Computer Memories

My First Computer Job

One of the major changes in our lifetime has been computers. I have been involved with computers all my working life and know just how different things were when I started my first job. Although this is not specifically family history, I thought it was worth sharing some of my early memories of working with computers.

My first computer job was when I started working for the Greater London Council as a computer programmer on 1st January 1970. I started on the princely salary of £20 per week. Computers when I started work were nothing like computers today. They were not small; they would fill a whole room and were far less powerful than a modern mobile phone. The GLC used IBM 360 computers (see the photograph). The largest IBM 360 computer had just 512K of memory.

There were no laptops in those day to use to write your programs. Programs were initially coded in pencil on coding pads and sent to the punch girls to be punched onto punch cards like the one in the photograph.

The punched cards were then fed into the computer to be ‘compiled’ (converted into a machine code program). You would get a print out of any errors, you punched up the corrections and you tried again. Often, you could only get two or three runs a day as the computer was needed for production work, so it could take quite a while before your program was working and ready to go into production. You would get better turn round if you worked in the Salaries team, as the Operators thought their salary would depend on you getting your program working.

Although high level programming languages like COBOL were in common use then, the GLC still coded in the IBM Assembler language. This was more complicated to code but the programs ran more efficiently. Perhaps because of the challenge, programming in IBM assembler was one of the happiest times I had in my computer career.

In spite of the huge changes in computing over the years, in 2007 when I retired, there were still some specialised system code written in IBM Assembler and I was one of the very few people in my company that could still code in IBM Assembler.

Disk storage in 1970 was still very expensive and had low storage capacity. The IBM 2311 disk drive is an example of the disk storage at the time and this could only hold 7.25 megabytes. As a result, most data was kept on magnetic tape. You can see tape drives in the background of the IBM 360 photo.

IBM 360 computer
IBM360 computer
Computer punch card
punch card
IBM 2311 disk drive
IBM 2311 disk drive

When I first started, most applications running on the computer tended to be accounting type applications. I worked on the salaries programs. The main salaries program read the salaries master tape, also the tape containing any updates, then calculated everybody’s salary, wrote out a payments tape for the bank and printed the payslips. There was no online access to the salaries data back then, just lots of computer printouts.

One of my first jobs was to convert the salaries programs from the old pounds, shillings and pence to the new-fangled decimal currency ready for the change-over in 1971. As far as I remember I only made one mistake. One of the routines I had changed went wrong if the person earned over £10,000 a year. (This may not sound much but the equivalent of £10,000 is £150,000 in 2021). There was just one person earning that much and he didn’t get paid because of me! Fortunately, my boss thought this was hilarious so I didn’t get into trouble.

In 1973, I was lucky to work on the first ‘online’ application the council implemented using the IBM CICS software. This would allow staff in the housing department to use these new-fangled terminals connected to the computer in order to allocate council houses. By today’s standards, it was pretty basic, but quite leading edge in those days and it won an award. I think the first application had about 16 terminals. I was contacted by the project leader in 1984 to say they were celebrating the 10th anniversary of the application, so we must have done a good job as it was still going.

A few of us were asked to work on a project for the House of Lords. It was an early word processing application using the IBM ATMS and STAIRS software. Being able to type in documents, save them on disk and then do searches on their contents is taken for granted these days, but was pretty novel then. It was a trial for the House of Lords (which was just across the river) to see if computers could be used for documenting and searching legislation. I had the job of installing and testing the software for them.

As a thank you, we were invited across one day for the opening of parliament. We were taken into the chamber of the House of Lords before the opening, and then watched everybody arrive from an upstairs office window. I remember there was a man running around with a brush and bin, removing all the horse droppings before the queen arrived.

Another incident I remember was at the time of the IRA bombs. One of the programmers was called in one night to fix a problem with one of the wages programs. He was Irish and arriving at reception late at night, he explained in his strong Irish accent that he needed to get to the computer in order to ‘fix it’. They promptly gave him full directions so that he would not get lost. I guess they’d not been on the security course.

After being at the GLC on those old computers, computing later never seemed as interesting as those early days.

The First Home Computers

BBC micro computer
BBC micro computer
My Amstrad CPC6128
My Amstrad CPC6128 computer

Back then, people may have come across computers in their jobs, but it would mainly be using simple computer screens connected to some remote mainframe computer.

But in the background, computers were getting smaller until eventually, they were small enough to make home computers a reality. Home computers started to take off in the early 1980s with the likes of the Spectrum ZX81 and the BBC micro computer and this would be the first time most people would start to use computers.

When my daughter started infant school, I found out they had a BBC Micro Computer. I volunteered to ‘look after it’ during the summer holidays and taught myself to program in BBC Basic. They didn’t come with a disk drive, programs were stored on cassette tapes and you had to load the programs from the tape before you could run them.

I decided I would buy my own first computer which was an Amstrad 6128 (left). It had 128k of memory. It also had the luxury of a floppy disk drive, so there was no waiting to load programs from cassette tapes. I spent many happy hours writing programs for my daughters, educational programs of course. Most people would use home computers to play games. There were magazines that had listings of programs you could type in yourself, which would get many interested in programming.

Schools later moved to Acorn Archimedes computers, so we bought one to help with the girl’s school work. I think they preferred to use it to play Lemmings, a popular computer game at the time where you had to guide a group of furry rodents through a number of obstacles to a safe exit.

During lockdown in 2020, I found my old Amstrad in the loft. It was no longer working because the belt on the disk drive had perished. I found a company that still sold drive belts for it and I was able to fit a new belt. Now everything burst into life and it is working again (see photo).

The next big change was in 1995 when Microsoft brought out Windows 95 and I bought my first Windows computer. Windows 95 had a new user interface which was intended to be more user friendly. This would establish Windows as the most popular operating system for home users. Good quality affordable inkjet printers were now available, so with Microsoft Office you could now produce quality documents at home.

Windows 95 computers also made it easier for home users to access the internet which was starting to take off. The internet was very basic in those days. There were no ‘always on’ connections. Your computer had to have a modem which dialled a connection to your internet provider over the telephone network. That meant while you were connected to the internet, you couldn’t use your phone line to make calls. Remember back then people used their land line for phone calls as few people had a mobile phone and they were more expensive than land lines. You certainly couldn’t connect to the internet with a mobile phone. Internet speeds were incredibly slow, so websites were mainly text with very low-resolution graphics. Anything more and the page would take ages to load. Videos were impossible at that speed.

But the growth in home computers and the arrival of the internet meant the computer revolution had started, things would never be the same again.