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Alicia Blain

Vintage Tech


Sometimes you take a look at something and you can’t help but say “You’ve come a long way, baby!” That’s what I said recently when I saw the slideshow that Benj Edwards put together on CIO Magazine titled “A brief history of computer displays“.  They go way back in time to the 1940′s to show the various computer interfaces that have been used over the years.  Seeing some of the displays has brought back many memories of working back in the day.

Three of the displays, in particular, caught my eye.  The first one were the early mainframe computers.  In the 3rd or 4th slide , they show a mainframe computer & a keypunch next to it.  Believe it or not, we used to have a keypunch machine in our apartment in Astoria, NY in the early 1960′s.  Why you might ask?  Well, my dad was a computer programmar.  He was one of those people who saw early on how computers could change the world & he wanted to be a part of it.  He was working as a computer programmer at the time for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Hospital.  Back in the day, it was just called Memorial Hospital. He was given a fairly high profile project which was to move all the billing for Memorial Hospital onto the new IBM mainframes at the time.  Millions of dollars on the line – no pressure! 

My dad worked day & night on this project and luckily for him, he had a perfect assistant to help him get the project out.  The assistant was my mom.  As it turns out, my  mom was a keypunch operator & was able to key in all the code my dad was creating for the project.  My dad had a keypunch machine brought in from work to our apartment.  I remember stacks of keypunch cards that my mom fed into the key punch machine that would make these markings as she typed on a keyboard.  I remember a drum where she would wrap a special card with special instructions for a particular run.  I remember  the loud sound that keypunch machine made when my mom entered the information and the cards started to get punched.  I also remember how fast my mom was entering the information that looked like gibberish.  Well, after a lot of hard work & testing, my dad’s project was a huge success.  So huge, that the head of Memorial Hospital personally congratulated him on the great work.  As a matter of personal pride, my dad’s billing system was so effective & so good that Memorial Hospital kept the system for many, many years. Such a smarty, my dad was!

The second display that caught my eye was the dumb terminal.  Believe it or not, that is what I worked on when I first started working at Citicorp after college.  The mainframe guys would have us enter & test stuff on those clunky terminals.  All this information would get entered & then we would have to go to the computer room, ask a computer operator that worked on the other side of a glass window to get us a computer printout of what we had just entered.  I remember the printouts were in that lined computer paper & even back then I remember thinking how  much paper we were wasting. Those dumb terminals were the only semblance of technology allowed for us, the mere “users”.  Otherwise, we had pen & paper.  No PCs until the mid 1980′s f0r us.

The 3rd display that caught my eye was the teletype.  Another unbelievable tid bit.  Again going back to my early corporate days in Citicorp,  every month the monthly financials were sent to the corporate office by our accounting people via a telex machine.  Yes, you read that right – a telex machine.  Someone would sit there for hours, typing away on this telex that would spew little holes on a long, narrow piece of paper.  When that narrow piece of paper was passed through a special machine, you would see words begin to get typed on triple part paper.  You would actually see your month end financials printed on the paper.  One of the copies would be sent to corporate as a backup to what they already send via telex.  Because you see, those holes being created by the machine – the telex itself –  was updating the mainframe somewhere in one of Citicorp’s data centers.  The accounting folks would keep the second part of the triple part paper & I forget who got the third.  This was in the early 80′s. 

When you look through this slideshow, try to think back & picture where you worked & what was going on in your life when those displays were in their heyday.  As I did that, I have to say it brought back some great memories, especially the one about my dad.   Who knows what great memories it will bring back for  you.

Why don’t you share the slides with your Millennial kids & tell them stories of you back in the day.  They will probably be shocked to see what technology looked like but I’m sure they will appreciate what they have today.  I know I do.

Happy Friday, everybody!

So remember a couple of months ago I blogged  about my panic attack after leaving my cell phone at home?  In the blog I reminisced about the original cell phones and what clunkers they were.  Well guess what?  My fiance’s sister read the blog and sent me this link to the July edition of a local community newsletter.  The reporter, Sherryl L. Parks, gave a great summary of a TEDx conference that had been held in the town. As an aside,  I not only love the TED conferences but think the TEDx conferences provide a wonderful opportunity for local venues to showcase topics and speakers that are important or interesting to the local community.  

The newsletter talked about some of the topics that were presented at  that particular TEDx. From the topics selected , you could clearly see that this particular community was very interested in science and technology.  In the article there’s a picture of a young man standing next to an older one.  What are they holding?  Well, the  young man, a Millennial, is holding one of the old, original cell phones.  You know, the clunker I talked about in my previous blog.  The older man, a Veteran, is holding an IPhone.   Isn’t that great!  The Millennial is holding  the original cell phone that paved the way for him to have the IPhone he can’t live without today.  Can you imagine what was going through the Millennial’s mind when he took a look at that clunky phone?  But it gets better.

Do you know who the older man is in the picture?  It’s none other than Martin Cooper?  Does his name ring a bell?  Well, it should because today Millennials and many of us would be lost without him.  He is the man credited with being the inventor of the cell phone!  It’s true – google his name and you will see.  How cool it is to see a picture of Martin Cooper holding the most recent transformation of the invention he created?  He must be so proud.  And how cool is the fact that a Millennial gets to actually see the roots of his precious IPhone.  But more importantly, he gets the rare privilege of talking to its inventor.  I can just imagine the wonderful stories that Martin Cooper is sharing with the young man about the history of the cell phone.  

Conversely, I can picture the Millennial gushing about all the neat IPhone features.   I’m sure Martin Cooper is secretly chuckling because those new features have nothing to do with the phone itself.  The cell phone he created has morphed into a mini-PC.  As we all know, the last thing the Millennials use their cell phones for is to make a call.  Yet, the only thing the original cell phone could do was make a call.  I’m sure Martin Cooper could never have imagined “his” cell phone becoming what it has today. But he put the wheels in motion and the Millennials and the rest of us will be forever indebted to him for that stroke of genius.

There is so much that each of the generations can learn from one another.  The trick is to open yourself to the opportunities that present themselves to be able to do that.  It’s nice to know the roots of things because it make us so much more appreciative of what we have today.  The more we share the roots of things with Millennials the better we will all be.

In my earlier blog, I was going to include a picture of the original cell phone like the one pictured in this community newsletter.  I’m so glad I didn’t.  This picture is so much better. Especially because a Millennial is holding it and he is standing next to its inventor.  Can’t get any better than that!

Happy Friday, everybody!