Many Different Sides of Computing History

A photo of a classic Burroughs B-1800 mainframe computer.

In the 1970s if you asked anyone to name a computer they would have said IBM-something. But other companies like Burroughs, Honeywell, NCR, and Unisys sold mainframes throughout the 1970s. Computing history is about more than just machines, though. It is about the people who use them.

Modern computing languages annoy me. They are poorly designed, inefficient, full of holes, and require you to go too far out of your way to do simple things with no real certainty that you can accomplish them. Many of these languages are influenced by the inherently flawed design of Linux. Linux came out of the world of UNIX. UNIX, developed at the original AT & T’s famous Bell Laboratories in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was once heralded as the supreme operating system. Now I think it’s mostly a ghost of its former self and it never became what it should have been.

Linux devotees take umbrage at any attempt to undermine the beauty and power of their operating system. Maybe they grew up in a world of Microsoft-vs-Apple. I don’t know. I grew up in a world of Big Iron-vs-Little PCs, with mini- and super-microcomputers squeezed in-between the two extremes.

Digital Computing Began before Most of Us Were Born

When I got my first programming job at 15 the 1970s we were trapped in a miasma of boredom and lack of focus for American technology. Our news headlines were dominated by the echoes of the Vietnam War and the Oil Crisis. Every other magazine had some sort of article about what to do in case of nuclear war (generally, all such articles ended with a variant of, “Bend over, put your head between your knees, and kiss your sweet ass good-bye”).

There were still many survivors of real nuclear war alive in the 1970s. I am not sure how many of them are alive today. My father served in the US Army during World War II as a medic. He served in both the European and Pacific theaters. He had almost earned enough points to go home in Europe right before the Germans surrendered, but a woman he had intended to marry stopped writing to him. He was unable to connect with her house via telephone. He finally left his post, returned to England, and found that her house had been destroyed in an air raid. She was presumed dead by the authorities.

After Dad turned himself in he was court-martialed, stripped of rank and points, and sent back to the front. He spent time in eastern Europe and then was put aboard a ship that sailed to Panama, passed through the canal (where, during a brief off-ship hiatus, he was almost eaten by army ants), and eventually made his way into the Pacific theater where as a medic he helped to storm sunny beaches under fire and treated Japanese soldiers who had been burned out of the bush with flame-throwers.

Of all the crazy stories my dad shared with me of his war-time experiences, the most horrifying ones came out of the Pacific theater. He was sitting a on train one day (I think he was in the Philippines after MacArthur returned with a force large enough to beat the Japanese) when he heard a strange rattling noise. He looked over to the other side of the car and saw a soldier sitting with his helmet in his lap. The helmet was filled with gold-filled teeth.

One of the great things to come out of World War II that continues to influence your life today was computing technology. The US Air Force and other western (British) forces developed the technology to improve code-breaking and to simulate atomic explosions. Decades later when I went to a technical school in Georgia to learn formal computer programming one of my instructors was John McLenaghan, who had lost both his legs below the knees during World War II. When he was released from the hospital he signed up for an Air Force program to work with computers that were used by researchers working with Los Alamos (I don’t recall if he was actually stationed at Los Alamos).

Early Computer Programming Was Almost Analog

Those computers were programmed by plugging wires into board frames that resemble the filters we put into our homes’ air conditioning systems. The processors were made up of vacuum tubes that had a tendency to overheat and explode. And, of course, the first computer “bug” ever discovered was a moth that found itself drawn to the wrong light (a vacuum tube). “Mac” (as we called him) had his own share of stories to tell about the war, but rumor had it you needed to go drinking with him to hear those stories and not only did I NOT drink, by the time I became one of his students he was no longer fraternizing with the students.

Michael, Mr. Mac, and the Evil Basic Compiler

Burroughs Corporation B1800 Computer

Photo of a classic Burroughs Corporation B1800 mainframe. This was a relatively small mainframe for its time.

But he did teach me a little history outside of the curriculum. As one of the few students in that program with any prior programming experience, I was usually one of the first to complete any new assignments.

The day after they installed a new BASIC compiler on our Burroughs B1800 mainframe we got to do our first “loop” program using “GOTO” statements. Our instructor (Mr. Charles V. Johnson) reviewed every program before it was allowed to run on the mainframe because the school was sharing that computer with a state-run data center that processed payroll records. Uncontrolled loops could tie up mainframes and bring down whole critical systems in those days.

