I was watching For All Mankind last night and was reminded about those things called slide rules. Even though I am pretty old, I never had to use one. I missed this by one year in high school. My class was the first one where we were allowed to use a calculator. The teacher still had a giant slide rule above the blackboard which he had previously used to teach its proper usage. Rumor had it that each year he challenged kids to beat him on a calculator while he used the slide rule and had he lost the year before my class came in. Some unknown student had saved me from having to learn this arcane device.

I also just missed having to use punch cards. I went to college having already done programming on Apple and Atari computers but in the mainframe world at the school, cards were still a thing. The year I arrived though we had just gotten a set of 300 baud terminals which had a line editor, so I didn’t have to ever actually punch a card other than for fun.

Here’s a fun old article about punch cards. It talks about how one advantage of punch cards might be that since they were kind of painful to work with you might need to think about it more ahead of time to get it right. I’ve never been a fan of using pain to make things better but I guess it does work sometimes.

I did work with someone who used cards and they had some advantages for her. She was basically doing stats work on remote sensing data sets and she had several sets of cards that she had curated and organized to do the different kinds of work she wanted. Lots of color coding, rubber bands etc. The nice thing about this was she could put together a job that she wanted to run as a set of physical objects which our brains are pretty good at remembering. The blue ones, then the yellow ones, etc. Assemble the deck and toss it into the machine and it runs the spells you want.

I guess she could have done the same with a terminal using cut and paste etc., but given the quality of the equipment of the day, this actually seemed more productive for her.

Speaking of old equipment we also had a Silent 700 terminal. This used an acoustic coupler to dial into the mainframe. There was no display but it printed out the whole terminal session on thermal paper.

My job was kind of to be the tech support for the people working in the lab, so each day I came over after class to find something to do or help out on. Usually this consisted of someone waving a length of thermal paper at me and asking: “Why didn’t this work?”. I got really used to these detective puzzles where you go line by line and try to find the mistake. It was fun.

Later we replaced the Silent 700 with a CRT terminal. That was nice because you didn’t have to load the paper or anything but what it meant for me was that I had to figure out what the problem was based on someone’s recollection of what they thought they typed and what they remembered the machine saying back to them. I really missed the silent 700 for a while after that. I liked the paper copy. It was forever. Or until you left the thermal paper out in the sun.

Today we have all kinds of scrollback, typescript, logging etc to remember stuff. Almost everything we do is sucked up into a cloud somewhere so it can be stored and mined till we stop paying or stop being the product. Our digital records seem out there forever.

Its more permanent maybe but you also can’t ever really hold it on your hand so it feels ephemeral.







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