with a keyboard and terminal was in the summer of 1979, I should think, during a summer school program. Fairfax County had gotten a new mainframe and terminal system in some of the more wealthier schools. An odd footnote is that one of the architects for this system ended up being my boss at AOL from 2001-2004. I spent the day at this "computer camp," where we learned some of the basics of LOGO, ALGOL (and a kin, SNOBOL), PASCAL, FORTRAN, and the newcomer, BASIC. Of course, everyone liked BASIC, but the interpreter for it was done by login, and we ran on some "CPM" (Computing By Minute) time restraints. I still remember the old DEC 80s we had.

That is, if you were lucky to get a CRT terminal.

In fact, we didn't have enough terminals to go around, so they rotated the class by groups of 8. And they usually had 6 CRT systems (keyboard and screen) and 2 Line Printing Terminals (LPTs for short), which looked like a huge typewriter with a huge continuous sheet of green and white banded paper. Your LPT session was typed out rather noisily and it shook. The "bell" (now a beep, or control + g ) was really a bell that went "diinnng" back then.

Either way you logged in was the same.

HELLO username [enter]

Then you put in your password. Ah, now here's the big one. At this age, I was blessed to have a teacher who was REALLY into making safe passwords. Even back then, before there were a lot of hackers, this teacher stressed how important it was to keep your password safe. His password was like two lines from the Bible, and took him almost 10-15 seconds to type at a fast typing speed. He suggested that our passwords be more than 8 letters and number, and less than 256, which was the buffer limit. I forgot mine, but you had to submit your password to him before he approved it. He even said the only reason he wants to know your password is the plethora of students who forgot theirs every class.

The penalty for staying logged in was he changed your password. This may seem harsh, but since the class plaid for login time as well as computing time, you could run the class thousands of dollars if you stayed logged in overnight. Supposedly.

That lesson stays with me to this day. Later on, I would run into people who would fuck up your login scripts if you stayed logged in, and I have to say this never happened to me. Even now, I lock my computer screen saver when I step away (sometimes cats walk on the keyboard).

Most of the class was lecture or deskwork only. You wrote programs on paper, filled out worksheets, and handed them in. The computer time was to test your work or theories, because there was simply not enough screens to go around for them to be in use for everything. And even then, we didn't do a lot of programming. I recall programming was more like the "Boss" of a video game: the end guy was hard. I think I wrote maybe a total of 4 programs, and they were all really basic ones like finding an average of 100 coin tosses, a Mad Libs like game, stuff like that.

The class also had several field trips. We went into large server rooms, saw how the Metro Rail operated, and visited other computer-related sites and activities. At the end of the class, I got a copy of "The Best of Creative Computing Volume 1," which I still have.

After that camp, though, we never spoke about computers for two more years. They still remained mysterious boxes run by grumbling bearded men in suspenders to me.
Tags: computer, computerhistory, tech
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