[Chicago] Good readings on the history of computing

Skip Montanaro skip at pobox.com
Thu Sep 26 21:51:48 CEST 2013

I will digress a bit here and write down a little personal computer history.

I didn't take up Computer Science as a possible degree until after a
few years of graduate school.  I had been in a PhD program in
physiology at the University of Iowa, when I decided that wasn't for
me. I remembered fondly taking a FORTRAN class the summer after my
freshman year at USC, so I decided to check it out. By the time I
switched to computer science at Iowa, I already had a BS and a lot of
(unapplicable) graduate course work under my belt, so the CS
department chair allowed me to enter the program and just take
whatever undergraduate courses I felt necessary to make up for my
obvious lack of background. I took a fair number of standard courses
from the undergraduate curriculum: data structures, programming
languages overview (never did figure out the purely functional Lisp
implementation of a list permutation), etc. The hardware we had at
that time (late 1970s) was primitive by today's standards. My first
programming was done on an IBM mainframe (punch cars)), then I had
classes where we programmed (Pascal, I think) on a CDC 6600 (timeshare
w/ 1200baud serial connection between terminal and computer).
Somewhere along the way I took a course in the Engineering department
where we had to enter our programs on a PDP-11 of some ilk using the
switches on the front panel.  Didn't want to make any mistakes on
that! I also had a job working for a guy in the medical school
programming his IMSAI 8080.

That environment was positively advanced compared to the story our
numerical analysis professor related one day. He was in the department
well before I was there, probably before CS had split from the Math
department. They didn't actually have any computers. Instead, each
week, one of the professors or graduate students would pile
everybody's punch card boxes in their car, drive to Madison to feed
them into the mainframe at the University of Wisconsin, the return
with all the printouts. Talk about walking to school uphill both ways
in a snow storm!

Nearing the end of my coursework, I had to decide whether to take a
comprehensive exam or write a thesis. I decided to take an exam as
that would be the quickest way out of Dodge (I'd been in school pretty
much continuously from 1971 to 1981 and was ready to move on). I
passed the exam, but was still one course short of my degree. My final
summer I took a course on computer architecture. Wow! That was the
coolest class. The department had a microprogrammable Burroughs
(B1700?). That was the coolest thing I'd ever encountered. Wikipedia
has this to say:

"Burroughs produced the B1700 or "small systems" computers that were
designed to be microprogrammed, with each process potentially getting
its own virtual machine designed to be the best match to the
programming language chosen for the program being run."

The notion that you'd change the instruction set on-the-fly to suit
the program being run was astounding to me. It makes the now-baroque
Intel x86 series positively banal in comparison. If I'd taken that
course a couple semesters earlier, I might well have decided to write
a thesis, just so I could play with that cool computer.


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