IT memorabilia from Derby

Computer components

BCS is holding a series of events up and down the country to celebrate its 60 Year Anniversary. Part of the event in Derby saw BCS members bringing in some IT-related artefacts as talking points for members to chat about and to bond over. BCS Content Manager Martin Cooper was at hand to talk to some of these members about their nostalgia-inducing memorabilia, and here’s some of what he encountered.

Components through the ages

Sue Devlin from the Manchester branch brought a piece of Nixdorf Computer memorabilia. The West German computer company was founded by Heinz Nixdorf in 1952. It went on to become the fourth largest computer company in Europe, specialising in backing and point-of-sale systems.

Like a fly in amber, the object showed key components from computing’s evolution, all preserved in a weighty piece of clear Perspex.

Each element was, at its time or release, very much its age’s cutting-edge technology and, as such, each pushed computing a step forward. 

NIXDORF components

The objects were, running from left to right:

  • Relay - An electrically operated switch.
  • Valve tube - A device that controls electric current between electrodes, all inside a glass vacuum tube.
  • Transistor - A semiconductor device that is used to switch and amplify electronic signals and electrical power.
  • Silicon chip - A set of electronic circuits on small, flat ‘chips’ of semiconductor material, normally silicon. This one is a very small scale integration.  
  • Silicon chips - Medium scale integration. Possibly an 8-bit processor or an Erasable Programmable Read Only Memory.
  • Silicon chip - Large scale integration 16 bit. The increased number of gold interconnects reveals the chip’s growth in complexity over its simpler neighbours.

Members all helped decode the objects and shared anecdotes from their careers relating to components inside the Perspex.

Card punch

Mike Jackson FBCS won the prize for the heaviest artefact: a mechanical card punch that dated back to 1978.

Back then, we learned, Mike’s organisation had a room full of card punch operators. For a young programmer, taking your program there was a rather frightening experience. The room was staffed exclusively by a band of women with fearsome reputations.

Card Punch

The holes in the card were around 3mm long or about 1/8 of an inch. The resulting tiny rectangles of waste paper are called chads – a definite pub quiz fact.

How kids coded in the 1970s

Another member brought along a collection of objects from his early days. The first was a punched card from his school days.

The card formed part of the Computer Education in Schools Instructional Language, a system designed to teach computing’s fundamentals and programming’s foundations. CESIL was an assembler-like language.

CESIL card

How kids code in 2017

To contrast the CESIL punched card a BBC micro:bit was supplied - by a 10 year old coder called James Cooper.

The pocket-sized computer has a built-in compass, Bluetooth and an array of LEDs for displaying outputs. The device is programmed using a web browser on a PC and then attached via USB for download.      

The BBC micro:bit is intended to encourage a generation to code, just like the BBC Micro did in the 1980s. The micro:bit is however 70 times smaller and 18 times faster than the BBC Micro. 

CESIL and Microbit

An assembly of assemblers

Another member brought along three reference summaries for assembler languages. The cards dated back to the 1970s though the languages they described were older.

Aseemblers

  • The assembler language for the ICL 1900 Series was known as Programming Language for All Nineteen-Hundreds (PLAN). PLAN was, according to the members who remembered using it, rather popular.
  • ICL Primitive Level Interface instruction set was used on by the ICL 2900 architecture.
  • The IBM System/370 reference summary back to 1974. The described assembler language was used on models 115 to 168. The language is still in use today.

Windows 95 Final Beta

Code named Chicago, Windows 95 was released in August 1995. This disc was a final Beta and dated back to March of that year.

As Microsoft released Windows 3.1, IBM began shipping OS/2 2.0. This prompted Microsoft to begin developing an operating system that would support 32-bit applications and one capable of multitasking - while running on low powered hardware.

Windows 95 Disc

And so, Chicago entered development in 1993 - hence the then mooted name: Windows 93. Designed to maximise compatibility with MS-DOS and 16-bit Windows programs and device drivers, the operating systems was finally released in 1995. 

Windows 95 was succeeded by Windows 1998 and the former was supported by Microsoft until December 2001.