Back in the ’70s, computers had personalities

There’s something about an anniversary that brings back memories. Computing Canada’s 30th birthday got me thinking about the computers I knew when the publication first appeared, and how much things have changed.It was the early ’70s, about the time Computing Canada was born, when I first met Phoebe. She was the first computer with whom I had a real working relationship. An IBM 1130, she had 8KB of memory, removable 10MB hard disks in cartridges the diameter of a large pizza, and a 1442 card reader/punch that we sometimes believed was possessed.
She also had two operators who jealously guarded their domain, and knew her so well that one of them could measure the pile of cards in the hopper and tell, within a few minutes, how long a job would run.
Those were the days where you submitted your runs on punched cards, then waited, often for hours, for your output. One little typo meant another long wait.
Phoebe’s favourite repairman was Neil, who spent many hours working on the crabby 1442. The system itself was rock-solid — we heard tales of 1130s that continued to run while the floor literally fell out from under them, only stopping when the power cable broke — but that 1442 seemed to delight in tormenting us. One weekend, while I was trying to run a job (when the operators weren’t working, a few of us were permitted to run the machine), the wretched device decided it would be fun to put half of every card into each of its two output hoppers (did I mention that these old machines had personality?). Our president happened to wander in, and caught me lecturing the contraption.
He was very kind.
When IBM decided to retire the 1130, we looked around for an equivalent system that would run our proprietary software (those were the days when IBM was, shall we say, less than helpful), and found Annabelle.
Annabelle was a General Automation (GA) 18/30, a (gasp) multi-user system that had terminals and everything. She even had magnetic tape, and a whole 32KB of memory (no, that is not a typo — it really was kilobytes).
We were in heaven.
It was for Annabelle that I wrote my one and only Assembler program — a little routine to help us translate IBM’s EBCDIC tape encoding to ASCII as part of the system that made the tape drive look like a card reader to our geriatric application software. Annabelle taught us to program ultra-efficiently, and to use constructs such as overlays that most programmers today have never heard of. With only 32KB of memory, you had to be imaginative.
Like Phoebe, the old girl had her moments. She had to have her circuit cards pulled regularly to have their contacts cleaned, and she once had an 18-hour fit during which every GA service technician in Toronto visited and changed every single card. Only after she’d seen them all (and most of the original cards had been returned), did she decide she’d behave. They never did figure out what was wrong. I think she was just lonely.
After Annabelle came Abby, an HP 3000, and Jezebel, a MicroVAX II, who co-existed because neither ran all of the application software we needed. Their personalities were less pronounced, although Jezebel’s cartridge tape drive could sense when I was upgrading or patching the operating system, and broke down every time. I learned to have a service tech on standby. After those two, hardware had fewer idiosyncrasies, and we quit naming our computers.
Do I miss those days? Don’t be silly. It’s fun to look back and see how far we’ve come, but I don’t want to relive the frustration and lost sleep. I’m looking forward to what the next 30 years will bring.
Happy birthday, CC.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner has been interpreting tech for businesses for over 20 years and has worked in the industry as well as writing about it, giving her a unique perspective into the issues companies face. She has both IT credentials and a business degree.

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