Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Old School Computering

I'm reading Pynchon's latest, Inherent Vice, which takes place in the late '60s or early '70s and is jogging the memory like you wouldn't believe. Pynchon makes occasional reference to the computer, which was a primitive device in those days, and it got me to thinking about my high school Fortran class.

Fortran was one of the languages that computers "spoke" in the early years, and in order to operate a computer, you had to speak the language, too. As I recall, you had to have some understanding of the binary code and, after that, I don't know what all else. It wasn't like you could turn on a laptop, call up Google and, at the tap of a few fingers, find the recipe for khorkhog.

Our assignment for the course was simply to write and process a program in Fortran. Only it wasn't simple at all. First you had to map it all out on notebook paper. Next you had to transfer the information onto punch cards, which were tan in color and about the size of legal envelopes and, when punched, created all these tiny bits of thin cardboard that could be used for confetti or wedding rice.

After you got done punching, you stacked the cards in precise order and drove them down to the university, which had the only public-use computer in town. The flourescent-lit room was large and noisy. It contained rows of punch-card consoles, a couple of card readers, and boxes of computer printout paper stacked to the ceiling. The computer itself was an imposing steel contraption with blinking lights and reels of memory tape whirring back and forth, and it was located in a glass-enclosed room sealed off from dangerous air molecules.

You'd stand in line and, when it was your turn, place your punch cards in one end of the reader, push the "Run" button, and wait for the machine to spit out computer paper bearing the results of your work. I'd estimate that at least 50 percent of the swear words I now know came from observing the older college students looking over their fresh printouts. Invariably, there was some glitch in their program -- a card out of sequence, a hanging chad, the number "1" punched instead of a "0" on column 8, row 14 of card No. 1,369, etc. -- and it would be back to the console to fix the problem, return to the reader, stand in line, re-run the program, and wait for the results to reveal more errors than existed the first time.

The computer room stayed open all night and, at some point early in the morning, you would throw up your hands and go home. I don't think I ever got my program to run correctly but received a B in the course for trying. I still don't understand what all is happening in the ciruitry and whatnot underneath the keyboard, and I don't care. All I know is that when I click the "Publish Post" button in a few seconds, you'll be able to see this post.

I think.


  1. What? No link to the khorkhog recipe? :-)

  2. With or without the heated stones?

  3. I remeber doing that! and filling in the dots on card ones.


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