Posted by: David Stewart | November 19, 2010

This is where computers came from

This past month, my new team delivered a really major milestone in our project – the first public release of our open source project (called the Yocto Project, if you’re curious).

To celebrate, I invited some of the team who are located on the west coast to have some fun together. We started the afternoon at an undisclosed location in Southeast Portland, Oregon. I kicked the event off "Hell’s Kitchen" style. You know, when host Gordon Ramsay is congratulating the winners of a challenge with some award. I did it something like this:

"I believe that you have done something truly historic in launching our project. So to honor this achievement, I have invited you to tour a truly amazing collection of computers from throughout the ages."

At this point I introduced Paul Pierce, a retired Intel architect, who introduced his private collection of computers.

Pauls computer collection

Paul’s collection starts out in the pre-computer era. How did people do things like publishing or audio production or number crunching before there were computers?

One of the stars of this part of the collection is a "Linotype", which is pronounced "line O type". Roughly speaking, you type a line of text on a keyboard, each keystroke dropping a "matrix" into a line, each of which is an outline of a letter. When you hit the "Enter" key (really a lever), a stream of liquid lead is dropped into the matrix to produce a literal line of lead type.

Pauls computer collection

Paul’s Linotype doesn’t actually work, but you can easily imagine the hot lead pouring through the matrix to make letters. Then Paul demonstrated the next step in the process – actually assembling the type into a frame and then running it on a printing press.

Pauls computer collection

Apparently, a press like this is a single sheet at a time affair. Not very efficient. So there is an add-on component, a sheet feeder if you will.  Called a "kluge".

Pauls computer collection

Yes, my little geeky friends, this is Paul’s claim to the origin of the software term "Kludge". As it states in Wikipedia:

… the "Kluge paper feeder" was an automatic paper feeder for printing presses, which was first manufactured by Brandtjen and Kluge in 1919. It supposedly had a Rube Goldberg machine reputation, and was "temperamental, subject to frequent breakdowns, and devilishly difficult to repair — but oh, so clever!"

Pauls computer collection

Not all of the pre-computers were free of electronics. In fact, there were plenty of relay-driven plug-programmed punched card systems. Paul has a complete selection of card punches, readers, interpreters and sorters.

Pauls computer collection

The centerpiece of the post-computer collection is an IBM 709 mainframe, the kind that would take up a whole room. Paul has all of the pieces, including CPUs, core memory, tape drives printers and the like. Paul tells the story of an operator who had decided that the computer was stuck in an infinite loop, 8 hours into a 10 hour job. This is because the front-panel lights had not flickered in quite some time.

So he punched this big red reset button. The button push doesn’t do anything. It’s the button release which causes a clock to run and clear out the registers.  Of course, after he pushed it, the lights flickered. So the job was still alive! This forced him to hold the button down for the whole two hours – he couldn’t figure out how to wedge it.

Pauls computer collection

Core memory. Actual little magnetizable little cores strung together, which you can see if you click the photo. These babies take a magnetic charge if both the "x" and "y" wires are hot. It’s totally permanent then until it is read, but if you want to read out the data, it’s destructive.

As before, Paul demonstrated his deep knowledge about the whole process of how these things worked in terms we could understand.

Pauls computer collection

There is a fantastic collection of "newer" computers like DEC’s PDP computers. These babies come in a variety of 1970s colors. But they are famous for being the first computers to run the Unix operating system, which is a conceptual predecessor of many popular OS’s available today.

Pauls computer collection

Other very historic computers include this MITS Altair 8800, which used an Intel 8080 processor. It’s famous because one Mr. Bill Gates and Mr. Paul Allen of Microsoft wrote their very first commercial software program for the Altair, called "Altair Basic," and the rest, as they say, is history.

This particular Altair is in absolutely pristine condition, looking like it is new out of the box. So we were quite reluctant to touch it.

Pauls computer collection

There were so many other fantastic and historic computers on display. Thinking Machines, Bendix, Univac and more. A personal favorite of mine was a Sequent S16. This was a little multiprocessor system which used the Intel i386 processor. It was cool for me to see, because I wrote the original SCSI disk driver for this machine.

The way Paul has organized his collection is quite logical, and tells a compelling story: We are part of an ongoing history, we are. There were pioneers before us who slugged away at making it easier to create content, figure stuff out and make lives easier and more interesting.

It causes me to stop and consider – what particular story or stories am I a part of? Who can I thank for the things we enjoy, the places we live, the values I hold.  We are all part of a bigger story if we can but see the pages laid out before us.

And hopefully, the type on those pages didn’t start out as molten lead!


Check out more photos on my flickr set:



  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Dave Stewart, Carrie Schneider. Carrie Schneider said: This is where computers came from « Running in the Rain: Not all of the pre-computers were free of electronics. … […]

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