Monday, October 21, 2013

Dumb Terminal

Click any image for a larger version

This is a database. It was the most common kind of database for decades, if not hundreds of years. It is called a card index.

Each card records a source, a quote, an idea or just some plain information. They are filed alphabetically and can readily be retrieved. The images above show my initial database for my local history researches in the early 1970s. Clearly that particular one filled up pretty fast.

When the thing started to be mechanised, the whole area of databases and modelling made a quantum leap forward. The computer could do some amazing things with your data. But first you had to get it into the computer. This was done by filling out data sheets and these were sent off to be converted into punched cards. There was one card for each row of data on the sheet.

Fortunately the punched coding was also typed along the top of the card and could be checked. And, boy, did it need to be checked, meticulously. A real pain in the ass. But you had to be accurate or when you returned the "checked cards", the slightest error would throw the whole thing out of kilter and then you would have to find the problem, assuming you realised there was a problem, correct it, and resubmit the whole job.

This stuff could take weeks of physical to-ing and fro-ing. But it was cutting edge in its day.

Then came the "dumb terminal", which was an enormous advance. You could key in the stuff directly. But directly to what. This was definitely not a stand alone computer and it had zilch processing power. It was just plain dumb. What you typed in was fed to a mainframe, or mini, computer via a landline and if you messed up and put the mainframe into a loop, you were toast.

I lost count of the number of apologetic calls my local IT section had to make to HQ to get them to unloop me, and God knows how many others who got dragged into the loop.

Then came the home computers with a certain amount of limited processing power. There was the BBC Acorn, particularly for schools, and the Commodore 64, and Clive Sinclair brought us the ZX. This was as dense as your average black hole. The box was small, every key had at least three functions and there was no screen.

Well there was, and clearly had to be, but the ZX used an ordinary television for a display, and there were plenty of those already around in homes all over the country. The original ZX had a capacity of 16KB. That was the onboard capacity of the moon-landers. Today it would barely get you a full stop in Microsoft Word.

Nevertheless it brought home computing to the masses. There was even a specific version of Sinclair Basic adapted to the cause. I remember programming Xs & Os (or noughts and crosses or whatever) and even Eliza, though the lack of capacity probably got in the way of the latter passing the Turing Test.

Nowadays we all have computers, and we browse the web and mail each other. We even carry around what once would have been a whole building in our mobile phones.

I just thought today's young people, who take so much modern technology for granted, might like to get a feel for what it was like to be at the cutting edge of deprecation.

If you're still interested, you can catch up on a few stories from my cyber-past here.

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