My code was a bit unusual but passed visual inspection. I dutifully submitted my very small deck of cards to the operator and went to lunch. I was sitting in the cafeteria when I suddenly became the center of attention. My program had gone into an uncontrolled loop. Needless to say, I was a little upset and embarrassed (one of the consequences of being an insufferable know-it-all is that people become jealous and irritable when they are around you). When I returned to the computer room my instructor (Mr. Johnson) was staring at the printout in consternation. “There is no reason,” he assured me, “why this program should have gone into an uncontrolled loop. You will have to rewrite your code so I can give you a passing grade, but you have nothing to be embarrassed about.”

Of course, it took a couple of days for the rest of the students to understand why I had done nothing wrong. One of the other instructors, Mrs. Geri Stotts, was assigned to figure out what happened. She had me write a series of programs to test on the computer. I learned how to generate uncontrolled loops in various ways (much to the annoyance and discomfiture of the student operators, who had to explain to the data center why their system kept stalling out). Finally I showed a printout to Mrs. Stotts that had an unusual result from some calculations. I don’t recall exactly what we did but it involved setting a high precision (so that you could compute with numbers like 9.9999999) and doing some subtraction. Instead of getting an integer result one of my calculations produced something like “9.999999”.

“Go show this to Mac,” Mrs. Stotts said with glee. She was quite pleased with herself. I had no idea of what was worth smiling about. So I took the printout to Mac, who was in the middle of one of his thunderous lectures (you could hear him all the way down the hall when he got to rolling), and I just walked right up to him in front of 49 irritated students (my reputation for being an insufferable know-it-all who was the first person in MY class to produce an uncontrolled loop having preceded me — several times over).

“Mrs. Stotts insisted I show this to you right away,” I said, holding the printout in front of Mr. Mac. He put down his chalk, assumed a quizzical expression, and glanced — yes, I say GLANCED — at the printout before bursting out into a long stream of colorful metaphors (as Mr. Spock might say), chastizing some unknown, unseen programmer. I was as stunned and awed by the mesmerizing profanity as the rest of the class. “THAT IDIOT!” Mac yelled out. “Not you,” he added quickly to me.

“Do you know what this means,” he asked. Nope. I hadn’t a clue.

Mac proceeded to give us a fifteen-minute lecture on computer architecture (not included in the curriculum) about REGISTERS and how computers did their math. I’ll spare you the details, but that day I learned an important lesson in technology history. It was that there was some younger generation of whiz-kid programmers who had replaced Mac’s generation as the geniuses behind all the big computing systems. The “idiot” whom Mac now despised was a compiler programmer who had neglected to clear his registers after a previous operation. The uncleared register was the reason why my perfect code had gone into an uncontrolled loop.

The compiler error was documented and sent off to the Burroughs Corporation for a quick fix. And that was the first time I saved the world of modern computing from untold natural disasters. It would not be the last.

Why Young Coders Turn Out Crappy Software…Faster

What happens every 10-15 years is that the older code-heads either get burned out or are shunted aside and left to rot by the companies they made successful. Those tech companies hire younger inexperienced programmers who have learned the latest coding languages and techniques at school. The loss of experience in software engineering is equivalent to seeing every medical doctor leave his profession after 10-15 years, without contributing anything to resources like medical journals and Conn’s Current Therapy (a book that doctors contribute to in order to let each other know which treatments are most likely to help rather than kill you).

In other words, software development resets every 10-15 years and people have to start learning old lessons over again. That has a severe impact on the quality of the software we use. It helps to explain why so much of the Internet runs like it was written on crap code — because it WAS written on crap code, for the most part.

But every generation also benefits from the accomplishments of the previous generation. So that idiot compiler programmer who forgot to clear his registers was working on systems that had been developed by Mac and his associates. I went on to work on systems that were developed by the idiot. We were a generation of young, eager idiots ready to go out and learn over again all the hard lessons of life experience that Mac and his friends had learned the hard way.

We can call that Mac’s Law, if you wish: that a generation of computer software developers, unaware of at least half the knowledge acquired by the previous generation, is still able to push forward computer technology into a new evolutionary phase.

Imagine what we could do with some continuity.

World War II Gave Us Modern Technology As We Know It

But I digress. I was talking about World War II and its impact on the Internet. My Dad eventually made his way to Japan (it helped that he could speak the Japanese language). There he helped treat survivors of the only nuclear war mankind has unleashed on itself. One of my favorite stories is how he fled the city one day to relax in the hills. Much to his surprise he was mobbed by children who came begging for food. The soldiers who were with him didn’t know whether to shoot the kids or run away until Dad told them the kids were just hungry. Suddenly every American in the area started handing out candy and whatever else they had on them.

