Monday, November 27, 2006

27 November 2006: Pet

While the Bithell family welcomes another new member to its number (congratulations to them all, especially Helen for squeezing out a 10lb 9oz Reuben), things have been a little more peaceful here in stormy Southampton. Thanksgiving was fun last week (and we've already almost finished the leftover turkey, believe it or not) and partly as a result of having all the family over, I discovered a fascinating piece of paper tucked away upstairs.

We had to tidy up, you see. And that meant sorting out the 'office' - which, since we moved in at the end of September, had actually been used as a 'random storage place' for all the things that we didn't know where to put. Much of last week was spent sorting, shredding, putting stuff in the loft, but one box in particular proved of special interest. I had barely touched it since lining it with newspaper some twelve and a bit years ago to pack my stuff to go to university. Back then it contained a couple of plates, a random knife or fork and some obscure odds and ends that I thought might be useful. So last week I had to actually unpack it all and find such things as the random knife still in there. But most interesting of all was, of course, the newspaper.

Now, while most of it was from September 1994 (back then the Premiership trophy was held by Blackburn Rovers, if you can believe it), for some unknown reason one of the pieces used for packing was from The Guardian, dated 29 May 1979. Yes, 1979. How did it come to be there? I have no idea. But I thought it might contain some fascinating information, so I had a quick look through it and found absolutely nothing of any interest at all. Some kind of Middle-East unrest, issues in Northern Ireland - could have been today. The most interesting 'news' item was the bird report from Cheshire, where the correspondent relayed the exciting news that for the first time that spring, the swallows had arrived and indeed stayed all week.

However, tucked away in the corner was an advertisement that did nicely date the newspaper: a quarter-page piece encouraging the reader to invest in the machine of the future - the Commodore PET.

Feel free to click on it to get a full-scale version of the advert, but there are two key points I wish to draw out from it. Firstly, the carefully-worded piece is keen to make it clear that the PET is astoundingly useful in all circumstances: indeed, despite being a SOHO (Small Office/Home Office) machine ('for the same price as a typewriter!'), you can in fact use it to control industrial power plants:

Ooo, mummy I want one for Christmas! Yet secondly, not content with this, you can also play a wide variety of games with it...

Just what you want to do on the same machine that runs the Hinkley Point Nuclear Power facility. Of course, this was in the days before multitasking so there was little danger of Alt-Tabbing to the wrong window before hitting "SELF_DESTRUCT".

The most interesting thing about this computer, however, is not its amazing technological advancement (the model pictured comes with a whole 4k of 8-bit RAM) or indeed the fact the cassette comes built in and it's available with a larger keyboard (ooo) but the Operating System and built-in language was called 'Commodore BASIC', programmed by two gentlemen named Paul Allen and Bill Gates who had just recently founded a company named 'Micro-Soft'. They sold Commodore BASIC to Commodore for a one-off fee of $10000, with no royalties or anything else coming back to them. In fact, this is the only example in the history of Microsoft of them selling anything on a one-time royalty-free basis regardless of the number of copies used or sold.

So there, a little history on this AKTing Monday morning. Now it's time for the weekly meeting, where I doubt we'll be discussing the potential for semantic web systems that allow you to both run industrial plants and play space games. Frankly I think the computer industry just isn't imaginative any more.

Addendum: It is pointed out to me that May 1979 was actually a very interesting time, and The Guardian did indeed report interesting things during those days: for example, the election of Margaret Thatcher on May 4 and just two days after the PET advert went to press, Nottingham Forest won the European Cup (now Champions League). Funny to think Forest are playing the mighty Salisbury Town next weekend, isn't it?


Nico said...

Thanks for this Duncan! I've got to print this ad out for my office wall. It was in Autumn '79 that my sixth form college bought one of these little beauties and I became a geek, hanging around the maths department hoping to get to play space invaders on the PET. Soon after this, I decided not to go to university but to get a job as a trainee computer programmer, based on the joy of learning Commodore Basic. (Took me ages to grasp why you had to DIM arrays.)

DuncMcRae said...

Nico, your confession might place you in trouble: I found this piece by Dijkstra this morning while mooching around looking at early BASIC commentaries, and he states quite clearly: It is practically impossible to teach good programming to students that have had a prior exposure to BASIC: as potential programmers they are mentally mutilated beyond hope of regeneration.

Of course, he then goes on to say: The use of COBOL cripples the mind; its teaching should, therefore, be regarded as a criminal offence. Which, all things considered, is probably not the most balanced statement he ever made but might explain why Equitable Life went under a couple of years ago (they were still using COBOL when I went for an interview there in 1998).

Rob said...

Hmm.. fascinating bit of history there Mr Duncan.. I was but 2 months old when this newspaper was printed! So.. Microsoft once wrote a piece of software that ran with 4K of RAM.. What went wrong?!?