Thursday, March 10, 2005


Back in the mists of time...

Before PC's were ubiquitous, and before most people not using PCs, DOS and Windows were using Unix, the computer industry consisted of numerous so-called 'proprietary' companies who manufactured their own hardware and wrote their own operating system software (and in many cases, application software, too) to run on it.

Before Intel, AMD, and Cyrix were 'inside', computers were built which did not even have a microprocessor in the sense of a chip which did 'everything'; instead the CPU consisted of a set of separate printed circuit boards communicating via a proprietary backplane (sort of like the PCI bus in your desktop PC). In some computers, the CPU would consist of more than ten boards the size of takeout pizza boxes.

So anyway the 'props' have now faded into history. The last one to succumb was Digital Equipment Corp (DEC) which, with IBM, arguably defined the era of proprietary computing, IBM delivering top-end mainframe systems (starting with the 360 line in 1964) and mini systems (AS/400); and DEC with its legendary PDP line (starting in the 1950s) and VAX line (starting with the VAX 11/780 in 1977 and ending with the last VAX processor based machine in 1992, when the company changed to building computers based on its ALPHA CPU instead of the VAX board sets). DEC was taken over by COMPAQ in 1998.

There were many other players: Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Sperry, ICL, Honeywell, Data General, Control Data, Prime, Gould, Texas Instruments, Wang, Varian, Harris, even HP had a line of proprietary minicomputers running their own operating system (MPE).

Imagine a world where there were so many different operating systems, networking protocols and standards (all proprietary), flavours of programming languages (convert IBM Fortran to Prime Fortran?), data formats, and so on.

Now, you simply use your USB pen drive to move a bunch of files from one computer to another, or ZIP and email them. Imagine what it was like for us back in the 1980s when it was common for a firm to have two computer systems from different manufacturers but be unable to interchange files between them easily, if at all. For a start, they might use different character sets; everybody using ANSI or UNICODE is a comparatively new thing. Ever heard of EBCDIC? It wasn't unusual to have two computers from the same manufacturer which didn't talk to each other (or which you couldn't afford to have talk to each other!)

So what was it like for us back in the day?

One thing it was, was very expensive. Forget downloading superb quality software for free off the Internet. Even a C compiler for a Prime computer ran something like $15,000. If you needed to ask what a license for their Primos operating system cost, you couldn't afford it!

As for the computers themselves? In the late 1980s, how about around $150,000 for a machine with 16MB of memory, 600MB disk, serving 16 users on character mode terminals (no graphics, unless you count block graphics!)

So you can see why PCs became so popular.

Imagine you are a college in the late 1980s needing to upgrade your (proprietary token ring) network of Prime minicomputers. Prime's negotiating strategy was based on the notion that as you already had five Primes, you weren't going to throw them out and start over with something else (this is called "lock-in").

Further, imagine that as a college, you are so strapped for cash that a high-level concrete walkway between two buildings recently fell into the parking lot below during a strong wind.

Finally, imagine that a Norwegian firm has just come along and offered you the very latest in Norwegian minicomputer technology, for practically nothing, just to get a reference site in the country.

Fast forward to the next semester. The Primes have been carted out and replaced by a number of NORSK DATA systems linked via their (proprietary of course) network, COSMOS.

At first, the student body thinks nothing has changed - the computer center is still full of the knackered old GT100 and Volker-Craig character mode ASCII terminals it had before the summer vacation. But what they are connected to, has changed ... as students log in, they find that the Primes, with Primos, the friendly Prime operating system, have been replaced by NORSKS, with an operating system showing a distinctly Scandinavian influence (think Ingmar Bergman) - SINTRAN.

So what was life like for the user community. Let's take a trip back in time about 20 years and look at some of the features of the SINTRAN operating system.

File names could be about 20 characters long with a four character extension and version number. You used the hyphen character in filenames a lot.


There were no subdirectories. You logged in and all your files were in one place.

There were no wildcards. Instead you could get away with typing as much of a filename as you had to, to make it unambiguous.


Would start up QED, an editor which makes NOTEPAD look like Photoshop, on my-first-prog:symb;1.


Would result in the message


Say I am in the editor and want to save the file. It keeps telling me, that the file doesn't exist. I know that!

It turns out, if you want to create a file, you have to enclose the name in double quotes.

OK, I want to copy bill:symb to bill-withers:symb. What's the Copy command?

COPY-FILE bill:symb,bill-withers:symb

Wait! What's happened. Oh... the copy-file command takes the TO file name FIRST and the FROM file name second? Great!

Hey, hold on, what's up now!

Oh, the computer's crashed. Don't worry, there's a Norsk engineer on site. They only crash a couple of times a day. Let's hope he doesn't have to order any parts from Oslo!


I'm having some fun at the expense of a long-forgotten and truly dire minicomputer maker, which died a death in the late 80s. The reality was the proprietary machines were generally fun to learn and use, and on the whole reliable. After all, if you design the hardware and write the software, the machine had better be stable, hadn't it?
I'm new to computers (about ten years) so this is fascinating history to me. I remember starting to work for a company in the mid sixties that had a room full of the six foot computer cabinets with the reel to reel tape drives, and a group of programmers that actually hard wired the boards inside these cabinets. Right in the middle of the room on a large support post was a wooden cabinet with a glass front. A small hammer on a chain hung to the side and a sign said "in case of emergency, break glass". Mounted in the cabinet was an oriental abacus.
My first program:

30 PRINT "YOU ARE " + X * 12 + " MONTHS OLD!"

Ran on an old Commodore PET, back in 1981. Not bad, considering I was 9 at the time.
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