Dad’s unit had been assigned to the second wave scheduled for the invasion of Japan. They were told to expect 80% casualties in the first wave (based on a review of what had happened in Okinawa, where the Japanese put up the fiercest resistance of the war). Something like 2 million men had been assembled for the invasion of Japan. I don’t know how many would have gone in the first wave but I guess they would have experienced something worse than Normandy. We’ll never know because we dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan to show the enemy — well, I’m not sure what we were demonstrating.

Apologists often argue that Truman’s decision to drop the bomb saved a lot of American lives. I think it has also been argued it probably saved a lot of Japanese lives, too. After all, according to the Cornerstone of Peace about 149,000 Okinawan civilians died in the 82-day long Battle of Okinawa. 77,000 Japanese soldiers and 14,000 American soldiers also died in the battle. The Normandy invasion officially lasted from June 6, 1944 to July 11. Both sides lost over 110,000 men (for a total of about 233,000). The losses from both battles were immense but military planners expected far more casualties from an invasion of Japan.

Computers that were designed to save lives by helping to destroy tens of thousands of lives in an instant paved the way for the Internet that you love so much today. Remember that, for our gentle passtimes are oft paved with blood. The Internet is only the latest in such a series of grand ironies. Do you love boating? Boating technology was advanced by war more than by commerce. Do you love your sport utility vehicles? They, too, owe much more to warfare than to consumerism.

The Best Desktop PC of the 1990s Was …

What led me down this bloody horror of memory lane was an idle thought about the Everex Step 386 computer. Most of you would not remember it. At the time when it came out, the Step 386 was rated one of the best performing computers of its time. It was as powerful as some of the old mainframes had been, more so, and only cost a fraction of what they had cost. I worked for a company that bought a Step 386 for about $6,000. Your smart phone is now more powerful than that machine was.

Michael Bedner of Hirsch Bedner Associates, or HBA International

Michael Bedner of Hirsch Bedner Associates, or HBA International

I was the DP manager for the Atlanta office of Hirsch Bedner Associates, the world’s leading design firm for hotels and upscale resorts. Search for information on Howard Hirsch and Michael Bedner to learn more about those dynamic men. I think I saw Howard on one occasion as he was passing through the office (or maybe on one of my trips to the corporate headquarters in California).

I got to know Michael pretty well (well, as well as a DP manager can get to know Michael Bedner). I admired him for being crazy, intelligent, loveable, infuriating, and a dreamer. He wanted to do things with computers that we SHOULD have been able to do, but for some reason you just could not do at the time. For what it’s worth, it would still be hard to do some of the things he imagined using today’s software.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Michael Bedner. When I left the company he was upset and came to visit me. A project I had been told would be under my guidance had been suddenly changed without consulting me.

A new computer was to be installed in another office and I had specifically pointed out the need for air conditioning. But to add air conditioning would have cost $20,000 (so I was told after the decision was made not to include it).

I was the one who was supposed to go install the system. I told my supervisor there was no way I could make it work given the new specifications. So to avoid being fired I gave my two weeks notice.

Michael flew out to Atlanta, maybe just to see me or perhaps more likely just to check on things and see me while he was there. He asked me some pretty hard questions and at first I was reluctant to open up to him. After all, what it looked like to me was I was being set up to take the fall for someone else’s bad planning (and that had already happened once in the company, a situation about which Michael had heard and he assured me held me blameless).

I guess you just have to be involved with a community of creative people for months and years before it settles in that everyone is in an almost constant emotional flux. They all have strong feelings about their work. That is why Hirsch Bedner became so successful. What they were doing wasn’t just a job for anyone. All the designers and draftsmen and even the support staff were on constant edge. It was exciting work and challenging and I loved some parts of that job and hated others, just like everyone else.

I really did not want to leave but I just didn’t want to commit myself to a future of being used as a foil for every bad mid-management decision. Michael understood my position. He really did. He asked me to put all my concerns into a letter to him. I was reluctant to do that. REALLY reluctant. “Trust me,” he said. “I would never do anything to hurt you. You’ll thank me for this if we ever meet again.”

So I wrote the letter, showed it to my supervisor, whose eyes grew about 10 times as large as normal, and she said, “Wow.”

