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Progress, for want of a better word

1975. The first computer I used was invisible. It lived downtown behind locked doors, and was tended by a priesthood of experts and graduate students in search of distinction. We communicated on paper: the users punched holes in, or blacked out fields on, stacks of paper cards (like the way you choose your lottery numbers) and handed these over to a courier. The next day, the courier brought back the output: a ream of continuous green-and-white striped printout. The volume of paper this generated is hard to believe: You might give the courier several shoe boxes full of cards, and get an inch-thick stack of double-legal-size paper back. This was back in the mainframe days, children: a computer system was as expensive as a small office building.

In that year, our local Board of Education started buying time on the University of Toronto computer system, to manage the distribution of students into classes and classes into rooms. The teachers who were supposed to implement the system, were (of course) just thrown in at the deep end and started sinking fast. They had to call in a bunch of us clever guys during the last two weeks of the summer holiday, to help them out — with the tacit agreement that we could write our own timetables. I got a double lunch every day and Fridays "study period" after 3:00. Unfortunately, they had figured out how to run the system by the time September rolled around again.

1986. The first computer I bought had two whole mebibytes [don't worry, I won't do that again] of RAM, and a massive 32 megabytes of hard disk space. I didn't manage to fill it up. It had a monitor which displayed eighty golden-brown characters on each of thirty lines against a sleek black background. This was back in the DOS days, children: there were no pretty graphics then, nor was there a mouse.

2002. My latest computer, an iBook, has 384 megabytes of RAM and a 20 gigabyte hard disk, which is already a quarter full just from the operating system and various database programming tools. It has a true-colour (24-bit) 1024 by 768 pixel monitor and a mouse-equivalent track pad, a DVD player / CD burner, a 56k modem and a high-speed LAN networking card all built in — none of which had yet been invented in 1986. Just for a laugh, I plugged my in digital camera without installing its driver software: it worked, the iBook recognized the camera and loaded up its pictures. [Of course it worked: it's a Macintosh.]

The iBook was just over half the price of my first computer.
Copyright © John Skinner, 2002. All rights reserved.
Last updated 2002.10.13