Computers That Never Were

Today it is easier than ever to learn how to program a computer. Everyone has one (and probably has several) and there are tons of resources available. You can even program entirely in your web browser and avoid having to install programming languages and other arcane software. But it wasn’t always like this. In the sixties and seventies, you usually learned to program on computers that didn’t exist. I was recently musing about those computers that were never real and wondering if we are better off now with a computer at every neophyte’s fingertips or if somehow these fictional computing devices were useful in the education process.

Back in the day, almost no one had a computer. Even if you were in the computer business, the chances that you had a computer that was all yours was almost unheard of. In the old days, computers cost money — a lot of money. They required special power and cooling. They needed a platoon of people to operate them. They took up a lot of space. The idea of letting students just run programs to learn was ludicrous.

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Retrotechtacular: Radio to Listen to When you Duck and Cover

CONELRAD may sound like the name of a fictional android, but it is actually an acronym for control of electronic radiation. This was a system put in place by the United States at the height of the cold war (from 1951 to 1963) with two purposes: One was to disseminate civil defense information to the population and, also, to eliminate radio signals as homing beacons for enemy pilots.

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Retrotechtacular: An Oceanographic Data Station Buoy For The 1960s

When we watch a TV weather report such as the ones that plaster our screens during hurricane season, it is easy to forget the scale of the achievement they represent in terms of data collection and interpretation. Huge amounts of data from a diverse array of sources feed weather models running on some of our most powerful computers, and though they don’t always forecast with complete accuracy we have become used to their getting it right often enough to be trustworthy.

It is also easy to forget that such advanced technology and the vast array of data behind it are relatively recent developments. In the middle of the twentieth century the bulk of meteorological data came from hand-recorded human observations, and meteorologists were dispatched to far-flung corners of the globe to record them. There were still significant areas of meteorological science that were closed books, and through the 1957 International Geophysical Year there was a concerted worldwide effort to close that gap.

We take for granted that many environmental readings are now taken automatically, and indeed most of us could produce an automated suite of meteorological instruments relatively easily using a microcontroller and a few sensors. In the International Geophysical Year era though this technology was still very much in its infancy, and the film below the break details the development through the early 1960s of one of the first automated remote ocean sensor buoys.

Perhaps our last sentence conjures up a vision of something small enough to hold, from all those National Geographic images of intrepid oilskin-clad scientists launching them from the decks of research vessels. But the technology of the early 1960s required something a little more substantial, so the buoy in question is a (using the units of the day) 100 ton circular platform more in the scale of a medium-sized boat. Above deck it was dominated by an HF (shortwave) discone antenna and its atmospheric instrument package. Below deck (aside from its electronic payload) it had a propane-powered internal combustion engine and generator to periodically charge its batteries. In use it would be anchored to the sea floor, and it was designed to operate even in the roughest of maritime conditions.

The film introduces the project, then looks at the design of a hull suitable for the extreme conditions like a hurricane. We see the first prototype being installed off the Florida coast in late 1964, and follow its progress through Hurricane Betsy in 1965. The mobile monitoring station in a converted passenger bus is shown in the heart of the foul weather, receiving constant telemetry from the buoy through 40 foot waves and 110 mph gusts of wind.

We are then shown the 1967 second prototype intended to be moored in the Pacific, this time equipped with a computerised data logging system. A DEC PDP-8 receives the data mounted in the bus, and are told that this buoy can store 24 hours at a stretch for transmission in one go. Top marks to the film production team for use of the word “data” in the plural.

Finally we’re told how a future network of the buoys for presumably the late 1960s and early 1970s could be served by a chain of receiving stations for near-complete coverage of the major oceans. At the height of the Cold War this aspect of the project would have been extremely important, as up-to-the-minute meteorological readings would have had considerable military value.

The film makes an engaging look at a technology few of us will ever come directly into contact with but the benefits of which we will all feel every time we see a TV weather forecast.

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Retrotechtacular: DC to DC Conversion, Rotary Style

If you want to convert one voltage to another, what do you do? Well, if you are talking DC voltages today, you’ll probably use a DC to DC converter. Really, these converters generate some sort of AC waveform and then use either an inductor or a transformer to boost or buck the voltage as desired. Then they’ll convert it back to DC. If you are talking AC voltages, you could just use a transformer. But think about this: a transformer has two sides. The primary makes an alternating magnetic field. Just like rotating a shaft with magnets on it could. The secondary converts that alternating magnetic field into electricity just like a generator does. In other words, a transformer is just a generator that takes an AC input instead of a rotating mechanical input.

That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but in the old days, a lot of mobile radios (and other devices) took this idea to its logical conclusion. A M-G (Motor Generator) set was little more than a motor connected to a generator. The motor might take, say, 12V DC and the output could be, for example 300V AC that would get rectified for the plate voltage in a tube radio.

