Boring old 'puter kit

Taking a screenshot 1983 style


I used to do that with 8-10 oscilloscopes when I first started work. The cameras were Polaroid so you could get the result almost instantly. The whole system we were studying was single-shot so you had to check each camera still had film in, check the graticule light was switched off, set the scope trigger, open the camera shutter and then move onto the next one. Once they were all ready you could charge the machine and fire it. Then you had to go round the cameras, close each shutter, pull each print, leave it to develop, peel the cover paper away, study the result, sponge the fixer over the print, cut the trace out of the rest of the print with scissors (somehow the image never completely filled the paper) and then glue the resulting traces into the logbook, making notes of what each one was alongside it in biro. Woe betide you if you let the film run out or failed to arm a scope or forgot to close the shutter before demounting the camera.

Now we have this


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1978 O’level computer science - half way through the school got a research machines 380Z

Research Machines 380Z computer by Javier Carcamo, on Flickr

this was a novelty as previously we had just a teletype and acoustic coupler to connect us to the University of London. The point being, I had to change my second and third programmes to something that could make use of the VDU, and something that could use (RM BASIC - we started with FORTRAN on the teletype - my first project was implementing the Newton Raphson method)…I wrote a fruit machine simulator, but in order to show it at its best we had to take photos - still have the photo’s and the listings and the code on disk.


We had one of those at school, I remember many hours spent playing with it. Initially had a green screen monitor as then we got a fancy pants colour one. I also vaguely recall jumping through hoops to get CP/M to recognise extra memory after an upgrade.

Was replaced by a BBC Micro Master.

College had 480Z’s and RM Nimbus.

I wrote my DPhil thesis on one of those. I still have the original file somewhere. On an 8" floppy disc. When I came to print it out I ran off one good copy and got the department’s photo-repro people to make me four high-quality photocopies for the binder. The sharpest printer we had was an IBM golfball electric typewriter with a parallel (IIRC) interface. You could (and I did) insert control characters into the text to halt the typewriter so you could swap the golfball over to do Greek characters. I still had to write the integral signs and underlines in the middle of formulae in by hand though. I borrowed a Rotring pen set for that. Happy days (and days, and days …).


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That is proper old school stuff that. I wrote my PhD using a great program called chiwriter which could handle just about anything you threw at it in terms of symbols and/or complex notation (or plain bad notation really). Printing the thing was a different matter as we had a PCNFS system and my files would cause the daemon to fall off his perch and suspend network printing in my part of campus. In the end I carried a laser printer down to my office and printed directly to it. I had to overlay my graphics onto blank pages using a photocopier though. Again it took days and days and days to sort out.

I used RML’s TXED. I think the whole program was 12kB. Yes. kB. OK I couldn’t have a border consisting of ants walking round the text with the ants’ colour changing from page to page. But boy, just think how fast that thing would open and run on a modern machine.


Mine was written in LaTeX but we had a battle to get it to include the schematics from the chip design sw were using. I was the first person in the School that required colour printing. I had 3 images of the layout of the chip I designed, supplied by European Sillicon Structures, and they were post-script files. They were so large in terms of file size they were given to me on 3 tapes. Although they were postscript files, they were so large, we didn’t have a system with enough memory or processor power to embed them in my thesis…so I had to print them separately and insert the pages manually - but the only colour postscript printer we had was a wax thermal printer, which had limited memory - so spent days manually editing (the ones and zeros) the post script bitmaps to remove superfluous details, like the large black border…

Another aspect I had conveniently forgotten is we designed a new symbology for describing diagrammatically what was happening in the structure highly parallel single chip multicore processors. Writing papers with hand drawn symbols was mostly OK, but I came to writing my thesis, we quickly realised I need to design a new font for using the symbols in LaTeX - madness we wouldn’t do that today…

I still have a few boards from an old ICL 1902T somewhere, just to show the young 'uns like. And 10" floppy disk from a DEC PDP10.

The ICL machine had a flashing light panel as people who spent £5M on a computer wanted to see flashing lights somewhere. They did nothing, but it looks very Joe 90.

If I mention the Wam will this thread get locked?



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WAMstrong text

wat da fuk are you on abaht…?

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I miss the Commodore Pet II, it looked weird.

Your poxy amount of storage Sir…

Ahhhhh, a DEC hard disc. We lusted after them but never got one. The transition from 110baud Teletype paper tape to 256Kb DECtape was amazing though.

Shut up nutter.

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A colleague of mine wrote his thesis on one of those, never backed it up and then, when it was nearly finished, dropped the disc. Catastrophe.

He phoned DEC who had a place over near Reading and they said “No chance, once they’re dead they’re dead. Start again, and back up.” He pleaded. No joy. Eventually he was put through to ‘someone who might be able to help’. The voice at the far end of the phone gave him an address in Reading and told him to be there at 8pm with the disc, a spare and a £20 note (worth something in the 1980’s). The house looked ordinary from the outside but inside the living room floor was covered with electronics. In the middle of it was a stripped-down modified disc drive and an oscilloscope. The DEC engineer took the £20 and my mate’s dead disc and over a period of an hour or so he carefully shimmed the drive mech with bits of tape, using the oscilloscope to detect the residual off-centredness of the disc itself on its spindle. Eventually he got the disc rotating close enough about its centre that he could pull the data off and copy it onto the spare. My mate drove back to the department, let himself in and there and then made a copy. Lesson learned.


Yes, it was always best to keep a good DEC engineer happy… could make a big difference to uptime.
I used an elderly PDP11 during a postdoc in the USA where Ernie Sykes, our Brookhaven-employed engineer, had a musical sideline which made for off-topic conversations:

I used to mend those discs in the old days. PDP11/70’s and VAX 780’s were my favourite systems.