Discarding an Era

About 3 years ago, I pondered disposing of a certain box of papers that I’ve been keeping for decades.  Reluctant Admission of Obsolescence is the post I’d written.

Today, I finally decided to go through it one more time, and get rid of it. Or most of it. Today’s Object At Hand is the relatively thin pile that I decided to keep a while longer. This is merely a representative sample from a full file box.

What we have here is a short stack of folders containing some documentation and notes, some disks of programs and data, and a 30′ roll of a program listing. All the equipment involved is completely obsolete, the specific computer languages are no longer used, and the companies for which most of these projects were done no longer exist.

So, why do I keep these mementos?

Perhaps because I am officially a codger. “I remember when” we used assembly language. Higher level languages (Fortran, Pascal, HP-Basic) properly used line numbers and GOTO’s. The worst was having to program in relay logic for conveyor controls. Yes, diagrams of electro-mechanical circuits as a programming language. I decided to write a program to write the relay logic for me, from a simple set of rules. Had I patented and published that tool, I could’a been well off back then. But I was always writing tools to make my jobs easier.

“I remember when” floppy disks were actually floppy and could store between 140 KB and 360KB, depending on formatting and how new the drive was. Microsoft was a new contender in the systems and languages market for small computers. This code ran on a Hewlett-Packard massive 728 KB RAM 9816 computer using a Motorola processor that ran rings around Intels offerings. I also wrote code for several proprietary industrial and lab boxes that few would have heard of, even back then.

Printouts were either slow, noisy 8-pin dot-matrix, or (as shown here) a fancy, modern thermal printer. Thermal was fast (for the time) and quiet. But it fades, like memory. And the cheaper paper came in rolls instead of fan-fold.

It was an exciting time to be a geek. I eagerly read Byte magazine, and Computer Shopper. The latter was only a hundred pages when I started, and had actual articles and reviews. By the early 1990’s it was closing in on 1,000 pages of ads every month. I did order a 12 MHz 80286 IBM-AT clone with a huge 20 MB hard disk for under $2,000 for the company  in 1987. The Apple Lisa cost more and did less. The more powerful Commodore Amiga was mis-marketed; it could have been a serious third party as Apple and Microsoft rose from the chaos that was the small computer market.

There was no internet, but I had CompuServe. They charged $6/hr and no monthly fee, back then. But modems were only up to 1200 baud (0.00012 MB/s). It was text only.

Actually, the interesting part of the pile is a collection of minutes and memos from board meetings as the company imploded under (what I now recognize as) conflicting styles of mismanagement. Those notes are hilarious, in retrospect. Fresh out of school I learned how to run a start-up into the ground. Although technically a Vice President, I was actually just an engineer; was neutral and safe from the political machinations that chewed up the bosses. As it turned out,  I worked for a couple of months without pay. But it was interesting.

I guess that the object lesson is that I treasure learning experiences. These mementos remind me of my early heyday in that era when computer literati were a small club.

2 Responses to “Discarding an Era”

  1. 1 Robin October 23, 2010 at 11:54 am

    I have a box like that. I didn’t write computer code, but I used that early technology … newsrooms were one of the earliest users of word processing systems. While I was taking my journalism degree, I would hit the newsroom computers during off-hours to draft papers for other classes. That was before PCs, and I had to retype final copies of my papers from dot-matrix printouts. My next newsroom used minicomputers, with those 8-inch floppies. I have a pile of them somewhere still, with unfinished thesis work on them. Then there was a Wang system at another employer, considered quite cutting-edge at the time. And so forth. I hate to dump all those floppies and flexies, but how would I read them now anyway?

  2. 2 Martha Edwards October 24, 2010 at 8:27 am

    About a year ago I mailed off a box containing over 700 3-1/4″ floppies to a company in California that recycles them (wipes ’em clean and sells them to people who still use 3-1/4″ floppies. After that time, I keep finding the darn things and have assembled about 50 more that need to go.

    I can’t find anywhere to send the hundreds of 5-1/2″ floppies I still have. Surely there is something that can be done with them besides make them into art objects or funky clothing.

    Then there is the shoebox full of – get this – zip drives.

    And I haven’t even begun to figure out what to do with the slightly more modern detrius – all those CDs.


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