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Retrotechtacular: Reading and Sorting Mail Automatically

We often read about the minicomputers of the 1960s, and see examples of their use in university research laboratories or medium-sized companies where they might have managed the accounts. It’s tempting though to believe that much of the world in those last decades of the analogue era remained untouched by computing, only succumbing in the decade of the microcomputer, or of the widespread use of the Internet.

What could be more synonymous with the pre-computing age than the mail system? Hundreds of years of processing hand-written letters, sorted by hand, transported by horses, boats, railroads and then motor transport, then delivered to your mailbox by your friendly local postman. How did minicomputer technology find its way into that environment?

Thus we come to today’s film, a 1970 US Postal Service short entitled “Reading And Sorting Mail Automatically”. In it we see the latest high-speed OCR systems processing thousands of letters an hour and sorting them by destination, and are treated to a description of the scanning technology.

If a Hackaday reader in 2017 was tasked with scanning and OCR-ing addresses, they would have high-resolution cameras and formidable computing power at their disposal. It wouldn’t be a trivial task to get it right, but it would be one that given suitable open-source OCR software could be achieved by most of us. By contrast the Philco engineers who manufactured the Postal Service’s  scanners would have had to create them from scratch.

This they performed in a curiously analogue manner, with a raster scan generated by a CRT. First a coarse scan to identify the address and its individual lines, then a fine scan to pick out the line they needed. An optical sensor could then pick up the reflected light and feed the information back to the computer for processing.

The description of the OCR process is a seemingly straightforward one of recognizing the individual components of letters which probably required some impressive coding to achieve in the limited resources of a 1960s minicomputer. The system couldn’t process handwriting, instead it was reserved for OCR-compatible business mail.

Finally, the address lines are compared with a database of known US cities and states, and each letter is routed to the appropriate hopper. We are shown a magnetic drum data store, the precursor of our modern hard drives, and told that it holds an impressive 10 megabytes of data. For 1970, that was evidently a lot.

It’s quaint to see what seems to be such basic computing technology presented as the last word in sophistication, but the truth is that to achieve this level of functionality and performance with the technology of that era was an extremely impressive achievement. Sit back and enjoy the film, we’ve placed it below the break.

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Retrotechtacular: The Transistor (1953 Film)

If we cast our minds back to the early years of the transistor, the year that is always quoted is 1947, during which a Bell Labs team developed the first practical germanium point-contact transistor. They would go on to be granted the Nobel Prize for their work in 1956, but the universal adoption of their invention was not an instantaneous process. Instead there would be a gradual change from vacuum to solid state that would span the 1950s and the 1960s, and even in the 1970s you might still have found mainstream devices on sale containing vacuum tubes.

First point contact transistor via kasap3

To speed up this process, Bell Labs made every effort to publicize their invention. Thus we come to our subject today, their 1953 publicity film The Transistor, in which the electronics industry of the era is described and how each part of it might revolutionize by the transistor is laid out.

We start with a look at a selection of electronic components, among which are a few transistors. The point contact device is already described as superceded by the junction transistor, but as well as those two we are shown a phototransistor and a junction tetrode, a now-obsolete design that had two base connections.

Unexpectedly we don’t dive straight into the world of transistors, but take a look back at the earlier years of the century to the development of vacuum electronics. We’re taken through the early development  and operation of vacuum tubes, then their use in long-distance radio communications, through the advent of electronics in mass entertainment, and finally into the world of radar and microwave links. Only then do we return to the transistor, with a posed shot of [John Bardeen], [William Shockley], and [Walter Brattain] hard at work in a lab. The merits of the transistor as opposed to the tube are then set out, though we can’t help wondering whether they have confused a milliwatt and a microwatt when they describe the transistor as requiring only a millionth of a watt to operate.

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Retrotechtacular: Stereo Records

The 20th century saw some amazing technological developments. We went from airplanes to the moon. We went from slide rules to digital computers. Crank telephones to cell phones. But two of the most amazing feats of that era were ones that non-technical people probably hardly think about. The transformation of radio and TV from mono and black and white, to stereo and color. What was interesting about both of these is that engineers managed to find a way to push the new better result into the same form as the old version and — this is the amazing part — do it in such a way that the old technology still worked. Maybe it is the rate that new technology moves today, but we aren’t doing that today. Digital TV required all-new everything: transmitters, receivers, frequencies, and recording gear. Good luck trying to play the latest video game on your 25-year-old PC.

It is hard to remember when stores were full of all sorts of audio and video media. We’ve noticed that all forms of media are starting to vanish. Everything audio and video are all streamed or downloaded these days. Records, 8-tracks, cassettes, and even CDs and DVDs are vanishing. However, vinyl records have made a come back in the last few years for their novelty or nostalgic value.

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