Friday, October 16, 2009

"The ghost of the past, has its arms around me..."

Hiya,

While I was off being a dirty stop out last week, dear Auntie Beeb - BBC 4 to be precise - ran a programme entitled Micro Men. No, not a superhero tie-in or some quirky tribute to the Incredibly Shrinking Man, but partly facts based drama set in the early 80s, on the relationship between two of the UK's leading computer manufacturers, Sinclair and Acorn.... and the men behind the companies. I won't give you a capsule review; mainly because I'm lazy and should you wish to make up your own mind, it's available on iPlayer. :-)

I must confess that at the time, the history of what was going on passed me by. I was still at primary school and very far from the maddening crowds of urban living. I was more concerned with other fluff than the computer based arms race happening not so far away. Stuff like catching Battle of the Planets or wondering why the lads like Adam Ant, and not Bananarama. Oh well. :-)

We had a Beeb: the BBC Model B. A 6502 powered machine with a whole 32KB of memory. We didn't get a disk drive - and I mean a floppy disk drive at that - for another 3 years. Loading anything by tape took *ages*. That ooooo weeeek noise of the tape deck for 10 to 15 minutes. But... that's what you were used to. There was no mouse, no Windows and no Internet (at least for the common man). You flicked the power switch and barr-beeepp, the *ahem* OS loaded up. You got a flashing prompt and that was it. Okay: CHAIN "", hit enter and start the tape deck.

The model B seemed primitive by today's standards, but it held my interest. In fact, it's a good thing home computers were invented, because academically, I was pretty sh** at everything else! :-) Sports? Forget it, I'm a tranny remember? Maths? Too complicated and English? Well, you needed a Rosetta Stone to read my handwriting. So computers it was. I suppose part of it was in my blood, my Grandad was an engineer and my Dad worked in radio electronics.

Watching the programme made me stop and think how far we've come in such a short space of time. 8, 16, 32 and now 64 bit machines with more memory that you would have thought possible. My first hard disk had 20meg of storage on it, you can't even buy a memory stick that small nowadays. Just the other day I put a server in with 32 Gb of memory and the equivalent of 8 CPUs... *and* that may not be enough for the project! :-)

Moore's Law just keeps on paying out due to some awfully clever gents and ladies. Where will it all end? I wouldn't like to say, although I'd wager that mobile telephones will get smarter and a lot more powerful than they are now. Maybe they'll replace laptops and you'll be able to hot-dock them into a flat screen and bond a Bluetooth keyboard to them. High speed WIMAX can't come fast enough around here, that's for sure. :-)

At the end of the programme - and seemingly the end of Acorn's big business - the show closed on a footnote. The rise of American companies like Compaq and Microsoft. IBM, the creator of the PC lead the charge and PC clones flooded the market. Finally, there was the mention of ARM. Acorn seemed to shift focus but stay in the chip market. What do ARM do? Only about 90% of the trade in mobile telephone based CPUs according to one statistic. Small world huh?

Where would we be without computers? For one thing, you wouldn't be reading this and I'd be a lot worse off. Sh**, I might have to really work for a living. (Ed: scary thought!). Hats off to the computer boffins of the 80s and through to today.... wherever they make take us to. :-)

Take care,
Lynn
x

[ Today's lyric: The Devil You Know by Jesus Jones ]

13 comments:

  1. Dear Lynn - I hesitate to talk about my early computing devices for fear of giving away too much of my age, but what you say is so true. How powerful they were then even with all the limitations. And what a wild west it all was.

    I too am glad of the IT revolution. Saved me from having to do a real job ...

    Happy weekend m'dear

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  2. Having studied computers (bachelor's and master's degrees), I am always referencing Moore's Law to my friends and we are always amazed at how far computers have come.

    My sister just bought a laptop with 200 GB of hard drive space! WOWZA!

    I see external hard drives of 1 TB in stores now, for cheap!

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  3. Petra: Back in the day when a floppy disk really was floppy? :)

    (hushed tone) What about punched cards? :D

    Jessica: Storage just keeps on growing. I read the other day about another big leep due in memory sticks. I wonder how long before hard disks disappear?

