A Lifetime with Computers
When I was about ten years of age when my father first showed me his slide rule. Maybe it wasn’t electronic, but it sure was a neat way of multiplying and dividing. His slide rule was made of genuine ivory, and he taught me how to use it. Over the years I accumulated a number of slide rules, full sized with many trigonometric functions, pocket sized, in pencils, and even a rotary slide rule that was a pencil cup.
In high school I learned about logarithms, and how they were the basis of the slide rule. Thirty years later I used the same logarithmic principle to create a chart that converted the thermal conductivity of many materials in many measuring standards. Click to see article: “Heat Flow for Electronic Engineers” .
My first taste of electronic computers came in the spring of 1941. My brother Bob was studying at Ursinus College in the suburbs of Philadelphia and he had arranged for my receiving a scholarship and a campus job, but I still wanted to see the college again to confirm whether I wanted to enroll there.
During Easter vacation in 1941, just before I would graduate, I went to look at Ursinus again, and stayed in the dorm with Bob. He introduced me to some of his favorite professors, including his chemistry and physics professors. Dr. Mauchly (physics), when he heard I had been working with ham radio, invited me to visit his basement labs that night and help with some of the experiments they were doing. When I arrived that evening Dr Mauchly explained that he wanted to build a giant computer that would be capable of gathering data and predicting future weather. He was working on the electronics that would be the basic counting circuits for his concept of a digital computer. I can still recall details of the experiments, which were to record data about the operations of small neon bulbs to determine the voltage at which they would conduct electricity, and light up. These bulbs were to be the non-linear elements of simple binary counting (flip-flop) circuit in the computer.
When I finally started classes at Ursinus in the next September Dr. Mauchly was gone, having moved to the University of Pennsylvania, where he subsequently invented the ENIAC, the worlds’s first electronic digital computer. He had discarded the idea of using neon bulbs for the counters and substituted radio tubes. The heart of today’s personal computers cost a thousand times less, use 5,000 times less power, weigh a billion times less, and operate 4 million times faster.
Some years later I was invited to the press conference for Dr Mauchly’s first commercial digital computer, the Univac.
In December 2013, at my brother’s memorial service I discovered two items related to Dr. Mauchly, an autographed photo of the ENIAC and an autographed brochure that was an in-depth description of the ENIAC operations as well as announcement of the UNIVAC which was in the design stages. I have preserved these two items so that they will not be lost.
At Brooklyn Poly
Five years was to pass by before I had my next taste of computers, this time it was analog computers rather than digital. After two years in Ursinus and Brooklyn Poly and three years in the army, in March 1946, I enrolled as a junior at Brooklyn Poly and signed up for a summer course or two. Having worked with electronics in the Army I wanted to learn more about their applications in industry and in the summers of 1946 and 1947 at Poly I took some very interesting courses that taught the design of industrial control systems. In general they involved equipment that would measure some physical quantity, and maintain its value, or change it to some selected value. These systems, called “servomechanisms,” were quite new at the time, and would lead to my work in automatic control systems and analog computers. My teacher, Ted Gams, was a practical expert in the field, rather than a professional teacher, and I learned much from him in the way control systems were designed and used. This field of work intrigued me.
After graduation from poly I was hired by a small company near Roosevelt Field (which was an operational airport at that time) and I was one of eighteen employees who worked in a couple of hangers just off the airport. They had one contract to build a small analog computer providing a simple electrical function. The Range Servo received a voltage from a radar and then a small amplifier provided a voltage to a motor to rotate a rheostat (variable resistor). The resistor was designed with a precise non-linear relationship so that the voltage from it described a specific mathematical function. This was a very simple analog computer.
Over the next six years I progressed to Project Engineer on numerous analog computers, all based on the same general concept but requiring innovations to perform multiple mathematical functions. See Chapter 11.
Trio Laboratories, Inc.
