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Just a Little Walk Down Memory Lane, Techy Style (illustrated)

February 16, 2013

1966 was the year I graduated from high school and started a quick career at San Jose State College. Like all well intentioned, middle class college students of that time, I looked for a good, part time job to make college life just a little bit easier. To find such a job, I’d meander over to the “placement” office just a block east of the new student union a couple of times a day. The recipe cards that they posted with job descriptions would be updated every few hours. In those days, computers were only huge mainframes for the military or large insurance companies. No one had even thought of anything in the slightest way close to a “personal” computer of today. Records were kept on note cards and lined paper in three ring binders, those in endless file cabinets.

One lucky day, I found a card where someone needed a “test subject.” There had been rumors floating around the campus that some special companies were paying guys to take acid (LSD) as test subjects. This little job card I held was intriguing, hmmm, “test subject?”

I got the job at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) on Ravenswood Avenue in Menlo Park, California. Being a provincial farm boy, every thing out in the urban reality was new and interesting, but SRI was just sort of strange from the very start, a little strange to everyone. I was told to report to the main reception area to get an interview. It was a new and modern style building but as you walked down one the hall of its joining wings with a glass wall, outside you could see other buildings that were rusted Quonset huts, small pre-fabbed ammo sheds and all sorts of weird, dismantled equipment piled in stacks all over the place, rising about a tall man’s head high. And like the one I was in, there were new, modern buildings strewn in between. It had a strange, disoriented, juxtaposed feel about it. But that made it interesting. I was anxious to find out what this place was all about.

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SRI front sign

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SRI entranceThis is the first SRI building I ever set foot in

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other subjects at SRIHere are some SRI test subjects.  Luckily,

my test environment was much less ridiculous

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The woman who was walking me through this maze was attractive, well spoken, while she wasn’t in a rigid uniform or anything like that, she wasn’t dressed informally. She was a very comfortable and friendly person who had a really nice smile which made me like her right from the start. Back in those days, I would have called her middle aged, probably in her early to mid 30s. Her name was Carole and, eventually, we became very good friends.

Carole worked for Ph.D doctors who were very specialized and taught eye doctors at Berkeley and Stanford and the medical center up in San Francisco. They were doing “pure research” which didn’t mean a thing to me at the time except that it made me think of atom bombs. The test they were talking about was pretty much nothing. They shot a beam of light into your eye that reflected back off of your retina and they measured this light with computer equipment. She showed me one of the three rooms where they ran the tests. Carole didn’t realized that I’d been playing with radios and movies camera since I was a little kid. My dad was a superlative tinkerer and tore every mechanical/electrical thing he found down to its smallest components. I was the one who read up on these machines and tried to put them back together. I got my amateur radio operator’s license when I was eleven when I was starting to build radios. The fathers of many of my new school mates worked at the new IBM plant out on Cottle Road near Monterey Highway. They were always taking us to the “Plant” to show off their new stuff but, because of my radio background, I was about the only one that had any idea what they were talking about.

When Carole showed me the first of the three labs that we were using, I thought I died and went to high tech heaven. In the center of an incredibly cluttered room with no windows, was a Digital Equipment Corporation’s (DEC) PDP-8 mini computer, about the same size as a refrigerator. To the side of it was a large lab table that had so much specialized junk on it and proto-typing aluminum that you really couldn’t make out any one thing anywhere on it. In fact, the same goodies were spilling onto the floor. There were dollys and smaller lab tables all about the rest of the large room, but there was little order to any of it. There were stands of tiny lights tacked to the walls in no particular configuration. As with so much basic sorts of electronic operations, everything looked a mess and very haywire, but, in the end, I found that, indeed, there really was some order to this jumble, somewhere in there.

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pdp_81This is a PDP-8, in between its tape unit and

the teletype machine that was its input device

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This wasn’t some IBM demo computer, with all the cables hidden under the floor, the line printer discreetly stowed in a sound box with a smoked glass window, with everything wiped clean and shiny, the floors vacuumed and no stray papers or garbage to be seen anywhere. Of course there would have been the ever present IBM reminder sign over the keyboard desk, bearing only one word, “THIINK.” No-sir-eeeee, this was a down and dirty work lab, complete with it’s own brand new wonder, the modern “mini-computer,” hot off the press. I couldn’t have imagined an even more perfect job offer. Carole couldn’t pull me out of the room until she told me she was going to show me the other two labs. I was chattering like a chipmunk.

