old computers

HackLabTO’s Lisp Machine Keyboard

by Joey deVilla on February 5, 2009

After years of sitting in storage, my deadbeat ex-housemate’s old Symbolics XL1200 Lisp Machine has found a new home: HackLabTO, located in Accordion City’s Kensington Market neighbourhood. I thought I’d post a couple of pictures of its keyboard, which is a little different from the ones we see every day.

lisp_machine_keyboard_1

The keyboard is bristling with modifier keys. Yes, we’ve all got shift and control, but most of us don’t have hyper, super, and meta keys. I have a guess as to what the network and local keys do.

lisp_machine_keyboard_2

Well before the Sony Playstation, Lisp machines had square”, “circle” and “triangle” keys:

lisp_machine_keyboard_3

And here’s a look at the right side of the keyboard. Today’s keyboards have an auto-repeat feature, which made the repeat key obsolete:

lisp_machine_keyboard_4

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“Owns Home Computer”: A News Report from 1981

by Joey deVilla on January 29, 2009

TechCrunch points to a news report from San Francisco-based TV station KRON that dates all the way back to 1981, when home computers were 8-bit wonders like the era of the Apple ///, TRS-80 and Atari 400 and 800. The piece on how some people are reading their newspapers by logging into Compuserve, and how someday, we’ll all be reading our newspapers and magazines on our computers:

Back then, a computer in the home was very unusual, hence their underscoring of this interviewee’s name with “owns home computer”. It seems quaint now, but back then, that was pretty 1337:

Still from news report: "Richard Halloran: Owns home computer"

The TechCrunch article points out a couple of lines in the piece that stand out given our 2009 perspective. The first is from the San Francisco Examiner’s David Cole:

This is an experiment. We’re trying to figure out what it’s going to mean to us, as editors and reporters and what it means to the home user. And we’re not in it to make money, we’re probably not going to lose a lot but we aren’t going to make much either.

The other memorable line is from the reporter:

This is only the first step in newspapers by computers. Engineers now predict the day will come when we get all our newspapers and magazines by home computer, but that’s a few years off.

This is Joey deVilla, signing off from one of those Dynabook-style computers.

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An Old Univac Ad: “You’re Trying to Divide by Zero”

by Joey deVilla on December 30, 2008

Here’s a computer ad from 1956 – it’s for Univac computers, a brand name that was as synonymous with “computer” in the same way that “Xerox” was once synonymous with “photocopier”:

Old Univac ad: "You're Trying to Divide by Zero"
Click the ad to see it at full size.
Ad courtesy of Miss Fipi Lele.

Here’s the text of the ad. If it seems a little strange to your modern sensibilities, it’s because it’s ad copy from the era of Mad Men — that’s just how advertising was back then. Note that lack of technical jargon or specs, neither of which would’ve been useful back then, when very few people would’ve known what they meant:

“You’re Trying to Divide by Zero”

A scientist, testing a formula on Univac recently, was amazed to see the computing system stop, then automatically type the reproof: “You’re trying to divide by zero.” A quick check proved that Univac, as always, was right.

This graphic demonstration points out just one of the many Remington Rand refinements in the art of computer programming and operation. For Univac has been trained to spot human errors. It can now carry out commands given in simple business English. It can even manufacture its own program of instructions automatically – at electronic speeds, with unparalleled accuracy.

These skills have been developed as a direct result of Univac’s unique position in the field of electronic data-processing. Because, with every Univac delivered goes 10 years’ experience in electronic computing…5 years’ experience in the commercial type of data-processing. This wealth of background in programming and operation is unobtainable elsewhere.

The unprecedented savings of Univac data-processing have been proved by solving actual consumer problems – not by working out theoretical solutions with non-existent computers. You can be sure that, when you install the Univac, you’ll get under way faster, surer and more economically because the System has already handled similar work.

Univac is now at work in leading organizations throughout the country. And, in today’s competitive market, the company which cuts its overhead first comes out on top. So don’t wait until 1957…1958…or 1959 to cash in on the tremendous savings available to you now with the Remington Rand Univac System.

Some observations:

  • Error messages: while old hat to even modern laypeople, must’ve seemed like a great leap forward back then.
  • “Univac, as always, was right.” Can you imagine even Apple’s blowing-sunshine-up-your-ass ads making that claim about their machines today?
  • “It can now carry out commands given in simple business English.” I’m guessing that they mean COBOL. One era’s technological wonder is another era’s coding horror.

    [Update: Looks like I got my programming language timelines wrong. “mistercow” points out on Reddit that COBOL didn’t appear until 1959 and suggests that the “commands in simple business English” language is probably FLOW-MATIC, one of COBOL’s predecessors.]

  • “…with every Univac delivered goes 10 years’ experience in electronic computing…5 years’ experience in the commercial type of data-processing". These short timeframes may seem quaint, but keep in mind that the concept of what is computable isn’t even 100 years old yet. You should also note that web applications are only slightly older than 10 years and that XMLHttpRequest, which makes Ajax possible, turns ten in the new year (it was released by Microsoft as an ActiveX object for Internet Explorer 5 for Outlook Web Access in 1999).

And finally, two things that a programmer in today’s economy should keep in mind. It’s almost as if they’re special messages sent through time:

  1. “The unprecedented savings of Univac data-processing have been proved by solving actual consumer problems – not by working out theoretical solutions with non-existent computers.”
  2. “…in today’s competitive market, the company which cuts its overhead first comes out on top.”

Although these statements were made back when computers were rare and extremely expensive and well before there was a computer on every office desk – in fact, well before computers could even fit on desks – they hold true today. If you’re a programmer looking to make a living in 2009, it’ll pay to develop applications that solve actual problems and either help people make money or save it. To borrow a line from Don Dodge at Startup Empire, make sure your applications are aspirin (must-haves), not vitamins (nice-to-haves)!

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