My Technical Journey

As a young boy in Pennsylvania I was deeply interested in the Apollo space program.  At one time I knew all the astronauts and many facts about space technology.  My mom encouraged this, writing away to NASA requesting photographs of the Astronauts.  What a cool Mom.

In 5th grade I moved to Ocean City, New Jersey.  I got interested in model rocketry and built quite a few of many interesting designs.  I would sometimes launch them off the beach and far over the ocean.  These contained a payload with a note to call me if found- so I could see how far they drifted.

In 9th grade, 1976,  I was exposed to a computer for the first time.  The school was installing a computer and they considered this a special event worthy of inviting students to see.  I attended a demonstration of the program wiring board (seems a bit late for this technology so I have to guess the computer was donated).   Little did I know computers would be at the core of my work later on.

Later that year I moved back to Pennsylvania.  In 10th grade at Souderton High School I was able to sign up for a brand new curriculum class- computer programming.   I had several sessions in the dingy basement computer room using teletype terminal and got to write some BASIC programs.  This was to be short lived however.  A teaser.  The administration realized I had neglected to take a mandatory Geometry class so they pulled my out of computer programming.  I would not touch a computer again for several years.

Movies and records got me interested in sound, sound effects, and music.  The notion of computer control of sound intrigued me.  I started following some of the emerging computer and music products of the day and saw what Craig Anderton at PAIA was doing with 6800 single board computers controlling analog synthesizer components.  I aspired to do this kind of work.  My senior year in high school I bought a $99 Quest SuperElf computer kit.  I built it but did something wrong and had to send it back for repair.   Quest kindly fixed it for free.  Unfortunately, due to lack of funding, I never got it to control anything but the built in LED.

I went to college at the University of Pittsburgh, PA. In the EE program I did my time with FORTRAN on punch cards, graduated to DEC assembler on DECWriter terminals, then finally was permitted to use VT100 terminals for that ultimate interactive experience.

I remember one evening a dorm mate showed us an Apple II computer running flight simulator.  To the astonishment of the room I took the helm of the computer and executed a perfect inside loop maneuver on my first try.  Beginner’s luck, but 15 minutes of fame for sure.

One long weekend I borrowed a VIC20 to do a BASIC program assignment.  It was so much better than going to the computer center.   The program was a universal number base converter.  You entered the base of the number you were entering, the number, and the base you wanted it converted to.  It output the converted number.  It was a great exercise.   In my second year I was struggling with math in engineering so I switched majors for the 4rd year to Information Science- a new major that was trying to leverage the information side of computers by blending traditional library sciences with database.  It was an early incarnation of modern IT- finding maturity in the information services we know find on the web. I graduated with a BS in Information Science in 1983.

Unfortunately at that time no one knew what to do with a Information Scientist.  I spent a painful period trying to find gainful employment. I kept myself afloat at Radio Shack.  While there, though, I operated their store operation system on  TRS-80 Model I computer.  I’m quite sure it was a Model I because I recall loading the program from Cassette tape.  The backstory is that when Radio Shack planned to sell the Model I, they did not know if they would sell at all.  The planned to build just enough that if they flopped they would use them in the stores.   They did sell like hotcakes, but Radio Shack also used them in the stores,  They produced a rather advanced store sales reporting system where  receipts were keyed in at the end of the day and sales results were sent to Fort Worth by modem.

After a summer at Radio Shack I met a program manager from Burroughs Corporation, Federal Product Division.  This division was formed from the acquisition of Systems Development Corporation (SDC).  The manager THANKFULLY referred me in to SDC and I got hired.

At SDC I was first thrown into porting a report generator written in COBOL for an IBM mainframe to a Burroughs large system.  Boy was I lost.  I knew nothing about either system.  I got a lot of it running but never completely right.  After that all of my work at SDC revolved around the Burroughs B-20 series microcomputer systems (made by Convergent Technologies).  Burroughs generally used the B-20’s as a front-end “smart terminal” system for their large systems in banking applications.  IBM marketed PCs for similar use with their mainframes.   At SDC we used B-20 series computers to make specialized information systems by themselves.

