It was all fields round here

It is 1975, and at the Park Senior High School (as bog standard a comprehensive as they came) a group of curious schoolboys led by a farsighted maths teacher take the bus into Swindon town centre and enter the headquarters of the Nationwide Building Society. There, we potter down to the computer room where we are allowed access to their mainframe (a UNIVAC 1109 with drum storage, if my memory serves) because they didn’t use it in the evening. I will never forget that kindness from Nationwide and they still have place in my heart for it today. It was there we worked on our first serious programming project, a system to schedule appointments for the parent’s evenings! Can you imagine ringing up, say, Barclays Bank today and asking them if some school kids could use their mainframe in the evening if they’re not too busy? Astonishing.

Having a whole computer to yourself was then a novelty. When Brian Dyer, the then-deputy headmaster of Park asked me and a few friends if we’d be interested in sitting a Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) in Computer Studies (the school had no lessons in the subject, so we had to just read up in our spare time) my first contact with a general-purpose stored-value computer system came via punched cards sent to the University of Bristol once each week. You punched your cards, they were sent off and a week later you got back your print out. I think it was an ICL 1902A, the first IC-based range they produced (the A meant it had a floating point unit for scientific calculations), and we wrote in FORTRAN. The school got a teletype, and we had access to a GEISCO time-sharing system using Dartmouth BASIC. I think we were allowed an hour per week, or something like that. I got Grade 1, and was set for life…

Other weeks we took the bus up to the now-demolished Swindon College, where we used their Elliott 803B with a then-amazing 8Kb of core memory (you tell the kids of today that…) to write Algol programmes on 5-track paper tape. You loaded the compiler, the loaded your program and the machine produced a machine code tape (for their strange 39-bit word instruction set) and then loaded your machine code and executed. Here’s a video of someone using one of these beasts! I don’t remember much about what software we wrote, although I do remember spending an inordinate amount of time working on my football simulation that used random numbers to work out where the ball went after each kick.

Park PiratesPark School 1976: Me, Clive Debenham (Rest in Peace), Simon Turpin and Bob Kirby (Rest in Peace).

In the hot summer of 1976, we were also allowed, and I have no memory of how this came about, to cycle out to the Royal Military College of Science in Shrivenham and use their more advanced computer system — although I can’t remember what this was — to write in Algol 68-R. In those pre-Al Qaeda days, we were allowed to amble around the campus and wander in and out of the computer room essentially unfettered. This all stood me in good stead. When I got my first vacation job at college it was for the Southern Water Authority in Eastleigh. One day my boss asked me if I could help him with a problem. The IT department (in Brighton) were sending him the wrong statistics. Did I know anything about computers? We opened the cupboard at the end of the corridor and found a teletype connected to a 1900-series (a 1906?) running Fortran under GEORGE III, which fortunately I knew how to use. I was instantly appointed departmental IT supremo, and never looked back!

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes