History Lesson

John Knight reports of his classmates: Hank Lemieux and Matt Calman: “Did you see any of the “trying to explain 1980s tech to millienials” post on FB by Hank Lemieux? It led to some interesting comments but also an extraordinary post (I thought) by Matt Calman. I’ll paste some of it here for your enjoyment but for the whole thread – go find it on Hank’s Facebook page…

Hank Lemieux: I had a funny moment with some millennials last night.
Many of you will be heartily impressed, I am sure, at one of my great claims to fame, that I was the first person in my high school to submit a senior term paper that had been written on a computer, rather than a typewriter.
Yeah, I’m that old. (Though, it’s understandable you didn’t realize this, given I look so young and hot and sexy.)
But back then, being the Bold Pioneer that I was (or a geek before it was cool — it was definitely not cool — whichever you choose to call me) I took some barbs and arrows on that paper. I even got a lower grade actually (might have been the difference on why I didn’t get into Stanford) because word processing apps hadn’t been fully advanced at that point. I got dinged for things like auto-hyphenation errors and spelling auto-correct errors that you actually could not fix in the word processors of that era. I knew they were there, but couldn’t change them on the print out, which was, by the way, dot-matrix.
If you don’t know dot-matrix … I don’t know where to start with you.
Anyway, I was explaining this to two millennials last night and they couldn’t understand — at all — the notion of how computers were set up back then. At this time, the Mac had not yet been invented. I’m pretty sure the IBM PC wasn’t even out yet. Maybe three people in the whole school had Apple II’s (one of them Matt Calman), but these didn’t have word processor software yet.

Matt Calman: Hank, you’ve honored me with a mention in this post, so I will break my usual Facebook code of silence to share some color and insights to your post.

A few items first:
First: I can attest that Hank was indeed an early adopter way back when. And a generous one, at that. In the fall of 1980, Hank possessed the original Sony Walkman, complete with orange foam-covered earphones, and would freely loan it to me … I remember very well popping in a cassette of The Go-Go’s and walking around Deerfield’s campus with a spring in my step. (Thank goodness there’s no cellphone video of THAT) Always a generous guy, that Hank. And a forgiving roommate 😉

Second: Sadly, I did not own an Apple ][ computer … Al Mack had one, as I recall, and there were one or two others around campus. I contented myself with the school’s Apple ][s as well as the infamous Compucolor 2 … an early failed microcomputer built into the chassis of surplus color TVs. If you forgot and left a 5 1/4″ floppy disk in the disk drive when you powered it on, the degaussing circuit in the CRT would erase the diskette. Yup, did that a few times. Mr. Bois, JW corridor master extraordinaire, wrote a letter to my parents my freshman year about my bad habit of cursing like a sailor. That #%€-damned Compucolor 2 didn’t help.

Third: Deerfield Academy did indeed have a minicomputer, the DEC PDP-11/40 with 64KB of memory and a (maybe) 1 megahertz (on a good day, downhill, with wind at its back) processor . It was the expanded version … the extra 16KB of memory over the standard 48KB was something like $15,000+ extra. It was core memory … look that one up … each bit was actually a magnetic donut threaded through a lattice of wires … flipping a bit involved a PHYSICAL FLIP of a magnetic core … imagine being able to look at a memory module and being able to SEE the bits. Clever engineering and even more amazing craftsmanship made it possible. Core memory lived on for a long time in the military, since it was highly resistant to EM interference. The PDP system supported up to 32 terminals and sported two (2!) RK05 removable cartridge disk packs, 24″ in diameter, capable of storing 2.54MB each! I still have one of the disk packs in a garage somewhere.

