Sunday, May 10, 2009

Putting Things Into Perspective

Every once in a while I think back over the many years I’ve been involved with computers, and with the rate that technology improves it seems like a virtual eternity since I got started. 

The first computer I used regularly was nearly the size of a refrigerator, and it had its own dedicated room in our house.  Today my cell phone is much, much faster, and has 800 times as much storage. 


That refrigerator-size computer (a DEC PDP-11, which cost as much as a small house) had two disk drives, each one 5 megabytes in size.  The disks were physically about 18” in diameter, about 9” tall.  Swapping the disks wasn’t something we did often, as it basically brought the whole computer to a halt, and the disks were swapped out by opening large drawers.  Not that it mattered to me.  The disks were too heavy for a kid my size to pick up.

The second computer I used regularly had no permanent storage at all at first.  When I would write a program, I’d have to copy it down by hand onto paper to keep it, then type it back in later to re-use it.  Eventually we got a cassette recorder that let us save programs on cassette tapes.  Small programs would take a couple minutes to load or save, larger ones could take twenty minutes or longer.  And a good percentage of the time loading a program would fail, and we’d have to start over again.  Can you imagine waiting 20 minutes to load a program today?  And since computers didn’t multitask, it wasn’t like you could do something else while you were waiting for something to load.  You just had to wait, staring at a blank screen, with horrendous noises coming through the TV speaker.

Those cassettes held approximately 80-90 kilobytes of data.  A single average photo taken on a digital camera today would have taken between 20-40 cassettes worth of storage at that rate.  And would have taken 8-16 hours to load.  That is, if computers in that day would even have been capable of displaying them, which they weren’t.

Eventually we got a 5 1/4” floppy disk drive for that computer.  It stored about the same 90 kilobytes of data as the cassettes, but it was much more reliable and it only took 3-4 minutes to load larger programs, with the smallest ones only taking 30 seconds. 

When I finally got my first hard disk drive in 1989, it cost $600 and it “only” stored 30 megabytes.  Hard disk drives today that hold 33,000 times as much cost less than 1/12 as much (adjusted for inflation).  Even cell phones these days have more storage.  My cell phone, for example, has a little over 8 gigabytes of storage.  That’s 267 times as much as my first hard drive, or 88,000 times as much storage as those first cassettes.  Ironically I was never able to fill up my 30 MB hard drive; both programs and data were much smaller in those days since we didn’t (couldn't) store pictures, music, or video.

RAM Memory was a different story altogether.  My Atari 600XL had 16 kilobytes of memory.  A modern computer today has 125,000 times as much memory.  We later upgraded to a model with 64 kilobytes of RAM.  In 1987 I got my first computer with a whole megabyte of memory.  Today we use computers with 2-4 gigabytes of memory… Only 2,000-4,000 times as much.


Performance has seen huge improvements as well.  My Atari 600XL had an 8-bit processor that ran at 1.79 MHz.  Computers today use 32 or 64-bit instructions and typically run at 2-2.5 GHz and have multiple cores to nearly double that performance.  So in addition to the clock speed being more than 1000 times faster, their efficiency is leaps and bounds better too.  Machine instructions that took multiple clock cycles to complete are now completed in one (or even less than one) cycle.


The very first computer I used was not capable of displaying graphics at all.  Everything was done with text.  If you wanted to simulate graphics it had to be done by using the symbols you find on your keyboard.  Pretty crude.

The next computer could display 4 colors at once.  But I was fortunate, because that model could select which colors those four colors were.  The IBM PCs of the day, even if they were capable of color, were restricted to four colors pre-selected by the video card, and they couldn’t be changed. 

Of course we couldn’t measure anything in megapixels.  We were lucky to be measuring in kilopixels. 

Photographic quality images didn’t come around for more than two decades.  In the late 80s there were some specialized programs that enabled my Atari ST to display some near-television-quality images, but it was done with trickery, as the computer was technically only able to display 16 colors at a time, and this was very atypical of the time.  And even then the graphic resolution was low enough that we consider those images to be “postage stamp sized.” 

