My introduction to computers

Tuesday 4th October 

When I first started working in that little engineering firm in Putney everything was completed by hand. Stop a minute and try to think about that, not only were there no computers and spreadsheets, but no calculators or adding machines either.  You had to add everything up by hand, and as this was pre-decimalisation, this was pound, shillings and pence, not forgetting ha’pennies and farthings, so it wasn’t simply adding in tens; it was twelves and twenties.  At least we had stopped using guineas by this time, as that was one and one twentieth.  The trick was to add things up in two ways, cross-casting it was called, you always added your rows into a final column, and all your column totals into a total total too. I still do this with spreadsheets, even though I have never known a spreadsheet to add up incorrectly I still like to cross-check.

By 1972 we were using adding machines; you had to punch in each number, which was printed on a ribbon, and then pull a big handle for it to add up and print the total.  Then we had a Burroughs L400, I think it was called, into which you placed ledger cards for each account, the machine would read the balance, by a series of punched holes in the side of the card, then you would post the next entry, by again punching in your numbers, (this time there were about ten rows of numbers one to ten, vertically in rows) and the machine would print the new number and the new balance on the card.  You still had to manually repeat the opposite entry on another card, and reconciling all the cards took ages at each month-end.

The first computer arrived in the early eighties.  A huge box and even bigger bulky screen that took up half your desk, (what am I saying, it had its’ own desk and there was only one in the whole office) the screen was black with green writing on it.  I was introduced to spreadsheets, that I had formerly laboriously written up in large lined books by hand, and shown how to write the formula (at first simply to add a whole row or a column) in each cell, and even how to copy and paste, so you didn’t have to type it in every time.  It was amazing and so fast, or so we thought, and you had to save everything on big four-inch floppy disks, and label up all your spreadsheets and lock them in the safe until the next time you wanted to work on them.

We’ve come such a long way, what with e-mail and networks and now cloud computing too, and we are now so sophisticated that we remember nothing, and if we want to know when Waitrose opens on a Sunday, or how to get rid of a wine stain on a table-cloth, or what that irritating itch might be a symptom of; we automatically log on and look on the internet.  And don’t we just get furious when it takes more than a couple of seconds to open an e-mail or if we get that message “Microsoft Word has encountered a problem and will have to close”

And when I look back I can remember the very first calculator; Eddie, my boss, had one and it cost a fortune, and the display was a series of light bulbs, with separate filaments inside for each number in red, and it weighed a ton, and only he was allowed to use it.  Now calculators too have almost disappeared, as will all the computers we use today, as in the future we communicate instantly with the display projected directly onto the surface of our eyes from the microcomputers located somewhere deep inside our heads.