In this series of posts we are looking at the telecommunications technology available to the average consumer in the year 1960 and comparing it with what exists today. We will perhaps be able to see some of the changes in daily life that the technological advances of the past fifty years have brought, as a means for discussing the appropriate roll of technology in contemporary human life.
Microprocessors and Computers:
Not Yet Available in 1960: electronic calculators, all aspects of contemporary personal digital computing, general public access to existing main frame computers.
In Use: (limited numbers) “main frame” electronic business computers; mechanical calculators
Lifestyle: The general public of the time had no detailed understanding about, no access to, and no desire to use “computers.” The typical consumer knew that “big computers” existed and did useful work, but unless he/she had access to a main frame by virtue of his/her job or profession, use of computers did not enter his/her life. Colleges and universities were just beginning to teach courses about “computers” (mostly about programming).
Beginning in the 1940s and 1950s “digital” computers had been constructed using vacuum tubes, but these machines were slow, physically quite large (room-sized), and consumed huge quantities of electrical power. (Some “analog” electronic computers were also developed and used in this time period.) By today’s standards, these very early digital computers had less processing power than a modern four-function, $5 handheld calculator!
By 1960 some main frame computers had been designed and built using discrete solid-state components, i.e. transistors and diodes. Size shrank and speed and efficiency improved. The “computer,” then consisting of multiple floor-standing racks of equipment, typically lived in a huge air-conditioned room behind a floor-to-ceiling glass wall, viewable by the visiting public only from outside the glass wall. Entrance into the computer room was not permitted. And even for those few who had authorization to use mainframe computers, computer access to run batch processing “jobs” was a sporadic thing and computer processing run time was very expensive. Many non-priority jobs required filing job requests from one to two weeks in advance and the scheduled jobs were then run in slack usage periods, typically late nights. Often these were jobs of a degree of complexity that, today, would run in a few seconds on a desktop PC!
To run his/her job, a user would “keypunch” the program code and data, one line per card, onto stiff paper Hollerith cards (the “IBM punched card”) and hand the assembled deck of cards “over the counter” to an “operator.” Alternatively, the programmer could write his code onto special green “coding sheets” and submit it, along with the data to be processed, for keypunching by commercial keypunchers.
Color, graphics, sound, video, and communication links to the outside world did not exist on the main frame computer. Punched cards were its input medium, and printed paper pages were its output. (An auxiliary system for large jobs used reels of magnetic tape as an input/output system). Common pre-programmed sub-routines existed within the computer memory and they could be called from the main program, but almost every user had to code the main program him/herself.
The evolution of personal computers both broke the monopoly of the main frame and facilitated the explosion in public computing in the late Twentieth Century. This evolution began first with the development of successful integrated electronic circuit technology, which was then used in part for the development of the microprocessor.
In the 1950s, as solid-state electronic device technology evolved, the US military began to fund research into the feasibility of combining multiple “transistors” and their interconnecting circuitry onto a single silicon “chip.” By 1960 results of work on this technology were promising and the electronics industry began thinking about producing, among other new products, integrated circuit microprocessors which could be used as the calculating engines in “small computers.”
In the 1970s, when practical integrated circuit microprocessors first became available, commercial computers began evolving away from the large mainframe into smaller “mini” and “micro” computers and computer usage became more accessible to more people. When, in the early 1980s, Apple and IBM brought forth “personal [micro]computers” (PCs), the modern age of consumer-computing began.
Thus, in 1960 the consumer had very limited choices in terms of devices to use to perform those tasks that today are accomplished by the PC in all of its many variations. Typewriters produced printed permanent documents. Mechanical “adding machines” and their more powerful cousins, the four-function, all-mechanical “calculators,” provided arithmetical power. So-called “slide rules” (specialized logarithmic-based, analog calculating engines) were available for scientific and engineering use. Photographic systems recorded images; magnetic tape systems recorded sound. Photocopiers, in limited use, provided duplicate copies of documents. Over-the-air broadcasting provided aural and visual entertainment. None of these tasks were yet done on “computers.” None was done “digitally;” every device except the primitive main-frame computers was analog.
Thus while in 1960 consumer electronics did exist, the vast majority of it was based on vacuum tubes, not transistors and integrated circuits that were then in their infancy. Tasks that today would be handled by inexpensive electronic circuits (such as a telephone answering machine) in those days either would be done by mechanical devices or else not be done at all.
Overall, the world of 1960 was still a mechanical (device) universe. The only electronics on-board a new 1960 model-year automobile would be the broadcast radio receiver! Every other on-board system was mechanical in nature. For example, the battery charging system on regular U. S. production cars was entirely mechanical until 1963, when the alternator replaced the d.c. generator. The new alternator contained silicon power diodes for rectifying the a.c. power that the device produced. Several years later the solid state “voltage regulator” replaced its mechanical counterpart in the charging system.
The technology of the time certainly contained hints of great progress to follow in future years. “Someday” the automotive mechanical carburetor and the mechanical distributor would be replaced by computer-controlled fuel-injection and electronic ignitions. Someday people would put away their mechanical “adding machines” and typewriters and turn to electronic calculators and computers. Someday every citizen could have access to “wireless” technology for his personal use. And someday the “information deluge” would begin to flow. But in 1960 there was still some time remaining for ordinary people to understand, to control, and to put strict bounds around their personal technology. Humans were still in control.
Next time, in the final part of this series, we will do the “compare and contrast” tasks for the two time periods under investigation.
“Let’s save the universe for RF”
The Old RF Curmudgeon