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IBM Think signThe line under word reads “Compliments of IBM Corporation

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Of course, I took the job. Besides all the techy stuff, they were going to pay me eight dollars an hour, this was when the minimum wage was like a dollar and a half or so. How could I lose? I was the luckiest hot dog in the whole world.

To keep this as short and sweet as I possibly can (spoil sports!), these guys were doing the base level research for the heads up display . . . and what’s a “heads up” display you ask? When you hear someone talk about how a pilot’s guns will follow his eyes, the guns will automatically aim at what he is looking at, the pilot is wearing a heads up display. There were three ophthalmologists who were world famous experts in their eye ball specialties, Carole, the project’s administrator, a programmer who was closer to my age and then me, the test-subject and all around gopher. This was “the team.” A younger version of these eyeballs were used to design and build the first heads up display. You see, the doctors kept telling me that it was pure research because I used to take time off work to protest the Viet Nam war. The docs didn’t want me to get a bee in my bonnet and refuse to work on a war machine. The programmer guy told them they were silly and he told me what the research was really for. Carole almost fired him for that.

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Integrated_Helmet_Display_Sight_SystemThis helmet actually has a much more complicated name,

but it is what I’m call a “heads up display” here

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This was a really cool bunch of people to work with. They were all pretty much free spirits, to some degree or another. One of the docs had a brand new 429 Cobra, and occasionally, he’d let me drive it, on the El Camino Real in Menlo Park, where you could never go much faster than 15 miles an hour for the lousy traffic. I don’t remember all their names, just Carole, but the one who owned the Cobra told me, once that he had a friend whose wife was always trying to commit suicide but never succeeded. Well, one time when the husband went on a business trip, she sent the kids to her mother’s, cleaned the house, got everything nice and tidy and in good order, then took a bottle of sleeping pills. Apparently, her body was accustomed to these overdoses so that she didn’t die, but her blood pressure dropped really low. During her sleep, one leg crossed over the other. With such low blood pressure, the top leg cut off the circulation to the other. She didn’t lose her life, but she lost her leg to gangrene. This has nothing to do with heads up displays but every time I think of the guy with the Cobra, that story just pops right into my head, all by itself.

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427 Cobra 2

Cobra

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The “tests” that they needed me for weren’t what we all think of in terms of tests, like at school or at the DMV. What they were doing was beaming a very thin beam of infra-red light into my eye. The light would go into the eyeball, through the pupil, hit the retina and reflect back out. Think of a cat’s eye at night. When the exiting light came through the cornea, eye’s lens. The the beam would get refracted by each surface of the lens. The refracted light would splay out in different directions. It was this “splayed” faint little refractions of light that the doctors were interested it. They had infra-red sensors all around the front of my head to catch and measure these tiny bits of light. The sensors would feed information to the mini-computer. The strings of tiny red lights on the wall weren’t at all random, they were the targets they had me look at while they made reading of the light sensors. Each light on the wall would correspond to the readings from the sensors for that light’s position.

Slowly, painfully slowly, they built up a database from which they could predict what I was looking at from a certain set of sensor readings. This was just a very rough beginning of the development of the heads up display.

All of this was first time stuff, no one had ever tried any of this before. The doctors were always adjusting the hardware, the programmer was always tweaking the software. At times I would go for entire weeks without having to get in the rig that held my head in the exact same position every time they need to put the red beam into my eye. During such times, I would do little chores for Carole. And if she didn’t have anything, I got to do my favorite thing at this SRI job, I’d get together with the programmer. Boy, did I get an education you could never get in a class room.

In these days you input data into a computer with a keyboard, but not directly. On IBM machines, you would sit at a keyboard and type, but your keystrokes didn’t go directly to the computer. They were used by an intermediate machine that would punch a hole in an IBM card at a special position on the card reserved for the letter you just hit on the keyboard. Once you hit so many characters, another blank card would be delivered to punching station in the “key-punch” machine for the next set of characters to be typed. A single document might need hundreds of cards and they had to stay in exactly the right order or the whole thing was useless. The card stack would be hand carried to a “card reader” plugged into the computer. Here, the card reader’s light sensors would tell the computer where the holes were on the cards, the holes corresponding to keys on the keyboard. The early days of computers were very, very mechanical.

