Friday, October 7, 2011

Brown Fox and Lazy Dog

I saw this video and it reminded me of my early computer days. My father owned a computer time share business; companies ran their business on software designed and built by my father's software team on computers maintained by the company. It was the first cloud. Of course, it wasn't called that then. It was called time share, which was invariably mistaken for vacation property.

How could this video possible trigger that?

The jump happens around 1:20 mark.

I worked at my dad's office in the summer between high school. They had IBM key punch machines. You'd bang out something in numbers and letters on the machine and it would produce a card with the characters printed on top and machine readable holes printed on the body of the card. My father's company produced a piece of hardware that meshed with the key punch interface and caused the machine to read or write cards. You had to pop a plate off the back of the machine and wire the device in there. There were hundreds of pins sticking up, but only forty or so were relevant.

The device converted card data back and forth into RS-232, which at the time was the new plug-in standard between computer devices. Now, we have USB, Parallel, Serial (RS-232 was serial), FireWire, Wireless, etc. To test each hand built device they manufactured, you'd have a stack of cards with the alphabet and numerals on them, each one shifted in a loop (A-Z0-9 then B-Z0-9A, etc.). Sometimes, if you wanted to do a quick check, you'd type in "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog."

I helped build some of those devices, soldering them together at a workbench. The main builder, Freida, taught me how to solder. Earlier in her career, she worked on space hardware and missile electronics. When the electronics were soldered into boards for a missile special care had to be taken because of the vibrations from the missile's engine. Little double bends were made into each resistor, capacitor and inductor leg, that became springs to dampen the vibration. She built every device that way and made sure I did, too. Between her hardware production talent and the software designer who wrote the code that ran the box, those things were bomb proof.

Companies all over the world bought the device. The company saw the future of computers and realized that other companies would want to take all of their punch card data and convert it into some other electronic format (magnetic tape and disk drives). But, that's not exactly what happened. Many of their customers had processes that centered around punch cards. For a manufacturer, the cards represented a pick list and notes could be made on the cards by hand. They were a physical token that was also machine readable. Think of today's 1D and 2D bar codes.

These devices were built in the early 1970s and 1980s. I think years later one of the companies called him to ask if it was year 2000 compliant. Ha.

The smells in that office were stunning, not in a bad way. The company was located in the basement of an apartment building. They had three large HP computers, bays of disk drives that would be laughable today due to their very small storage capacity. There's more computer power and storage in an iPod nano than was in that whole basement. There were teletype machines, hardware workbenches, and free coca-cola, BBQ potato chips and pretzels. The place smelled of ozone and machine oil and solder flux and bbq. There was a constant churning and humming going on from the teletypes, disk drives and magnetic tape.

It's amazing what that little basement operation had going on inside of it. It was at the forefront of so many of the technologies that we see around us, today. Cloud, data centers, business accounting and manufacturing software, free goodies for the staff. All of that was going on forty years ago.

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog, indeed.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

RIP Steve