“Am I doing the right thing?” I asked. “Trust Michael,” she said. “I think he really likes you and will do good by you.”

I Wish We All Could Depend On a Michael Bedner in Life

About two weeks after I left the company I went back to visit. I had taken a job with a local software firm that was brought in to support the Atlanta office’s computer system. My now former supervisor took me aside and said, “It is a GOOD thing you wrote that letter to Michael.”

What follows is hearsay. I cannot prove it but this is what I was told happened.

The new computer was installed in the other office without air conditioning. It was the middle of summer. Temperatures hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Exactly as I predicted the computer locked up. I was immediately blamed for the failure. When a damage assessment meeting was held in corporate headquarters someone apparently suggested I be held accountable and maybe sued. Michael Bedner, I was told, pulled out my letter and said something like, “That is not going to happen. Michael Martinez warned you that this would happen and you ignored him.”

To me that was something completely unexpected. I have never been so well treated by a company President as I was by Michael Bedner. He owed me nothing and I have no idea of what he risked in defending me like that. I will always be grateful to him for persuading me to write that letter. But I wish I could have worked for him for the next 20 years. I might have less hair today than I do now, but it would have been an adventure every day.

There is more to the story than I have shared. A high-level corporate position was at stake and I had been in consideration for it. But too many people’s personal ambitions were in play, I guess.

So what does this have to do with the Everex Step 386? Well, when I took that job at HBA I was given a white-labeled Wyse 386 to work with. It was running the Thoroughbred Operating System and could support up to 8 terminals in addition to a console user. That was my “mainframe”.

As computers go the Wyse/Thoroughbred combo did the job but the TOS was a relatively primitive operating system. It was running business software that had been developed years before by a self-taught programmer (then the corporate head of Data Processing) who had originally been an accountant. As happened so often in the 1970s and 1980s, the owners of the company said to the accounting staff, “We’re installing a computer. Who is going to be responsible for it?”

Dave Hammond did okay with what he had. They started with an old MAI BasicFour minicomputer. The MAI systems were cutting edge at one time. I learned to program in Business Basic Level III on an MAI 600 minicomputer.

In the 1980s MAI lost its leadership in the minicomputer field in large part thanks to the PC and the low entry cost of installing Local Area Networks. LANs, as they were called, were horrible conglomerations of PCs assembled by people who either did not know that you could do so much more with a PC or by opportunists who didn’t care how inefficient the LANs were as long as they could sell them to unwitting small business owners.

As a software support person working for Value Added Resellers I hated the LAN accounts the most because they were constantly locking up, took forever to do anything, and could not do half the things you could do with a proper multi-user operating system. TOS at least had that over the LANs.

But I was frustrated with TOS because it couldn’t do a lot of the neat things I had once done with real minicomputers and UNIX systems. I longed for the days when I had worked on Fortune micros running UNIX (not so much the Altos systems running Xenix).

1989 Everex Step 386 One SheetAfter more than a year of rewriting portions of the TOS utilities system and developing new applications (including a file transfer system that allowed our accounting office to upload transactional data to the corporate headquarters every day) I finally persuaded the company to let me install a newer computer running UNIX. We bought an Everex Step 386 and immediately acquired WordPerfect Office for UNIX. The secretaries in the Atlanta office were blown away and the corporate office staff became jealous.

There were oh-so-many things we could do with that computer. I even had a color monitor for the console (the TOS system had an amber monitor that harkened back to the days of yore when Men were Mighty and Computers were Mightier Still). Many of the people who bought the Step 386 back in those days simply used it as a PC. A Personal Computer.

I stumbled across this article from 2010 where someone reminisced about his old Step 386. I appreciate the fond, glowing memories for they were assuredly deserved. In the late 1980s I never met a better 386-based system than the Everex Step 386. But like nearly all PCs of the time, it just had a little problem with excessive environmental heat.

And After the PC Revolution Ended …

I can’t say I was a big user of Everex technology in my personal computing. In fact, I resisted buying my own PC for many, many years because I was always around computers. But I was saddened to see that a company that once made its mark by LEADING the way had by 2009 earned nothing but scorn for its low-end systems. That was not the Everex I knew and loved. Somewhere along the way they tried to change with the times and I guess they changed too much. Putting high-end ideas on low-end technology just doesn’t work, unless you’re talking about the Internet.

Of course, you could do a LOT of things that are done on the Internet today much more easily with a decent Business Basic interpreter.  People don’t know what they are missing out on.

But that story will have to wait for another day.