Monday, February 04, 2008

From coding sheets to punched cards, to "tube cities", to VTR's, VHS and Betamax -- to DRM today


There were days of paper and pencil even in information technology. I remember well the columned coding sheets, with the columns in zones according to the rules of COBOL, FORTRAN, and Assembler, all the way back to my first summer job (FORTRAN) at the Naval Ship Research and Development Center in 1965. At Bradford, in1977 and 1978, we still coded new programs on sheets and sent them out to little companies in midtown Manhattan to be keypunched onto Hollerith cards. We would edit them online with Roscoe and ISPF, but there would be only about four terminals for fifteen programmers. (At NBC, with a Univac 1110 system in midtown, everyone had a teletype terminal and use it; Univac in those days was ahead of IBM in programmer-friendly technology even though keypunch sales had been a big business for Sperry Univac in the early 1970s).

We also wrote program specs in longhand, often on forms, and gave them to “typing pools.” In 1979, a Lanier “word processing” machine cost $15000. Even when I got to Chilton Corporation in Dallas in 1981, programmers walked to a “tube city” to edit code “online”.

At that time, around 1982, my project leader wrote “PDL’s” – “program descriptor language” – essentially pseudocode – on paper forms and assembled them into large black three-ring binders and handed them to management for review. These “programming specs” for a new daily billing system amounted to perhaps 200 pages of these forms. Management discouraged his making a Xerox copy (“wasteful”), so when he turned in his work, he had no record of exactly what he had written. I started the practice of writing all my specs on Roscoe.

At the time, we were replacing a system (with COBOL, MVS, ADR DATACOM DB/DC) that ran on an Amdahl but written in DOS assembler executed under “DUO.” A lot of smaller shops then had just DOS.

I recall when starting to work there that I took about two weeks of afternoon training in various subjects, starting with “structured systems design,” with each lesson comprising a VTR video (they called them “video tape recorders” then, and the terminology for VHS would soon come about), and audio tape, and a paper quiz. In those days, tiny little cassette recorders for meetings were all the rage. It’s interesting to ponder the VHS Betamax case in 1984, that would help the stage for litigation that is so critical for digital rights management today: namely whether manufacturers could be held liable (“downstream liability”) for creating technology that consumers could use for infringing purposes. The EFF reference is here.

How times have changed in three decades. (I actually had a Beta player in the 80s. Wrong choice.)

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