COBOL would haunt me for several years with the B20 also though.  A lucrative Air Force contract loomed for a year that depended on a complex set of COBOL “Air Force Benchmark” programs to be ported to the B20 system.  This required using a new and buggy German COBOL compiler.  The project culminated in a team of us going on site to shepherd this program through the testing.  We for the programs to run on multiple B-20s simultaneously- overlapping the work load in a way that made sense.   It was very stressful because if our program got wrong results we had to fix them.  There were bugs in the code provided, and there were bugs in the compiler.  We had an engineer from the compiler company on site to fix compiler bugs immediately when we found.  In the end we succeeded.  The system completed the processing in a fraction of the time of the competition from Sperry, which ran the programming sequentially.  They called foul because we used multiple machines, but there was no rule stating one machine had to be used.  We won the contract.

The B-20 series was a very good system, well ahead of the rest of the micros of the day. The OS was written in PL1, and applications could be written in Pascal.  It had workstation networking built in over RS422 serial links.  The OS was fully multitasking- much better than DOS, and even achieved multi-window application task switching support long before the PC.  In fact, the multiple running applications were listed & selectable at the bottom of the screen much like Windows task bars.

Burroughs hired good people with all different kinds of backgrounds.  SDC was loaded with young bright eyed 20 somethings eager to do interesting things.  Were all in it together learning about the big corporate computer world and life itself.  It was a great place.  Burroughs had great computer technology which sadly, along with that of the other “7 dwarfs” computer companies- and the untold millions of man hours of development- is now gone.

At home I was working with a home computer that I could afford… the Commodore 64.  I wanted to interface an old organ keyboard to the 64’s USR port and work on music generation. This was before MIDI- but the industry was developing quickly.  Little did I know everything I was thinking of was either already done by the Fairlight or being done by Ensonic.  I wrote a system for BASIC that I called B.O.S.S. (Basic Operating Support System) that helped you manage your program.  In retrospect, I see now that I was trying to work out what we now call an “IDE” – Integrated Development Environment.   I wrote the rather ambitious manual using a non WISIWIG editor on the C64 and it came out quite nice.  I also used the C64 to access other computers over a modem.  Ah, Bulletin Boards… the germination of the WWW.

I felt, though, that as good as the B-20 was, the world was passing it by.  I perceived that I should make a change to expand myself.  So I left SDC and wound up in Pottstown PA at a little TV broadcast equipment company called Videotek.

Their next project’s user interface design necessitated including a microprocessor to make it work.  I was hired to put a 6502 micro in control. The first project used a dual floppy Epson “IBM clone” PC  for coding in 6502 assembler. Developed was slow at first as I built up my pieces of code, and management wondered if I was accomplishing anything at all.  But after I got the base code in place- WHAM!-  it all started to come to life with buttons and lights and features.  All with no debugger and no emulator- just an oscilloscope and EPROMS. With that success, I was permitted to buy  a 20MB hard disk drive to make the tools run faster- but I had to install it myself.

Well it all took off from there, we eventually graduated to 286 and 386 computers, C, debuggers, development systems, 68000’s etc.  A few other moves around took me into PCs and Windows and device drivers and closer to the semiconductor business, where I also served a number of years in field applications.  My edge there was that I knew software and hardware development.

At home I graduated from that Commodore 64 to the Amiga, to several PCs.  Never Macs though.  I never thought they’d make it-  they cost too much and didn’t have as much software.  The Amiga was key for me in that it let me program in C at home.  There is a book that is a testament to the Amiga called “The Future Was Here”.   It sums up how ahead of its time the Amiga was.  It truly was that advanced, but unfortunately I never really leveraged that power because of the high cost of the good upgrades and applications.  I went grudgingly into Windows, never thinking I’d care much for pointing and clicking for real work.  Eventually it wore me down and got refined enough that I found a GUI to be generally useful.

Fast forward to today and its been a long haul with some bumps in the road,  but in essence I still like inventing and implementing.  Working with micro controllers is a lot nicer than it used to be and more affordable.

So since I lived through the whole personal computer revolution and do electronics, its only natural that I would be helping to keep these systems going and enjoying the company of folks who do the same.  Its sort of our own unofficial corp of veterans- Veterans of the Computer Wars.  Which Intel won for now, which became clear when even Apple moved to Intel quite some time ago.

Our personal computer quest- to have a tool to amplify our mind for our own purposes- has been hugely successful- giving us access literally to the world of information.   I wonder though if we have turned a corner now where the tool (as in the web connected PC)  is now, like TV, just a mechanism to promote to us commercially and extract personal information.  *sigh*  I guess it was simply bound to happen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s