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  4. The first floppy disks were not floppy... And I reveal how long I've been around computers. :-)

    Hopefully hard disks will disappear sometime in the next 24 months. They are so antique. Working machinery and all that? Who needs that? Read the piece in MacLife, I think it was, about taking a Mac up Everest. A mountain I'll climb before too long. But I digress. As usual. :-)

    (I'll try to remember to look up the link. Senility sets in early at my age...)


    Your point about the 8-core, 32GB server brought back a memory. I was evaluating some 4-CPU systems, with at least 2GB of RAM, for servers. One machine came with about a 512MB, and a bunch of memory thingies. So the tech handling the eval had to install the memory, and the hard drives (no external disks on that machine). He also had to turn the machine upside down to get the lid off. (I kid you not.) I told the sales rep "the machine weighs more than the tech!" The biggest [sic] problem with my statement... It was true!

    (Jess: My Dad still has his old ZX81!)

    Carolyn Ann

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  5. Jess: Do you miss the keyboard tho? :) Funny how computer programming progressed when chucking hardware at the problem wasn't the answer.

    Carolyn Ann: You don't mean those giant platter things that folk used to lug to the mini-computer do you?

    Yes, solid state drives. They seem very trendy at the mo, although we'll be stuck with disks for some time yet as they're not quite their for high end read/write stuff. Perhaps power/size/cooling issues within data centres will force the end of the hard disk.

    Jeez, this is getting blokey. Quick someone say something about New Look! :D

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  6. My first machine was an Atari 800XL (with the *two* cateridge slots so you could use one for the basic rom and one for a memory expansion cartridge) although I say mine, it was my brothers though I used it most.

    Then he swapped that for a C64, when he got bored it was passed down to me (being the youngest I always got the hand me downs).

    When I left school and started college I got my first PC a Mitac 386 Laptop (with the maths co-processor ne less) and a whopping 2MB of ram and 80Mb of HDD. I remember that I had to force Windows 3.11 to use virtual memory in order to load it in 386 mode, and that caused it to crash. Regularly.

    To think that was in 1994 - 15 years ago. I now use a laptop with 256 times more memory just for the dedicated video ram, and have a 0.5Tb on board.

    I think that coders were better when you couldn't throw hardware at problems though. I have people in my team who have idea *why* the logic order of if statements is important, or why using the correct case for SQL fields makes such a difference. The reason: because on their quad core dev machines running single user the difference between the two is so small you don't notice the problem. That is until the web site gets busy and the servers struggle. Their answer: buy another server for the farm...

    Oh well. (Oh and it seems I started rambling - sorry :))

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  7. Micro Men caused quite a few loud conversations amongst my colleagues. One of them worked for Sir Clive in the early days and yes, he did have a penchant for throwing telephones... And an unshakeable belief in his own genius.
    Also, something that made me smile, this individual was very irritated that in the film his job was done by a woman!

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  8. Stace: that caused it to crash. Regularly

    LOL. You sure that wasn't just how WfW behaved anyway? :) Still, you could back up the whole lot with XCOPY :D

    Ramble away please... it's better than me doing it :P

    Penny: LOL. That bit about the chap's job made me chuckle too.

    "Hold on. This is were I'd fit into this bit of history.. Oi! Where am I? That's a bird!" :D

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  9. Trans and IT are never far away. :)
    At primary school our class had one of those hallowed machines which if you were lucky you might get to use once a term and try some of the things Fred Harris and co mentioned on a Sunday morning which look so quaint now. Now they are an essential part of the curiculum.

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  10. I too was an owner of a zx81, which i extended to 16k. Whoa!
    A friend of mine built his own machine from scratch. Thse were the days. Lol.

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  11. Lucy: No, they seem hand in hand don't they? :) That and motorbiking. I wonder how long before we add 'cage fighting' to the typical tranny hobbies? :D

    Sophie: A whole 16k. Oh the power!! :)

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