Tag Archives: COBOL

Slideshow: Some Bits and Bytes of Computer History

Wow, time sure does fly, and computers keep getting faster and smaller!  It has been 40 years since I wrote my first computer program, in the BASIC computer language.  I took the only computer class available at my high school back then.

Teletype machine

I learned to program on one of these 40 years ago!

We used a Teletype machine.  While it did not have a display screen, it had a built-in printer with a large roll of paper.  This acted as both display and printer.  While it did not have its own disk drive, you could save your programs and data onto paper tape, with punched holes representing the stored information.  We used a Timeshare system, which was running on a remote computer at the county-level school district headquarters.  We would make a phone call to the Timeshare system, and place the phone receiver into a coupler on a dial-up modem.  Then we could log on.  There was some disk storage available on the Timeshare system, so you could retrieve your homework assignments and project files and programs.

For the fun of it, I created a “homegrown” slideshow (when window opens, please click the “View Slideshow” button in order to slideshow, which will display in full screen mode).

The purpose of this Homegrown DIY Javascript Slideshow is threefold:

  • To show some examples of computers (or similar ones) that I have used since I first learned BASIC programming language around 1974-75, back in high school.
  • To get you thinking about how far we have come with computer technology over the past several decades, and where technology might go in the future. We have already seen rapid change in just the last few years (smartphones, tablets, social media).
  • To show you that you can DIY (Do It Yourself), instead of only just relying on “plugins” and copying/pasting code from other sites. You can customize your own webpages, beyond the limits offered by some plug-ins.

As far as #3, as a long-time computer programmer, here is a bit of my own philosophical take on coding: While there are many benefits to Open Source software or using “free” pre-built plug-ins, you can learn more by trying to Do It Yourself (DIY).  Yes, it might take you longer, but once you’ve built something yourself, you can reuse it again (in full or in part), and you can share it with others as well.  By going the DIY route, you can have more control over your own programs and data.  In other words, you don’t have to always be using someone else’s “Cloud” or so-called “free” web service, where they can sell your personal information and profit off of your “free content”.

DIY typically stands for Do It Yourself. But it can also mean Dig In, You-might-like-IT!

These slideshow photos were obtained via Google Image, and handful came from from the Michigan State University website.

For more on Computer History, check out the Computer History Museum and the Smithsonian Computer History Collection.

Happy Coding,
Ron

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Happy Birthday Grace Hopper: “Grandma COBOL”

This morning while listening to Writer’s Almanac segment on VPR, with Garrison Keillor, he mentioned that today, December 9th is the birthday of Grace Hopper (her 107th birthday).  One of her nicknames was “Grandma COBOL“, as she is credited for the invention of the computer programming language known as COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language).

Grace Hopper served as the technical consultant to a committee that defined the COBOL language.  She developed the first “compiler” for a computer programming language.  A compiler converts human-readable commands (letters, words, numbers and symbols) into computer code (machine readable code).  Before that, computers were programmed almost exclusively by numbers.  Her development of the compiler led later to the invention of COBOL.

Grace Hopper was a computer scientist and United States Navy rear admiral.  She coined the phrase “debugging” a program, after a moth became stuck in a computer relay on the Mark II computer at a US Navy research lab.  Among her many accomplishments, she also worked on the team that developed the UNIVAC computer.  I had worked on a Sperry-Univac computer in 1978, after graduation from community college.

Later this morning, I noticed that Google’s homepage was paying tribute to Grace Hopper with a hand drawn picture of Grace Hopper working on what looks to be the console to an early and very large mainframe computer.

After I was reminded of Grace Hopper and the COBOL computer language, as I was commuting to my programming job an hour drive from Rutland, I thought back to when I learned COBOL.  My college instructor, Ms. Lesnau, at Macomb Community College (north of Detroit) taught me COBOL.  I took her COBOL I & II courses in the Spring and Fall semesters in 1977.  I later transferred to Michigan State University and graduated in December of 1981, during a recession.  The Data Processing manager at Ford Credit who hired me told me that I was one of the very few MSU computer science graduates who had any COBOL training or experience.  My two classes with Ms. Lesnau surely helped me get hired during a jobs recession!

I was able to locate my community college COBOL instructor via a Google search.  I called her today on my lunch hour, on the birthday of Grace Hopper.  Ms. Lesnau is now in her 80s.  Although she didn’t remember me at first, as we talked, and I mentioned the year (“Were you a day or evening student?”), and some of my fellow classmates and friends that I met in her class, she started to remember a few things about that time period.

I had a wonderful conversation with my COBOL college instructor.  She uses an I-Phone.  She was complaining about the Obama-Care websites.  She quipped, “Don’t they even test these programs before they put them into production?”  Grace Hopper would have called it “debugging”!

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