Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Four Programmers

Here's an amusing adaptation of Monty Python's Four Yorkshiremen sketch...

I feel increasingly like this myself (more so now that I'm in a company where I am the oldest employee)...

When I started coding we had to type out our programs on punchcards. If you made one typo you had to retype the entire card, so to avoid mistakes we wrote out our code on paper pads with 80-column grids. You had to stand in line to submit your card stack to the guy running the card reader, and then pick up your output once it had been separated and filed by some other guy. And if you had a syntax error - back to the cardpunch to do it all over again!

We thought we'd died and gone to heaven when we got online accounts and were allowed to use a hardcopy DecWriter terminal. It even had an APL character set (don't forget to change the charset when you switched back to FORTRAN). This was better - we could "erase" (actually just strikeout) and change mistakes on the line. But forget about printing out your entire program - at 300 baud this could take many minutes, which was all chewing up your connect time allocation.

But we had it lucky.. I worked with a guy who started out coding accounting routines for a magnetic drum-based system in the early 60's. A big chunk of their time was spent reordering the individual instructions around the drum to reduce read latency. Fun stuff!

And he was lucky compared to Don Booth, who was at the oceanographic research centre where I worked during my undergrad days. He was one of the pioneers of computing in Britain. All they had for storage was a 1000-word mercury delay tube... and no doubt they spent their coding time plugging wires and changing tubes.

But you try and tell kids with their touch-sensitive palmtops that these days, and they won't believe you...

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