For the next 15 years at Trio Laboratories we primarily designed and manufactured measuring instruments, but we also designed and built several analog computers similar to the products that Servo had been making. Picture at right is a Ground Speed Computer that converted analog Doppler radar information to a ground speed display. Towards the end of that time, during the 1960s, we designed a number of digital measuring instruments which entailed learning the technologies of digital computers.
During my time at Trio I attended a course in computer programming using the IBM-developed FORTRAN, the computer language most useful for solving engineering problems. In my fifteen years at Trio I never had a need for applying that knowledge but it helped later when I started programming in the BASIC computer language.
The Albany Years
Towards the end of the time I worked for the Legislative Commission on Energy Systems I needed to do some complicated calculations that I felt could be best done with a computer so I asked how I could use the Legislature’s mainframe computer to do the job. I was given a password and told how to access BASIC, a simple computing language, and then I went to the library to borrow some books on programming in BASIC. I taught myself enough of the language to do the calculation and decided that I ought to buy a personal computer, just as they were starting to appear on the market in quantity.
My First Personal Computer: NEC PC8001
It was 1981 when I decided that I wanted to get my own computer. I had to decide which model to buy. Apple had been making the Apple II since 1976, but it was expensive. IBM had started selling it’s PC in 1981, and Nippon Electric Company (NEC), which had been selling personal computers in Japan for two years, released the PC8001 in the US in 1981 also. That year was when we suffered through the numerous unresolved problems that we had with a new Pontiac car. On the 365th day of our ownership, the day that GM’s warrantee expired, we sold the Pontiac and resolved to never again buy an American car, and we would try to avoid the poor quality of any American products. I decided to buy the NEC.
Personal computers were hot items at the time, being sold in computer stores, department stores, and appliance stores. In April 1982 Frank Schneider was visiting from Florida and we went to an electronics show at the Nassau Coliseum where I bought my NEC computer from Newmark and Lewis (an appliance store), and we carried its many boxes to my car. It took two credit cards to pay the $3,600 for the NEC system, including a printer. Then Frank ordered one to be shipped to Florida.
The computer system itself was in the keyboard unit and all it needed beyond that was the monitor. But in order to be most effective it needed the module that had two 5ź disk drives, and a second module that had additional RAM memory and space to add other computer cards with more features. Of course it would also need a printer. That was the complete system that Frank and I each bought. Hard disk drives were not available for the NEC but later someone was selling extra RAM memory that could serve as a drive, so I bought several of those cards to expand the computer’s capability.
The NEC computer could only display its information in the form of little green letters and numbers on the screen (no graphics). These were limitations that would not be overcome until later when I switched to the IBM world and Windows arrived. Meanwhile we had word processing with WordStar, databases with dBase, modems for communications, games, spreadsheets, and several programming languages.
The heart of the computer’s software is its operating system, the bits and bytes that make all the hardware work. Apple and IBM had their own unique operating systems but NEC used one that was widely used by many computers, CP/M (Control Program for Microcomputers). Although some small number of programs (including BASIC) were built into the computer, most programs had to be copied into the computer from a magnetic disk (5ź inch floppy.) The problem with CP/M was that each manufacturer had its own program to access the information on the floppy disk, so disks from Radio Shack’s computers, for example, could not be read by an NEC.
I joined the Long Island Computer Association and found several others who had NEC PCs and we started swapping software that was not copyrighted. I didn’t think of it as a business but it became one as I accumulated collections of programs on a disk and sold the disk to others at my cost. Some other NEC owners asked if I would send them a disk which I agreed to at my cost. The disk itself cost $3.00, and with postage I asked for $4.00. People sent me additional programs from all over and I accumulated them in a collection of disks, eventually having a catalog of over 100 disks (called volumes) available. I created the Long Island NEC Users Group and soon was selling the disks worldwide.
I learned to how to create a database using dBase II and started entering the names and addresses of all the members of my LI NEC Users Group. The first member entered in the database in July of 2002 was the head of a similar group in California. Eventually I ended with over 700 members.
