History, mythology, time travel, romance? I’m talking computers.

With a title like that I really have set myself up for a fall. Actually this post is really a riposte to my last post because I included an image that provoked a few comments and I just couldn’t let the opportunity pass to talk about the formative days of the computer industry. This is a subject that captivates me and I want to share a few of my thoughts with you.

Point of interest – for me at least: The eagle eyed amongst you might question whether the image in my last post claiming to be my desk is entirely legit. In truth I was looking for a classic console of flashing lights that 70’s sci-fi films would have you believe constitute a computer. Instead I came across a 60s banking computer called ERMA which I decided to use because of its absurdness. There’s plenty more information out there on ERMA but this link is as good as any. My desk probably looks remarkably like your desk – the same PC, slightly more crap over every surface and a plethora of pens, including some of yours. Literally. You wondered where they went…

For those of you who will never see inside a modern computer room I’m afraid I’m going to shatter all your dreams and illusions because the days of white coated bespectacled “scientists” (I love the term “computer science” – it sounds way cooler than it is) fitting tape spools into expansive metal cabinet units, hitting large coloured buttons, flicking switches and scrutinsing punch cards is looong departed. And yes – it was before my time.

IBM 360
IBM 360 – how it used to be

But I feel that this era created a public identity for the industry by providing something visual for all of the periods fanciful and futuristic talk to be anchored to. Computers have always been portrayed in films as glamorous and mysterious monoliths. Powerful, infallible, beyond challenge and at the command of important people. Anything that demands a dedicated and secure room patrolled by boffins and has banks of flashing lights tends to grab the imagination. Our lives are run by them. In the space of a generation computers have become ubiquitous. They have escaped the laboratory and bred wildly with their distant offspring cropping up in every corner of society. A child clutching a handheld game has more computer power in their grubby mits than the combined might of every computer of ERMAs generation. Think about that.

The modern server room still exists, despite the decentralisation of computer systems. I was in one this morning albeit a rather small and unfit for purpose variant. It contained the following:

  • Cardboard boxes
  • Cables
  • Missing floor and ceiling tiles gushing forth more cables
  • Air conditioning controls to prevent technical gubbins from overheating. It was turned off and stuff was overheating.
  • A shelf unit with things that might have been useful 5 years ago
  • Lots more cables
  • A coat stand with somebodys fleece and a pair of shoes on the floor beneath. I think I know whose.
  • Copious quantities of dust. In fact more than can reasonably be explained by science.

Oh, and a rather discrete refrigerator sized metal cabinet containing a series of 2 inch high slabs with a few lights and cables – these are the servers. These are also by far the least interesting things in the room.

But ERMA and its kin were something else. They came from a time when it was all about the hardware and when software didn’t really exist. Computing WAS a science. This was serious kit at the time and yet a mere 35 years after the plug was finally pulled on this behemoth it sits in a museum looking every bit as dated as a spinning jenny or a horse drawn plough. The social transformation brought about by IT over the last 30 years is absolute. Time and distance have been redefined by the modern global IT infrastructure and the world will only continue to get much faster and smaller.

The point to my meandering monologue? A cutting edge computer like the iPhone (because that’s what it is) is a staggering product, combining awesome hardware, a vast array of applications, groundbreaking usability and beautiful ergonomics. But you just have to love and respect its great great great great great great great great grandad. Next time you are in a museum and there’s a hulking old computer sat in some dingy corner of the basement (I can recommend the Science Museum in London) I would implore you to take a few minutes to see it at first hand. In computing terms this is as close to mystery, intrigue or romance that you will get.