BITS and PIECES # 12

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November 28, 2012 by palamow

BITS and PIECES # 12

Hello from Luquillo,

When I was a (very) young systems engineer with the RAND Corporation’s spin-off, System Development Corporation (SDC) in the 1960s — back in the ‘stone age’ of digital computer hardware design, a ‘flip-flop’ circuit used an electron tube ‘diode’ (remember those?) and a forest of resistors, capacitors and an electromechanical relay, mounted on a pluggable circuit board that measured approximately 6″ x 6″ x 4″ to store a single set of the familiar 1s and 0’s — the binary ‘building-block ‘language’ of digital computing that hasn’t changed much since then. What has changed is the size of the hardware circuitry — by huge orders of magnitude —  today, the same ‘flip-flop’ circuits have become so miniaturized that literally thousands of the little suckers are contained on a single tiny computer ‘microchip’ that, if it is not already, will soon be almost invisible to the naked eye…

Depending upon your age, you were initially exposed to different eras of the ever expanding growth of this astonishing electronic miracle — you seventy somethings will recall your first encounters with bulky, clattering ‘teletypewriter’ terminals connected to massive ‘mainframe’ computers which allowed you to ‘time share’ and ‘resource share’ with other users — you had your own tiny ‘space’ on an enormous  high-speed, reel-to-reel magnetic tape ‘storage device’ and could ‘queue-up’ to share the use of a single electrostatic ‘line printer’ — you sixty somethings probably had your first encounters with digital computing on PDP-8 ‘mini-computers, using Dartmouth BASIC or FORTRAN programming languages — still younger ‘proto-geeks’ now in their fifties, encountered the extremely compact (but less powerful) ‘Commodore’ and somewhat later, the innovative Apple 2e and Macintosh computers or the equally innovative and soon to become eponymous, IBM PC which introduced us all to the seductive world of Microsoft’s Windows operating system with it’s agile (and user-friendly) graphic user interface — and suddenly, the world of personal computing and its stepchild the internet was with us — and, wonder of wonders, we didn’t even need to learn a special programming language — it was all do-able in plain old English (or Spanish, or Latvian or…, you get the idea).

Remarkably, all of this progress took place over a mere sixty years — today, everyone from cyber-savvy pre-teen adolescents to barely computer literate geezers in their twilight years, take all of the miraculous gadgets (laptops, pads, pods, smartphones. apps and so on) as boringly normal, but absolutely essential ‘stuff’ with which to enrich their daily lives — what will come next boggles the mind…

So, keeping the above, brief ‘digitological dissertation’ in mind, I will now attempt to take you on an ephemeral journey to ‘those golden days of yesteryear’, by serving-up yet another narrative non-fictional account gleaned from my ‘anecdotage’ files, so to speak. This one is a reminiscence from the digital ‘middle-ages’ of the 1970s that appears in my 2011 collection: ‘Snapshots from the Road’, — I suspect you may enjoy it even if you have previously suffered through its telling (for shame if you haven’t!)…

In either case, here it is:


In 1974, while I was working as a computer systems engineer at Digital Equipment Corporation in Massachusetts, I was asked by my friend Tom Bartee, who was on the staff of the Aiken Computation Laboratory at Harvard University, if I would help him conduct a one-day Mini-computer seminar for a class of graduate students.

Professor Bartee sensed that my schedule, like his, was quite hectic, so he lured me to the ivy-covered Cambridge campus with a promise of lunch at the venerable Harvard Club, and a reminder that my stature in the engineering community would improve immensely when I mentioned that I had taught a class at Harvard University.

I gave-in without further argument, quickly sending my scruffy tweed sport jacket to a tailor to have a leather patch sewn onto each elbow – I didn’t wish to look out of place in the Harvard Club…

I arrived early on the appointed day, unloaded a PDP-8 minicomputer and its I/O device from the trunk of my car – in those ‘pre-PC’ days, the venerable teletypewriter was the sole computer I/O device – its keyboard caused holes punched in a roll of paper tape to input data to the mini-computer and automatically typed the output text on a larger roll of paper – there was no monitor display!

I lugged the paraphernalia up the stairs to Professor Bartee’s classroom.  After setting-up the mini-computer and teletypewriter on a table next to the blackboard, and making sure that it was functional, I left the classroom and wandered the halls whiling-away the time until my class was scheduled to begin…

As I passed by an adjacent classroom, I overheard a distinctly Teutonic voice. Peering through the open door, I saw that an elderly, white haired professor was lecturing to his physics class.  As I paused to listen, I realized he was describing his first meeting with Albert Einstein!

Fascinated, I quietly slipped into a vacant desk at the back of the classroom, listening raptly as his tale unfolded…

The professor – his name was Blume – recalled that he had met Dr. Einstein at a Munich symposium in the early 1930s. He had hesitantly approached the already legendary physicist with a question – ‘Dr. Einstein, I am about to begin doctoral studies in physics – what advice can you give me?’

Einstein replied ‘Consider taking-up plumbing – plumbers
always have work and plumbing is a much more worthwhile profession than physics!’

Professor Blume continued ‘By 1938 I had received a PhD in physics and had emigrated to America to further my research and teaching in more friendly surroundings. While attending a conference of physicists at Princeton University in 1942, I encountered Dr. Einstein once-again.  I waited until he was free and then respectfully enquired if, by any chance, he remembered our previous meeting in Munich. With no hesitation, Dr. Einstein replied – ‘Of course I do, and I see that you have failed to take my advice!’

Later that morning, I encouraged my seminar class to have some fun solving Lunar Lander, a math and physics program that I had loaded onto the mini-computer – it involved calculating, and then keying-in attitude and velocity commands necessary to allow a simulated Lunar Lander module to alight softly on the moon’s surface.

A few of the students quickly keyed-in a succession of ill-considered commands that crashed the simulated Lunar Lander, causing the teletype to print-out the terse message ‘You have just dug a crater 30 meters deep in the lunar surface!’ Others were more thoughtful, spending time completing some brief calculation before entering their keyboard commands, with equal lack of success. Frustration reigned in the classroom…

At that point, Professor Blume wandered in.  He watched the activities curiously for a while, and then politely asked me if he could try the game. When I quickly agreed, he nodded absently, and made his way to a vacant desk to consider the problem for a short time.

Nodding to himself, he stood and strode to the blackboard, scrawling esoteric equations and formulas across its surface. After thoughtfully scratching his beard for a moment, he nodded once more, and marched quickly to the teletype keyboard, entered a series of commands, and a moment later the Lunar Lander was resting softly on the simulated lunar landscape!

Turning to the stunned class he declared softly ‘You see, it is really a simple physics problem – when you work out the math first, you will understand the algorithms involved, and then it is speedily done!’

The room was silent for a moment – then the class rose to their feet applauding Professor Blume’s tour de force…

Lunch at the Harvard Club that afternoon was pleasant – but it paled in comparison to accidentally overhearing the old professor’s humorous history lesson and then watching as he delivered a fundamental object lesson in scientific method later that morning…

© 2011 – Alan Mowbray Jr.



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