Thomas E. Board

Museum

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe." - Roy, Bladerunner

Life in the industrial world has always brought rapid change. My grandparents saw transportation move from trains to cars to airplanes to space flight. My parents saw medicine change from sulfa drugs to organ transplants, to genetic engineering. My life has been driven by electronics, lasers, and miniaturization. The "smartphones" of 2013 are more powerful computers than the room-filling mainframes of the 1970s. Literally a million-fold amount of information cn fit in your hand than the entire world had in computer storage in the 1970s. In case you missed them, here are some technologies I saw come (and go) during my lifetime.

1940s-1985 Rotary Dial Telephone

Where: Home and work. Purpose: Place and receive telephone calls. Cost: About $70. Highlights: Rotary dial telephones were the first instruments that allowed the caller to select the destination of the call - prior to that an operator was involved. Direct dialing arrived later than you might think: some villages around Chicago were converted only in the 1950s. Until the 1980s, telephones were only provided by the telephone company - you could not purchase your own telephone and attach it to your home's service. These telephone instruments had a bell inside which was activated when an incoming call arrived - this is the reason telephones are said to "ring" even though they rarely do anymore. To dial a telephone call, each digit was selected by putting the finger into the hole on the dial and turning it completely around to the stopping point and then letting it go. The telephone instrument would send the selected number of pulses down the line to the switching system. Telephone numbers themselves were described as two alphabetic characters followed by five digits. For example, 869-1234 would be listed as UN9-1234. The two alphabetic characters were a mnemonic - such as "University" for UN, "Oliver" for OL, or "Alpine" for "AL".

1967-1969 Slide Rule

Where: High School. Purpose: Chemistry and physics problems. Cost: About $60. Highlights: Practical application of addition and subtraction of logarithms. Also taught the concepts of "significant digits" and how error factors affect the accuracy of calculations.

1969 Olivetti Programma 101 Calculator

Where: High School. Purpose: Unknown. Cost: About $3800. Highlights: The school's first programmable calculating device. I only remember that it would run both a horse race simulation and a parimutuel betting book.

1969 Wang 360 series calculator

Where: Northwestern University
Purpose: Physics department laboratory calculator Cost: Unknown Highlights: Calculator was programmed through a single punched card which was loaded into a needle-pin reader and controlled by the console device. The card reader opened like a clam shell and as loaded from the top, so that we came to call it the "Wang toaster".

1970-1983 Control Data Corporation 6000 series and Cyber 170 series mainframe

Where: Northwestern University
Purpose: Academic mainframe computer Cost: About $3,000,000 Highlights: Platform for much of my computer programming career. A RISC design and visionary computer architecture.

Hollerith Punch Card

Where: Northwestern University
Purpose: Preparing computer programs and data sets for input
Cost: unknown
Highlights: There were no highlights to card punches.

1970-1980 IBM 029 Card Punch

Where: Northwestern University
Purpose: Preparing computer programs and data sets for input
Cost: unknown
Highlights: There were no highlights to card punches.

1970-1972 Teletype printing online terminal

Where: Northwestern University Purpose: Interactive computing with mainframe timesharing systems Cost: unknown Highlights: Electro-mechanical devices with yellow paper and 10 character per second capacity. Communications was via telephone (even from within the computing center) using an acoustic coupler.

1970-1972 Telephone modem acoustic coupler

Where: Northwestern University Purpose: Interactive computing with mainframe timesharing systems Cost: unknown Highlights: Electro-mechanical devices with yellow paper and 10 character per second capacity. Communications was via telephone (even from within the computing center) using an acoustic coupler.

1971 Hazeltine 2000 CRT terminal

Where: Northwestern University Purpose: Interactive computing with mainframe timesharing systems Cost: unknown Highlights: First CRT terminal device at Northwestern. Supported higher data rates, fueling the move from 110bps to 300bps, 1200, 2400, 4800, 9600, 19,200, and ultimately 56kbps modems.

1950s-2000 Pay telephone (Payphone)

Where: All over the world
Purpose: Make telephone calls for money
Cost: From 5 cents (1950s) to 50 cents (1990s) for a three minute call.
Highlights: Before everyone had cellular phones, making a telephone call when away from home required that you find a payphone. These phones were just about everywhere, but most popular were gas stations, movie theatres, hotels, and public buildings. The phones took coins only until the late 1990s when some would accept credit cards. To meet demand, sometimes banks of five to fifteen payphones were lined up - especially in busy locations like airports and train stations. Payphones rapidly disappeared after cellular phone service became cheap in the early 2000s.