I found out that it was possible to modify the disks with a few notches and record a second volume of software on the back side of the disk. I still sold a volume at $4.00 but the cost of the disk and postage was now cut in half. Then the cost of the disks started dropping and eventually I was able to buy disks, that were pre-notched for double-sided recording, at about $.50. I was now making an immense profit, but the life cycle of NEC computers was fading as people were switching away from CP/M computers to the ubiquitous IBM PC. Several people even sent me their old NEC computers as they switched to IBMs and I had spare parts for my members.
I had made enough money from the sale of programs for NEC computers to pay for an IBM computer for myself, and I gave my old computer to Cathie and Israel for their counseling business in Danbury.
My Entry into the World of IBM PCs
Well, they weren’t really IBMs; they were clones. Whereas Apple computers were highly controlled by copyrights, IBMs were not similarly protected and in 1986 some manufacturers in Taiwan started duplicating parts of the IBMs. I found Fountain Computers in Manhattan that was importing these parts and assembling clone IBM computers. I bought a machine for myself and then bought from them and resold computers for seven of my friends or friends of friends. I shipped two of them to Florida for Frank Schneider and his daughter Sean. Then I found TCX, a company in Plainview, assembling similar clones and over a period of two years upgraded my own computing system to an IBM AT compatible and bought and resold another nine computers to others, including one for my brother.
Although the PC initially was much like the NEC, it all changed in 1990 with the introduction of Windows, and the graphic display capability. It meant that our word processor could include pictures, and we started using Word Perfect and then Ami Pro and as programs got more sophisticated we started using PageMaker for “desktop publishing” such as Christmas letters. Windows 95 added the fantastic capability of multi-tasking, running several programs at the same time.
Long Island Computer Association
During all those years I was going to meetings at the Long Island Computer Association. There were General meetings of all the members with speakers on various topics and Special Interest Groups that had lectures or discussions related to specific models of computers or specific software programs. The SIG that I attended was for people with CP/M computers, and it started with lectures and then had active question and answer periods. As more people switched to IBM computers and fewer people were using CP/M computers the lectures ended and we would just be sitting around in the SIG meeting room with nothing to do. I decided to organize it a bit and sat on the table at the front of the room and answered or redirected questions and answers. After I bought an IBM type computer we continued this discussion group, but switched to questions about the IBMs.
As the leader of a SIG I was on the LICA Board of Directors and when Al Levy, the editor of their newsletter, resigned in 1993 and I agreed to take over the paper. Then Al Levy threatened to sue me because I had told the Post Office to switch LICA mail from his personal PO box to a new one for LICA, and I resigned from LICA.
At one of the General meetings another member came over to me and said, “Weren’t you one of the fathers with me in Levittown Science Pops?” It was Lenny Freud who lived a few blocks away from us. We became close computer buddies, and he introduced me to the world of on-line computering, the Internet, scanning, and a love of type fonts. He also introduced me to Gerry Baden, although it turned out Gerry and his wife Vera were friends of Lenore Greenfield and had participated in AFS bus tour hosting.
A few years later Ed Dowdell, another former LICA Director, wanted to initiate a program for computer beginners and he arranged to use the auditorium at the Bethpage Public Library. The first meeting was to be an introduction to computers and he asked me to do a demonstration of something. I chose to show how one can restore photographs.
I had a glass photographic plate my father had made, a picture of my mother (taken about the time they married) resting on his Underwood typewriter… his two favorites. The plate had a big crack through it and some of the emulsion had degenerated. Fortunately, several years earlier while I was working for the NY Assembly, I had asked their photo lab to make paper positive and negative copies of the plate for me. I needed to have a digital file of the photo and Lenny had a scanner, but this was the early days of scanners for home computers and it would only scan a narrow band, about three inches wide. So we scanned the photo in two parts.
