Byte me

Bob Gervais
Posted 04.11.06

The long, black cord, reminiscent of a shoelace, lies folded all over itself. The resulting loops and bights remind one of the timeless, ever-changing art created as a sleeping child silently directs the symphony of the blankets.

My eyes follow the cord; it just misses the Valley, skirts the Record, and slices the 'y' from Daily. The damage, as such, is temporary because, if I grab it by the corner, the Comox Valley Daily Record will toss the black lariat aside like an errant eagle feather in the breeze.

The record is probably what did it, the word 'Record.' It combined with the small silver-coloured device that lay, inert, tethered, inescapably, to a loop on the cord, to create a mosaic that cascaded me down the halls of time, only to land in silent, painless heap in 1964.

I stood at the traffic lights on the corner, just in front of the Shell gas station, peering up the slight grade as the road sloped gently up to the offices of LTC (local telephone company). They were housed in a sturdy, steel-girdered, four storied giant, that looked over almost every other building in town. This was the new air-conditioned corporate headquarters. The air conditioning was not there to create a differentiation between management and the working class stiffs. It was there for the computer.

In the "Computer Room" the temperature was kept at a constant 70 degrees Fahrenheit and a humidity of 35 percent. An impressive array of equipment sensed, sucked, belched, and blew to maintain the artificial environment necessary for the creature comfort of the computer and its associated pieces and parts.

Those were heady days indeed and computers were beginning to shake off their mechanical bridles and tethers. Oh, there were still remnants of the 'mechanical age' around and the LTC, like every other telephone company in North America, still mailed out a partially-punched, 80-column card with the bills it sent out to its customers each month.

The theory was that this card would be returned by the customer, in its pristine condition, at the time that the bill was paid. The card, containing information about the customer account and service would make its way to the Unit Record section of the computer room.

There, the fast-fingered female staff would enter payment information on the customer card, another group of equally fast-fingered females would enter the same information once more, to verify the accuracy of it. This could very well be where the term 'digital devices' got their names. Now, the information was suitably dressed and pressed to be offered to "The Computer."

Ah, yes! The computer.

It was of a new generation of computers that was ushering in the break-neck speed of change that still prevails. It was an IBM 360, Model 30. It was light blue in places and dark blue in other places; after all, it issued forth from the dominant computer firm in the market-place at the time, Big Blue. It was truly eye-catching collection of equipment as it sat there, humming tonelessly and efficiently in its own air-conditioned world.

In one section of the computer area, adjacent to the computer room, the old, greasy, mechanical units continued to clank away, doing all sorts of operations and maneuvers with the 80-column cards to get them ready for eventual consumption by the computer. Even this gear was impressive…

There were 026 card punches and 029 card verifiers and 519 accounting machines. And there were card sorters. These were eye-popping and mind-boggling to visitors because they would sort a stack of 80-olumn cards 24 inches high, at the rate of 1000 cards per minute. A veritable blur as it operated. Fortunately, there were few visitors around when the machine, because of some minor mechanical misadjustment began to jam the cards - at 1000 cards per minute.

In the computer room itself, the collection of double-blue equipment gathered around the CPU (Central processing Unit) and control desk like digital druids rendering permanent bits of homage to the binary god.

  • There was a model 1403n1 printer, capable of printing 1000 lines per minute. It was almost mystical to watch the paper rising about18 inches into the air, at an angle of 45 degrees, out of the back of the printer, before breaking and falling into an orderly, silently-rising pile in the output paper tray.

    There were three units about 30 inches square into which one fed multi-layered disks that whirled around at speeds that defied human reaction time. The amount of information that could be erased in a heartbeat, intentionally or inadvertently, was impressive.

    On the other side of the CPU, there were four high-speed tape drives for storing and processing all manner of data. And there was a 2650 card read-punch that could read data from an 80-column card, digest the data, collate it and spit out a new card containing information, mostly correct, for the next customer billing period.

  • And then, there was the CPU, the real brains of the outfit. A princely collection of 64 kilobytes of storage were available, 24 hours-a-day, at the beck and call of system designers, programmers and operators. A full 64,000 storage bytes! You just couldn't buy that kind of computing power for love or money.
There was the rub, you see. IBM was not in the business of selling equipment. They rented it out on leases. For the collection identified above, IBM received a monthly cheque from the LTC for approximately $25,866.00. For a full 64K of computing power!

Now, let me see. That works out to . . . $2.49 a byte, every month, forever.

The little silver-coloured device I spoke of at the beginning is a portable storage device. It can store 512 megabytes of information. That means, when extended, 512,000,000 bytes of stored information. It is not much bigger than my wrist watch. I think I paid $59.95 for it, with a $10 mail-in rebate. Now, my calculator tells me that the cost per byte is, therefore, $0.0000000996.

At the 1964 rate of $0.40 per byte, that same device would have cost me . . . more than I could afford. More to the point, I couldn't have bought it; it would have been a rental.

I believe that it is safe to say that, over time, things have changed quite a bit.

On the other hand, here I am, in the Comox Valley, remembering the Temiskaming Valley but still hanging around a computer.

Some change, eh?

Copyright © 2006 Robert Gervais/Log Cabin Chronicles/04.06