1975-1976 IBM System 360/75

Where: Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland
Purpose: Unmanned satellite telemetry processing
Cost: est. $2,000,000
Highlights: I will never understand how computer systems designed for banking found their way into the space program. It was interesting to program a computer that had such an incredible number of instructions after having grown up with the CDC computers.

1980-1983 Digital Equipment Corporation VAX 11/780

Where: Northwestern University
Purpose: Academic computing with virtual memory
Cost: est. $400,000
Highlights: I was the lead technical person on the project to bring a superminicomputer to Northwestern's computing center. These systems were purchased by many research groups across campus before we installed one for instructional puposes.

1984-1995 Apple Macintosh

Where: Northwestern University and at home Purpose: Desktop computing
Cost: Around $1400
Highlights: I was instrumental in getting Northwestern into the Apple Consortium in 1985. I purchased my first personal computer that year - an original Macintosh with 128K RAM, no hard drive, and an Imagewriter printer. I eventually upgraded and added a "huge" 40MB hard drive for $1000. I had a string of Apple computers at home thereafter.

1984-1987 Digital Equipment Corporation VAX 11/750

Where: Northwestern University
Purpose: Telecommunications record keeping and billing system
Cost: est. $150,000
Highlights: I implemented the telecommunication unit's VAX 11/750 in 1985. It remained in operation for almost 15 years.

1900-2006 Copper Cable Telephone Service

Where: Northwestern University
Purpose: Telephone services
Cost: Around $11,000,000
Highlights: I was on the management team that installed the University's private telephone network in 1984-86. This included hundreds of miles of buried copper cabling, such as that shown here entering the switching facility. Each telephone had a dedicated copper wire path from an individual driving module in the telephone switching system. In 2006, the University began deploying VoIP in the place of this technology.

1984-1986 Tandy Model 100

Where: Northwestern University
Purpose: Remote access and document editing
Cost: Around $1500
Highlights: I bought and used this portable computer as a means to prepare documents and send them via telephone to the VAX 11/750 computer running the telecommunications management system. This computer had an editor, BASIC, a terminal emulator, and a built-in modem.

1984-1994 Radio pager

Where: Northwestern University
Purpose: Notification
Cost: About $60
Highlights: The "electronic leash" sent a call-back number for display on the small LED display. It clipped onto your belt and made a very annoying noise. Before cell phones, the challenge became finding a telephone to return the call (see payphone above).

1990 Brick Cellular Telephone

Where: at home
Purpose: emergency communications for my wife
Cost: $1000 at Radio Shack
Highlights: The battery life was very short and it was heavy.

1999 Palm III personal digital assistant (PDA)

Where: Northwestern University and at home
Purpose: Note taking, calendar
Cost: About $300
Highlights: This was a pocket-sized computer with calendar, note taking, and calculator. No communication ability other than USB synchronization to a computer for file transfers. This was a fun device for a while, but problems synchronizing the calendar to my work system undermined its usefulness. I stopped using it within a year. You probably see the similarity between this device and smartphones of the 2010+ era. It seemed only a matter of time before phones and PDAs converged.

2000 eMachines eOne

Where: at home
Purpose: for my daughter
Cost: $899 at Circuit City
Highlights: This Windows computer was shamelessly modeled after the Apple iMac. Self-contained and impossible to maintain, I bought this computer to prove to myself that a cheap computer could perform well and reliably on an Ethernet network. It was still in use - albeit for limited purposes - in 2006.

2000 flip phone

Where: at home and work
Purpose: mobile communication
Cost: $600 from a specialty cellular phone store
Highlights: Improvement in battery technology has supported miniaturization of consumer electronics, and mobile phones are the prime example. From the brick phone, the industry moved to smaller form factors and eventually to a pocket-sized device through folding. There was still an antenna!

1890-2000 - Cathode-Ray Tube (CRT) display technologies

Where: at home and work
Purpose: image display - television and then computer monitors
Cost: $1,000 and above
Highlights: CRT technology used a stream of electronics to strike a phosphor coating inside an evacutated class tube to create light on the screen. The electrons were steered toward the screen by charged plates to "paint" the image. The first application was for oscilloscopes. Television resulted from standard controls on this steering. Eventually, three separate electron beams were used to strike color phosphor coatings to give us color TV. The CRT tubes were large, heavy, and obviously sensitive to shock. It was impractical to build computer monitors larger than about 16" diagonally. Televisions eventually reached about 28" diagnonally with this technology.


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