At the meeting I demonstrated how the two photos were stitched together and then using Micrographx Designer (this was before Photoshop) I demonstrated how I restored the photo, pixel by pixel.
After I left LICA in 1993 the discussion group died. Around the year 2000 some of my former discussion group members suggested we restart our group, and the Bethpage Library Director agreed to let us have our meetings there. The group grew, often having as many as 40 attendees, shrinking to about 20 in 2007, and then continuing until there were fewer than 10 in 2012, at which time we disbanded the meetings at the Bethpage Library. Now four of us get together for brunch once every couple weeks, sometimes with one or two more.
By the time I started the discussion group in Bethpage I had switched my graphics editing efforts from Micrographx Designer to Photoshop and one of my discussion group members, Harry Ellerton, was always asking me how to use the program. He wanted someone to start a group dedicated to just Photoshop. After he had asked me for this for a year or two I suggested he start a group himself, so he held a meeting at his house with several of those who were working in Photoshop and it was decided to start another special interest group.
Again the Bethpage Library came through and agreed to assign one evening a month to us in the auditorium, where they had a beautiful projector that could display the computer demonstrations on their large movie screen. They even bought a special high power computer for us to use. These meetings continued but attendance dropped from over 70 members at its peak to around 30 (in 2007) and the membership gradually changed from computer enthusiasts to camera club people who had switched from film to digital cameras. When Jeff Blye, the moderator and major Photoshop demonstrator, moved out of town the Photoshop group folded.
In the early 1990s I heard of a company named Panix that had a way to connect to online computers through a telephone line. They were located in Manhattan but also had a phone line connection to my local 516 area code. I bought my first modem (1200 bps) that connected to my phone line and was able to do some genealogy research locating books in the Library of Congress and the NY Public Library databases.
Lenny Freud suggested I join Jim Toro’s House of Files (Hoflink) where I could connect by telephone to the early version of the Internet and then connect to university libraries all around the world or download free computer programs. A few years after doing that Lenny showed me the new World Wide Web, a form of the Internet that had graphic images on the screen, not just green letters going across. I was sold on that and was intrigued when Jim Toro said he would allocate space on his computers for members who wanted to create their own WWW websites. I started doing that and enjoyed the fun of returning to programming.
Roger Mansell (a Mepham class representative) suggested that we have a Mepham website, which I designed and put on my personal (Hoflink) website space on June 10, 1996, and registered it as Mepham.Org on October 18, 1996. I started working on Cathie’s Four Seasons web site in April 1999, going online as Four SeasonsVT.Org on March 7, 2000. Mepham.Org has since become a major source of historical information about the school for current classes.
The Mepham website was followed by a number of pro bono websites, including Muriel Kane’s Kaneforam.Com, Cathie and Israel’s SoulAwakening.Org, CorporateQuest.Org, MarriageQuest.Org, and Sexploration.Org, and Barbara Silverman Biggs’ JourneyBeyondBusiness.Com.
Of all the websites I have designed I am most proud of MarriageQuest.Org. I spent many weekends working with Cathie and Israel on the sight, redesigning it and rewriting the texts. The efforts were worthwhile and the website has been a major success.
I registered Worthings.Com on 8/26/2003 and have used it for holiday newsletters, weddings and obituaries.
Unfortunately, the timing of the Personal Computer Age came too late for many projects where it would have been very useful to have a computer. Clare could have made great use of one when she was doing NYS PTA legislation, organizing the history of past legislative recommendations. I could have done a better job with my South Africa TV Report and my early Heat Pump testimony although my computers did help for my later testimonies and political campaigns.
By 1995 I was doing many things with the computer, leading my discussion group, helping friends and neighbors with their computer problems, working with graphics, writing, and learning to design websites.
It wasn’t until I deepened my involvement with the Mepham Alumni Association that I really put the computers to use, more than fifty years after my first taste of computers.
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