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Ancient History, part 1

AKA "Ah, the Good Old Days."

I've been telling several folks often enough that I was going to write about the Good Old Days, and it's about time that I put pen to paper. Please note that these articles are based on personal experience, and are not neccessarily exhaustive. :)

One of the motivators of this article was Paul Burgess, but a month or so back Dean Esmay wrote a nostalgic article about his Good Old Times, and I didn't want to look like a copycat. It turns out that article was Paul's fault, too!

Well, Paul, here you go.

My first experience with computers goes back to 1977, the year I graduated from high school. That spring a friend in the school Math Club showed me a wonderful new device called a "terminal." The terminal in question was teletype machine, and it was state of the art: it had a paper-tape punch and reader, so you could load or store your own programs.

The terminal was hooked up to SWORCC (Sourth Western Ohio Regional Computer Center), pronounded "swork." There was a generic account for the high school we could use to log on, and I'm embarassed to say I have no idea was operating system the mainframe was using at the time. I was still entranced by the "the machine is talking to me" phenomenon.

Mostly what we used the account for was loading BASIC programs then running them. We had no storage on the mainframe, so everything had to be stored locally. We would type in our programs, line by line, then when we "saved" them, the TTY would basically "play back" all the keystrokes we had entered, including typos, backspaces, and corrections, and and each keystroke would be translated to a paper-tape punch code, then punched out on the tape. After saving a long program the room would look like the aftermath of New Year's Eve celebration, what with all the round punches on the floor.

And noise? Recall any movie where you saw an old military or press teletype terminal. Crank up the volume. Put in a small room. Then add the tape puncher.

And kids thinks todays computers are "loud." Heh.

Let's fast-forward a few years. I started college late, changed majors, left, came back. It's a long story (and an ugly one), so we'll settle on my entry into the Systems Analysis program. When my father died in 1983, and left each of us some money, it occured to me that I could make my life easier if I bought a microcomputer with a FORTRAN compiler (then the standard programming language at Miami). That way I wouldn't spend hours waiting for a printout at the lab. During peak usage you could look forward to getting your results back in several hours, since the univeristy used a batch-submission system. So I could wait one or two hours just to pick up printout that told me there was syntax error in line 132... Lovely.

So I did some shopping. A LOT of shopping. A friend (who now works in a small Kentucky IT firm) had recently picked up an Apple II. Very cool. His father was very well-informed about microcomputers because of his own research, so I leaned on them a lot.

Back then, the "serious" machines all ran the CP/M (Control Program for Microcomputers) operating system.

CP/M (developed by Digital Research Corporation) resembled Linux in many ways. For one thing, it was possible (depending on where you bought it) to get the source code, and custom-build it for your machine configuration. For another, it ran on a wide variety of systems, from Intel 8080* CPUs, to Zilog Z80, and the Motorola 6502.

At the time, CP/M usually ran on an 8080/Z80 system. When Intel released the 8086 chip (their first 16-bit CPU), Digital Research released CP/M-86 to run on it, and started calling the more standard release CP/M-80 to differentiate between the two.

Alas, I learned most of this well after I bought my first computer. Bottom line: at the time, CP/M was the standard to which other microcomputers were compared, and I didn't want to get a toy, or a what might be a fringe machine.

It's hard to remember many of the candidates now, unless I see an old ad. I remember the Morrow Micro Decision (like most, a CP/M-based system) for example. The problem was that usually the good-quality CP/M systems were very expensive (read: $10,000+ in 1984 dollars) to build.

After I considered cost, usability, and software, my choices narrowed down to: Apple, the IBM PC, the DEC Rainbow (Intel 8086 system that could run either CP/M-80 or CP/M-86, but expensive), and... a new entry from the printer company, Epson.

*The Intel 8080 was their first mainstream 8-bit chip. The Z80 was code-compatible, much the same way that AMD chips are code-compatible with Intel today, and the 6502 was Motorola's contribution to 8-bit CPU development.


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Comments (2)

I'm an old timer two, so I can't resist pointing out a couple of things:

1) To the best of my knowledge, CP/M was never compiled for the 6502. However, the 6502-based Apple IIs could run CP/M if you inserted a special card with a Z-80 processor on it. Indeed, at one time, in the mid-80s when MS-DOS/PC-DOS were beginning to dominate, the #1 platform on the planet running CP/M was an Apple II with a Z-80 card, because the clones were taking over and MS-DOS was becoming king.

2) The original IBM-PC could run either CP/M-88 (for the 8088 processor) or PC DOS. Almost no one bothered with CP/M-88 though.

Casey Tompkins:

(smacks forehead) Yes, Dean, you're right. I forgot about the CP/M card! Arrgh. I just remembered that it needed a card to run CP/M.

I'm pretty sure the IBM-PC ran CP/M-86, not -88, since the 8088 is really a 8/16 version of the 8086. Their machine code is exactly the same.

But yes, CP/M-86 didn't get very far. IIRC only v1.0 was released. Which reminds me, IBM also touted USCD p-system back then as well. Talk about "no one bothered!"

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 24, 2004 12:36 AM.

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