More About Computers

The previous post mentioned computers and some of the frustrations that result from using and owning this kind of a device. I’m not a stranger to these insidious devices. I graduated with a degree in electrical engineering in 1958 and joined a company called Univac located in St Paul Minnesota.  I had heard of computers before joining Univac, but had never really seen one. Univac had developed one of the first commercially available computers and it filled a large air conditioned room and used vacuum tubes to perform the binary on-off functions.

When I arrived at Univac, all of the designs on the drawing boards were using a new-fangled component called the transistor. When I graduated from South Dakota State University, the electrical engineering department offered one course in solid state transistor technology. It was an introductory course and I had room in my final quarter schedule and took the course. Like the vacuum tubes used in early computers, the first transistors were a single switch, packaged inside of a small metal can; a large improvement over the vacuum tube in size and power consumption. That millions of such switches would be put into single packages on a single silicon chip within the next twenty years had been incomprehensible at the time.

Related technologies were going the same way at the same time. A precursor to the hard drive, the magnetic drum, had a rotating element a foot in diameter and four feet long that shook the floor when it rotated.  The drum had a single head that moved along the length of the drum to pick up tracks for reading and writing.  I worked on a state of the art hard drive in the early 1980’s, a device packaged in a cabinet the size of a small washing machine and with a platter about a foot in diameter and with a capacity of an amazing hundred megabytes.

Despite this background, partly because technology continues to move at breakneck speed,  I am no more adept at working with current computers than the average teen-ager. However, I do believe that the industry could make computers and related technologies more user friendly if they adhered to what we used to refer to as the KISS principle.  KEEP IT SIMPLE STUPID.  I suspect that many of the bells and whistles’ added to hardware and software are seldom used and add to the devices complexity. It seems that some changes are made for sake of making a change. It is like moving women’s skirt length; it doesn’t improve the product but does attract attention.  Then of course there is the suspicion of planned obsolescence, the intent being to drive sales more than technology.

In the end, rapid technology changes and the resulting obsolescence is driven by you and me. We all like to have the latest toys and the technology industry is more than happy to supply them.

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