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IBM punch card

IBM Punch Card

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300-keypunch-machine

IBM Punch Card Machine

Unlike the IBM world, our DEC machine used old, World War II style teletype machines for human interfacing. These guys would record their keystrokes on a paper tape strip. The teletype machines looked like old style, mechanical typewriters on steroids, with the same sort of keyboard but with a whole bunch more wires and rods and little metal plates adorning the back area behind the keyboard. When you struck one of these keys, the letter would be struck onto the paper in front of you so you could read it, like normal, just as with a typewriter, but its special series of holes would be punched into the paper tape mechanism on the right hand side of the machine. The tape was about 3/4 of an inch wide, and for some unknown reason, it was nearly always a dull yellow. Unlike the IBM system, the same machine was used to write (as in “punch) and read the paper tape.

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teletype machine 1A standard Teletype machine of the day

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I, personally, much preferred the paper tape systems as the document would be on a single, long continuous spool of tape, where as the card system continually left you susceptible to losing cards or getting them out of order, which ruined the document. God forbid you should ever trip and spill your box of cards.

At SRI, we had an entire office dedicated to storage of the little spools of yellow paper tape. There was a whole variety of clear, plastic boxes designed solely for the purpose of cleanly and efficiently storing paper tape spools. These boxes were just deep enough to hold the tape spools and would be divided into any number of square compartments about two inches square. We would label the boxes for the topic of its contents on the front edge and on top would be labels identifying the individual documents each spool held. This dedicated office was nothing but a series of narrow shelves holding these clear plastic boxes. It was almost dizzying for its uniformly repeating little shelves on every wall, from floor to ceiling. Carolyn called it “the library.” This entire library probably held about a tenth of what an old 5.25 inch floppy disk holds. But, after all, this was just the beginning.

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teletype paper tape

Teletype Paper Tape

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There was one more rustic and odd little device used to communicate with the computer, it was called an “acoustic modem.” The thing was, these things weren’t used to communicate with people, they were used when you needed one computer to talk to another computer. They were generally little metal or plastic boxes about a foot long, half a foot wide and several inches thick and almost always with a slightly arched top with two large, spongy doughnuts near each end of the top. In the day when all telephones had a wire hooked to them which came from the wall, the telephone itself a two piece device, the phone itself and the handset. The handset was the thing with a coiled cord and you held to you mouth and ear, to talk and listen. To use the modem, the mouth piece and the earpiece of the handset would be pushed into the doughnuts on top of the modem. A series of indiscernible high pitched tones would be generated by the modem as instructed by the computer. This was the computer’s audible “speech” and it would travel over the phone lines for the other computer to hear. The remote computer, attached to a similar modem, as well. The remote computer would instruct its modem to make an answering series of tones for the local computer, the modem acting as the local computer’s ears.

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acoustic modem

A 300 baud Acoustic Modem in use

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The speed at which the two computers communicated over acoustic modems was achingly slow, about a GAzillion times slower that how computers communicate today. When our programmer had to modify any of our really large programs, he and I would work for a couple of days cutting and pasting pieces of the paper tape together to form a really long strip of punched paper tape. We’d spool it up and put its beginning into the tape reader/writer on the teletype machine. We’d dial up a remote computer at TymeShare Corporation who sold us mainframe time at their remote facilities. When the remote computer gave us the proper signal, we’d jam the phone handset into the foam rubber doughnuts and make sure the computers began talking to one another. With the really long programs, we’d do this on Friday afternoon and the paper tape could sometimes be still feeding into the teletype machine on Monday morning, so slow was the modem’s communication rate.

While I have a million stories about the year I spent at SRI, I’m finding that people don’t like hearing them all at once. Enough for now, except for the simple set of rules that the young programmer there imparted to me that I’ve adhered to throughout my entire life: be a consultant, don’t ever work as an employee of a computer company, don’t ever do work that directly involves the end user and lastly, never be forced into a cubicle.

I do believe that anyone who knows me halfway well, would agree that these three simple rules suit me perfectly. They haven’t made me rich but they have kept me as sane as I can be.

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P.S.:

 

punch card wreathOld IBM punch cards were recycled in many imagenitive ways,

such the Christmas wreath here.

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modern think

This is the IBM “Think” sign, modernized

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