Fourth: Did the PDP-11/40 have less power than your Fitbit? An excellent question! The Fitbit Alta packs the ARM® Cortex®-M4 core with up to 1 Mbyte of Flash memory and up to 128 Kbytes of embedded SRAM … so Fitbit wins with DOUBLE the RAM but only ONE-FIFTH the storage. All those BASIC programming assignments from Bob and Sue Hammond might not fit on your wrist, but the ol’ PDP could hold ’em all it. But wait, you ask, what is the ARM processor’s word length? Isn’t it a 32-bit design versus the DEC’s 16-bit word? Does that actually “double” the storage? You’d be right if you thought that. And it’s advanced digital signal processing circuits and dedicated floating-point unit make it superior, also. Still, that old PDP was a fine piece of gear in its day, and for the handful of DA boys that became “sysops” (Chris Keener, Mike Tate, and me) … it opened up educational opportunities that other schools didn’t allow. In fact, after I caused too much trouble for Bill Schweikert and Rich Bonanno, they ended admin privileges for select students. That’s too bad … some of the concepts I learned from ring “system manager” on RSTS/E (the operating system) still hold value today.

Moving on …

Your dot-matrix school paper was probably printed on an LA120 printer, capable of BI-DIRECTIONAL print, a true innovation over the unidirectional LA36’s we had in our freshman and sophomore years. Super fast or , umm, dead slow today.
The wire that came out of your terminal used 20 milliamp current-loop technology … different from the RS-232 serial communications more common for the era. Why, you ask? Because current loop allowed for greater distance transmission without signal booster equipment. There was a conduit that ran all the way from the Helen Childs Boyden Science Center to the Memorial Building with cabling to support four terminals on the second floor. That’s right, each terminal was essentially “hard-wired” into the PDP 11/40. Problems? Oh, yeah. Like whenever there was lightning… the DEC service guys got a lot of calls from DA anytime there had been an electrical storm. Remember running last-minute to the computer room in Memorial to print out your math homework for Ro-bob? Only to find that nothing worked and you had to high-tail it to the Science building ? Now you know why.

As for connectivity, Hank was right again …that old workhorse was a standalone system. No connectivity to the outside world. But for the dedicated DA CJ of the 1980’s there was still a glimpse of the future … Chris Keener patched together an ISC workstation. (big brother of the fabled Compucolor 2) with a Hayes 300-baud modem and hacked together some software that enables us to connect to The Source, one of the largest multiuser bulletin board systems that predated Compuserve … it wasn’t until I went on to Carnegie Mellon that I first got onto Arpanet, the true precursor of the internet. But I remember the night Chris first shared The Source with me … I was amazed, thinking about the other people AROUND THE WORLD connected into the same hub at the same time .. on a world-wide network. I can literally see the screen in my memory and feel again that sense of wonder.

Now, as for Hank’s claim of first to hand in a 100% digitally produced paper at DA? I can neither confirm nor deny, but I don’t doubt it. Hank was just the right combination of tech fan and “screw it let’s do it” to pull off such an accomplishment, with a little “aww shucks” swagger to help pull it off. Those dings he took for hyphenation and spelling are the epitome of “the bleeding edge” of progress. Well done, sir!

And one more memory – Leander Magee, a first-year teacher in 1980-81, wrote a complete word-processing system for “comment cards” (e.g. teacher comments on report cards). His approach was advanced and used WYSIWYG design with features that I wouldn’t see for a couple of more years. He was really brilliant beneath his happy-go-lucky style. Do you remember his rambling ’74 Ford LTD? (I once hacked his password … 74LTD haha)

Why the long post? Gosh, Hank is such a regular poster I feel like I owed him one back. Thanks for the inspiration. And thanks for the laughs from your first post.

And DA, thanks to you, too. The school, and its wise faculty, gave me free reign to independently develop a passion for tech, essentially letting me treat the school’s $60,000 computer system as my own PC. That shaped my future in a way that few, if any, other schools could have provided or would have let happen. I bet Mike Nash would say the same about the planetarium. Or Marty Martin Olsen about the ENTIRE PHYSICAL PLANT of the school – now there was a guy who knew how to maximize what was offered.

Those millienials have it great with their apps, their whizzy phones, and their interweb thingy. But we had it great, too, and saw breakthrough tech in our own way.
Providing curious students with freedom to explore never goes out of style. I hope Deerfield Academy students of today find that same kind of wonder that I did from ’79-’83.

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