3D images were something that were only found in labs, and even then, mostly restricted to wireframe images.  Pixar was still years away from doing their first 3D animation.

The idea of computers being able to display motion video was preposterous.  Television quality video was more than two decades away for consumer-level machines.


The sound capabilities of computers have improved dramatically too.  We started out with just beeps, if anything at all.  Beeps turned into crude music synthesizers with noise generators.  Which eventually gave way to more sophisticated synthesis.  Finally, nearly two decades after I started using computers, computers were starting to become able to play back recorded sounds, like music.  Not that it mattered much at the time, because computers in that period didn’t have enough storage or processing power to really play anything longer than a few seconds in length.  It wasn’t until nearly the turn of the century that recorded music really became plausible.


There was no “internet” when I first started with computers, at least not in the way we think of it today.  It wouldn’t become popular and well known for another two decades.  Our communication options were limited to direct computer-to-computer connections over dial-up modems at 300 baud.  The average DSL connection today is 5,000 times faster.  Sharing pictures, music, or video was totally out of the question.  Even if we could have done anything with them, the most basic images we use today would have taken days to transfer. 

With no Internet, there were no Internet Service Providers.  About a decade into my computer adventure BBSes started to pop up (bulletin board systems).  They were similar in concept to the forums we see on web sites today.  But only one or two people could be connected at a time, and all conversations stayed within the confines of a single BBS, which meant you could really only talk to other people in your local telephone calling area.  World-wide communication was nonexistent.


The inkjet printer didn’t become available until I had been involved in computers for more than a decade.  Most of us, if we had a printer at all, used only dot-matrix models (the really noisy and slow printers that are nearly extinct today).  Instead of replacing ink cartridges we replaced inked ribbons.  I used to have to save up my allowance and wages from my paper route to be able to afford either one.  Color printing was unheard of for the first decade, and even then it was pretty much limited to colored text.  Printing graphical images was, let’s say… pathetic.

Mice were nearly unheard of for the first decade I was working with computers.  They didn’t become common on IBM PC compatible computers until Windows became common another 5 years after that. 

Digital cameras were still more than 20 years away from becoming available commercially, and 25 years away from being known to the public.

The idea of a display monitor was actually something materialized during my time with computers as well.  Previous to that, either punch cards, or line printers (with keyboards), or more recently than that, an integrated terminal that had both a display and a keyboard were used.

Scanners were virtually nonexistent.  Networking was virtually nonexistent as well.  Affordable wireless networking was more than 25 years away.

Surprisingly, keyboards haven’t changed that much.  In fact, the keyboards we had on many of those first computers were better than the ones we use today.  The only thing that has changed significantly about them is the addition of ergonomic layouts, and specialized keys for multimedia functions.  Oh, and wireless is relatively common.

CD-ROM drives didn’t come about for about 15 years.  DVD was two decades away.


The first “portable” computer I used was the original Compaq Portable, released in 1983 (this was how Compaq got their start).  It weighed 28 pounds.  But that was 6 years after I started programming; prior to that there were no “portable” machines. 

The first computers we considered “laptops” were nearly two decades away.  The idea of something like a netbook or iPhone even would have been science fiction.

Computers Introduced In My Lifetime

Actually, I should clarify that section title a bit.  These are all computers that have been released since I first got involved in the field.  I actually remember when most of these were released, or at a very minimum, I remember using them when they were still very new.

  • Apple II (1977)
  • IBM PC (1981)
  • Apple Macintosh (1984)
  • Atari 8-bit series (1979) and ST series (1985)
  • Commodore PET (1977), 64 (1982) and Amiga (1982)
Operating Systems
  • MS-DOS
  • Mac OS
  • Windows (all versions)
  • Mac OS X
  • Linux

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