East Carolina University
Department of Psychology

Memories of a 70-Something Year Old Computer Geek

    One of my intro PSYC students once asked me what my computer background was (a query prompted by my mentioning "war-dialing" in class).  That motivated me to prepare this document.

    My first experiences with computers was in 1976.  I was an instructor in Psychology at East Carolina University.  The university allowed me to take one free class per semester.  I took a computer class in the School of Business.  It provided a general overview of computing and some experience with programming in PL/I.  The developers of PL/I (IBM) hoped it would replace both FORTRAN (used by scientists) and COBOL (used in business applications), but scientists ended up deciding it was a language designed for business applications and those in business decided it was a language designed for scientific applications, and both groups shunned it.  In that class we punched our programs onto Hollerith cards and then fed them to a card reading machine that transmitted the code to mainframe computers at TUCC (Triangle Universities Computation Center).  The output was sent back to a printer at ECU.  The room at ECU where all this took place was Rawl 135, right next to my current office and across the hall from the lecture hall where I now teach Introductory Psychology.

    In 1977 I left ECU and entered a doctoral program at Miami University in Oxford Ohio.  It was there that I was introduced to statistical computing with the SAS language.  We punched our programs onto Hollerith cards and turned them in to the operator to be fed to the mainframe computers.  Later we would come back and pick up printed output and our cards.  I was one of those geeks who could be found in the computer center late at night.  I punched so many cards that I could read them even when the card punch machine had run out of ink.  Normally the machine prints the code on the top line of each card (for humans to read) and below each character are punched holes that represent the written character (to the computer).  Without deliberately trying to, somehow I learned to read the punched holes.  One of the worst things that could happen to a programmer in these days was if some jerk lost the punched cards, so one would make two copies (on punched cards) of any important programs or data.  Also unpleasant was when someone would drop a big stack of cards and they would get all out of order.

    During my first year at Miami I had an office in the basement of the Psychology Building.  In an adjacent room there was a teletype machine that could be used to communicate with one of the mainframes.  I spent many hours at that machine playing a text adventure game known as Adventure or Colossal Cave.  This text adventure game had just recently been developed and quickly spread across the country wherever computer geeks could be found.  Programmers were always messing with the code, so the "rules of the game" were not static. One night the system operator got pissed off that I was spending so much time on his computer playing this silly game.  He dumped me off of the system after giving me some grief about it.  I had been playing around with APL (A Programming Language), and had learned how to use APL to make the entire system crash.  After the system operator gave me grief, I logged in to one of my professor's account (it only took me a few minutes to hack his password, which was the name of a famous psychologist with whom he had studied) and used APL to crash the system.  Never again did the system operator give me any grief.  Colossal Cave, by the way, evolved into the Infocom Zork series of text adventure games.

    I moved my office from the basement to the top floor of the Psychology Building (where my laboratories were) my second year.  If I had stayed in the basement, I probably would have wasted all of my time playing that damn game and never would have graduated.

    After Miami, I spent one year at the State University of New York at Oswego, teaching introductory psychology, research methods, and experimental psychology.  SAS was not available there, so I learned to use Minitab for statistical computing.

    After SUNY, Oswego, I moved back to ECU.  The department needed an expert in statistics and computing, and that described me pretty well.  We had a Burroughs mainframe (which had been in place since some time in the 1970's) with SPSS on it, so that is what I started using then.  We communicated with the mainframe via monochrome (green) terminals.  This computer was so feeble that jobs submitted today would often not be completed until tomorrow.  Also files that were inactive for more than 30 days were purged from the system, so I had to write a little program that would access each of my files every two weeks to prevent that from happening.  There was no way for the typical user to back up e's files on this mainframe.

    It was a great day in 1985 or 1986 when we got an IBM mainframe (ECUVM1) with much more power and with SAS.  One of the first things I did was take my collection of Hollerith cards (containing data and programs) to the card reader to be put on to ECUVM1.  It was not long until the university retired the card reader.  We submitted jobs to the mainframe via networked terminals.  Printed output went to a system printer in the Austin building, and one needed go over there to pick it up.

    Sometime in the 1980's BITNET came to ECU.  BITNET (Because Its There Network) was the precursor to the Internet.  I quickly became a BITNET junkie.  Being able to communicate with other computer geeks all around the world, both by email and in real time (TELL PSWUENSC@ECUVM1.ECU.BITNET What mischief are you up to today, Dr. Psychostat?), and exchange programs, was just awesome.

    On the Personal Computing front, I had, in the early 80's, an Apple II at the office and a Commodore 64 at home.  I used the Apple mostly for word processing.  We printed with crude "dot matrix" printers.  I did do some statistical programming in BASIC on the Apple, but that was rather cumbersome.  Once we had networked laser printers on campus, I started using the ECUVM1 mainframe to word process (DisplayWrite).  Once I figured out how to connect to the mainframe from my Commodore 64, via a 300 baud modem, I had the world at my fingertips even at home.  One of my friends out at the medical school ran a computer bulletin board one could dial up and exchange programs, chat, and so on.  All this was cutting edge stuff at the time, and practiced by few.

    In the 1990's the landscape changed considerably with the introduction of the World Wide Web,  web browsers, HTML, the demise of the mainframe, and the rise of the PC.  I had become accustomed to thinking of personal computers only as means of communicating with real computers (mainframes), but now personal computers were powerful enough to do serious computing all on their own.  My Commodores (I had several -- had to, they kept breaking and I kept old ones around for spare parts) were replaced with IBM or "IBM clone" personal computers.  I realized that I had to learn how to use this HTML stuff, so I started looking at the source code of web pages and playing around with the code to see how it worked.  I never had any lessons or books on HTML, I just tinkered with it and discovered how it worked. Then I started converting my educational materials from plain text format (in files on the mainframe) to HTML format (on our core server).  Geez, things have certainly changed a lot since those days when I was punching holes in Hollerith cards!  Most of the changes have been good, but not all.  Back in the "good old days" the net was not commercial, there was no spam, no viruses or worms, and very few morons or fanatics on the net.  Members of discussion groups were almost all associated with universities or research institutions.  The quality of discourse was very much higher than it is today.  What you get in discussions on the net now is not much different than what you get from CB radio.

snake on a stick

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This page most recently revised on 25-June-2018.