Cutting edge technology …

… of bygone decades.

In the winter of 1989 one of the monthly computer magazines — I forget if it was a German or an American one — came out with an article called The Ten Worst Computers of the 1980s. As the absolutely worst computer of the decade they chose the Osborne 1, calling it “an idea whose time had not yet come”.

At the time I was highly offended by this. MY COMPUTER was the worst of the decade, and I’d been using it daily for seven years!

Well, in retrospect I guess I can admit it was a bit clunky. But it was very educational, since it couldn’t do anything I didn’t learn how to make it do.

It had no hard disk, no mouse, no graphical interface, but it did have a whopping 64k of random access memory — more than the most potent Apple computer of that era, which only had 48k. My Osborne 1 had two “double density” disk drives of 180k each, one for programs and one for files. Several programs came packaged with the Osborne, including WordStar 1.14, SuperCalc, M-Basic and a database program called DBase 2.

The Osborne was advertised as the world’s first portable computer, though users soon decided “luggable” was a more appropriate word.

Since I needed all the help I could get, I quickly joined the nearest Osborne computer club, which met in the Frankfurt suburb of Hattersheim and consisted of both German and American Osborne users. Our club was affiliated with the First Osborne Group (FOG), whose headquarters I once visited in San Francisco.

One of the American members of our club was a man who claimed to have been a programmer of one of the original military mainframe computers in the 1940s. He said his main programming tool was a bank of eight switches, which he could set individually to on or off for the eight bits of a byte. When he had them set the way he wanted them, he pulled a crank which saved that byte, and he could go on to the next one. (Is this correct, or was he just making this up?)

Don’t hold your breath, but as soon as time permits I’ll post a few things on parallel developments in Germany, featuring Konrad Zuse (1910-1995) and his prototype computers Z-1 through Z-4.

This was called a “typewriter”.

You young folks will never guess what the strange machine is that I’m using in this photo from the year 1968.

It had a keyboard like a computer, but the keys were attached (yes, physically attached) to metal rods that banged metal keys against an ink ribbon in front of a piece of paper. Your text appeared immediately on the paper. If you made a mistake there were various options, but often the only way was to put in a new sheet of paper and type it all again.

Since it didn’t need any electricity, I sometimes used it by the light of a Coleman lantern while we were out camping.

I once wrote a 192-page dissertation on one of these contraptions, complete with footnotes.

Brother HR-15 Daisy Wheel printer

While cleaning out the attic here in Frankfurt I was surprised to come across this Brother HR-15 Daisy Wheel printer — surprised because I thought I had chucked it out years ago.

This was a printer that I bought in 1983 for use with the Osborne 1. In the box with the printer I also found dozens of test printings that I did at the time as I was trying to figure out how to make the printer cooperate with my word processing software WordStar 1.14, which was famous for having hundreds of commands that you had to learn to make it do things, such as control-K-B to mark the beginning of a block, and control-K-K to mark the end of it. (There were some 250 such commands, most of which I memorized in the traditional way using flippable index cards.)

The reason I bought this kind of printer, and not one of the cheaper dot matrix printers that were common at the time, was that I wanted printed pages that at least didn’t look worse than the ones I had been getting out of my typewriter. In fact, this type of printer was sometimes referred to as a “letter-quality printer”, as opposed to the so-called “near letter quality (NLQ)” of the dot matrix printers, which in my opinion was nowhere near the quality I wanted to have for my letters.

After I got it working, this turned out to be a very dependable (though loud!) printer, and I used it for a number of years, even after replacing the Osborne, until laser and inkjet printers became affordable.

The way a daisy wheel printer worked was that this little wheel with nearly a hundred tiny keys on it would spin quickly around (depends what you mean by quickly, of course, but it looked quick to me) until the software told it to stop, i.e. until the desired key was at the top. Then a tiny hammer would tap the key so it would hit the ink ribbon that was in front of the paper.

I still find this a quite fascinating technology — but not so fascinating that I would trade it for the color inkjet printer I use today.

UHER 4000 Report-L reel-to-reel tape recorders

In the 1960s I worked for several years as a radio journalist. When I wanted to record interviews or reports outside the studios I always used one of these UHER 4000 Report-L portable reel-to-reel tape recorders, which were more or less standard equipment at the time.

Here in Frankfurt in 1969 my Uher saved me from getting a mighty bash on the head at one of the many anti-Vietnam-war demonstrations. The club-wielding policeman noticed my tape recorder and microphone just in time, and decided I was a reporter, not a demonstrator. I did get soaked by the water cannon, though, and a friend of mine got badly clubbed on the head that day.

The reason we have two of these tape recorders is that my wife and I each brought one into the marriage, so to speak.

My old telefax machine

For two decades, the Nineties and the Noughties, I was a member of a team of authors writing a series of textbooks for German-speaking adults who wanted to learn English. For the first few years we had to photocopy all our stuff and send it around by snail mail (which wasn’t what we called it at the time) to the other team members.

So it was a fantastic improvement when we all got our first fax machines. We could just put the pages into the machine, push the start button and it would go chug-a-chug-chug for a few minutes and the same text would be printed out on a colleague’s machine in some other city entirely. Wow!

Little did we know that this amazing technology would soon be made obsolete by e-mails, which are faster and have the additional advantage that we can have everything in digital form, so when my colleague in Munich writes something she can send it to me, I can work on it some more and send it back to her, etc. 

This was called a “slide rule”.

OK, I haven’t actually used it since about 1975, but I still keep this slide rule on a shelf next to my desk, just in case.

In high school the real math freaks used to wear 36-inch slide rules in a scabbard on their belts, like a sword. I wasn’t in that league, but I always had my normal 10-inch slide rule with me, and would have felt helpless without it.

Slide rule at the Arithmeum in Bonn, Germany

Mathematics, science and engineering were basically all done with slide rules throughout the first six decades of the twentieth century. Then in 1972 Hewlett Packard came out with the first handheld calculator, and by 1975 slide rules were a thing of the past. In his website (which I am glad to see is still online) Eric R. Marcotte writes: “In the history of the modern world, probably no other technological instrument was so widely used for so long, only to disappear virtually overnight.”

When IBM first starting advertising their mainframe computers, in the 1950s or 60s, they claimed one of their computers could replace 720 engineers with slide rules, which was probably true.

Slide rule in the Palace of Discovery in Paris

To find out more about slide rules, try Ron Manley’s Slide Rule site or the virtual international Slide Rule Museum, or look up the article “When Slide Rules Ruled” in the May 2006 issue of Scientific American.

My photos in this post are from 1968, 2007, 2016 and 2017. I revised the text in 2017.

 See also: Palace of Discovery in Paris.


3 thoughts on “Cutting edge technology …”

  1. I still keep my father’s slide rule. I’ll show it to my grandchildren and let my husband demonstrate, that’ll keep them all busy.

  2. Well, this all takes me back! I certainly had a slide rule, but by the time we got round to buying our first computer it was a little more sophisticated than yours, though still with far less memory and capacity than your average modern mobile phone, and much more cumbersome 😉

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