Computers Have Come a Long Way Baby

Like many of us, there are occasions when I fuss and fume over how slow a web page is loading or how long it’s taking to download a file. And, since I’m a programmer by trade, I also mumble to myself at times about how limited the command set is for a particular programming language or how slow a particular PC is at updating a large database file. At times like that however, I can calm myself by closing my eyes and thinking back to when I first started working with computers.

In 1972, fresh out the army (and one semester of grad school) I decided to move to Tulsa. My aunt had an accounting practice and was trying to computerize, and I thought it would be interesting to help her do that while I looked for a job. After a good deal of research I suggested that she should buy a Litton 1241; it seemed reasonably simple to operate and it had a number of software packages that came with it. The local sales rep had sold quite a few of them and his customers included several accountants, so it seemed like a perfect fit.

Unfortunately my aunt had no idea of how to use a computer, so I decided to stay around a little longer and try to get some of her workload transferred to her bright, shiny new computer. And it was a real whiz-bang of a computer for the time. It featured a magnetic drum memory that could hold 64 data items and it had 128 program registers, each of which could hold four instructions. There was no monitor of course — the printer doubled as the input display. And since the internal memory was volatile (your data disappeared when you shut off the computer), the 1241 also had a paper tape reader/punch. All your data files were punched onto paper tape when you finished a job, and were read back in through the paper tape reader the next time you ran that job. The 1241 also came with a free electric paper tape roller-upper thingy to keep your tapes neatly rolled into reels.

Actually the 1241 was pretty fast once you got your data loaded from tape, assuming you could make do with those 64 data registers. Any sizable application had to be done in stages; for example a job cost package that was available from Litton had to done in a number of steps with pauses in between to punch intermediate data to tape and then read it back in for the next step. All in all, not exactly a speed burner if you were running anything very complicated.

After a while, I managed to teach myself to program the darn thing and eventually wound up being offered a job with the local Litton office. I got plenty of experience there with the venerable 1241, but over the next few years Litton made great strides in modernizing their computers. First came the 1251, which was basically a 1241 with a larger drum. I helped run a demo for the manager of the local Coca-Cola bottling plant and he was so impressed with the speed of the new system (it sorted 2000 items in just over two hours) that he bought one on the spot.

Next came the Litton 1281, which featured magnetic ledger cards. No more messy paper tape rolls; the 1281 stored data on magnetic ledger cards. It seemed like a giant leap forward at the time and we immediately arranged a demo for a big-time prospect. The sales manager and I practiced running through the complete demo the night before our presentation and everything went smoothly. The next morning at the actual demo absolutely nothing worked — like the frog in the old Warner Brothers cartoon the 1281 just sat there and bleeped occasionally. It turned out that there were a set of “micro routines” on a special ledger card that had to be loaded each time after the initial use of the 1281.

The 1281 was followed a couple of years later by the 1300; a much more modern system. The 1300 had a monitor and cassette tape drives for storage. It was so impressive that we actually got an appointment with Walmart and went to their headquarters to make a presentation to them. When they showed us into their data processing area it seemed like old times — by golly, they were storing everything on paper tape. There were giant loops of paper tape everywhere and the chad from the paper punches was scattered all over the floor. Walmart didn’t buy from us but they did modernize their computer department shortly after that — which probably had a lot to do with Walmart growing by leaps and bounds over the next several decades.

Once thing I forgot to mention; newer isn’t always better. On one occasion we tried to update a construction company in Oklahoma City that had a Litton 1230 (basically a teletype with a mag drum and paper punch attached). The customer turned us down flat. The boss’s wife ran their job cost estimating program and worked on the front desk and the only way she could tell when to go start another estimate running was when the 1230 rang it’s teletype bell at the end of each job. We could offer all kinds of new features but we couldn’t ring that bell for her.

Programming those systems was fun too. It definitely required some ingenuity at times to produce complex programs with only a handful of commands and storage registers available. Do I miss those days? You bet — right up until I decide to go look through some merchandise on Amazon or check out the latest stuff on YouTube. Maybe the best part of reminiscing about those times is that it reminds me of how far we’ve come and makes me much more tolerant of that slow-loading web page.

Paul Love

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