The first computer I owned

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

The first computer I owned was a North Star Horizon. I bought it in kit form, which meant bags of capacitors, resistors, transistors, chips, printed circuit boards, etc, along with the circuit diagrams for each board. These all had to be soldered in the right holes, the chips socketed (no surface mount soldering for such a low volume system), and wires connected. I was amazed when the system booted the first time I powered it up; debugging with the very basic equipment I had would have been a nightmare. The only missing component was the power supply transformer, and a trip to the London-based supplier sorted that out. I saved a months’ salary by building the kit (which cost me 4-months salary, and I was one of the highest paid people in my circle).

North Star Horizon with cover removed.

The few individuals who bought a computer in the late 1970s bought either a Horizon or a Commodore Pet (which was more expensive, but came with an integrated monitor and keyboard). Computer ownership really started to take off when the BBC micro came along at the end of 1981, and could be bought for less than a months’ salary (at least for a white-collar worker).

My Horizon contained a Z80A clocking at 4MHz, 32K of RAM, and two 5 1/4-inch floppy drives (each holding 360K; the Wikipedia article says the drives held 90K, mine {according to the labels on the floppies, MD 525-10} are 40-track, 10-sector, double density). I later bought another 32K of memory; the system ROM was at 56K, and contained 4K of code, various tricks allowed the 4K above 60K to be used (the consistent quality of the soldering on one of the boards below identifies the non-hand built board).

North Star Horizon underside of boards.

The OS that came with the system was CP/M, renamed to CP/M-80 when the Intel 8086 came along, and will be familiar to anybody used to working with early versions of MS-DOS.

As a fan of Pascal, my development environment of choice was UCSD Pascal. The C compiler of choice was BDS C.

Horizon owners are total computer people :-) An emulator, running under Linux and capable of running Horizon disk images, is available for those wanting a taste of being a Horizon owner. I didn’t see any mention of audio emulation in the documentation; clicks and whirls from the floppy drive were a good way of monitoring compile progress without needing to look at the screen (not content with using our Horizon’s at home, another Horizon owner and I implemented a Horizon emulator in Fortran, running on the University’s Prime computers). I wonder how many Nobel-prize winners did their calculations on a Horizon?

The Horizon spec needs to be appreciated in the context of its time. When I worked in application support at the University of Surrey, users had a default file allocation of around 100K’ish (memory is foggy). So being able to store stuff on a 360K floppy, which could be purchased in boxes of 10, was a big deal. The mainframe/minicomputers of the day were available with single-digit megabytes, but many previous generation systems had under 100K of RAM. There were lots of programs out there still running in 64K. In terms of cpu power, nearly all existing systems were multi-user, and a less powerful, single-user, cpu beats sharing a more powerful cpu with 10-100 people.

In terms of sheer weight, visual appearance and electrical clout, the Horizon power supply far exceeds those seen in today’s computers, which look tame by comparison (two of those capacitors are 4-inches tall):

North Star Horizon power supply.

My Horizon has been sitting in the garage for 32-years, and tucked away in unused rooms for years before that. The main problem with finding out whether it still works is finding a device to connect to the 25-pin serial port. I have an old PC with a 9-pin serial port, but I have spent enough of my life fiddling around with serial-port cables and Kermit to be content trying a simpler approach. I connect the power supply and switched it on. There was a loud crack and a flash on the disk-controller board; probably a tantalum capacitor giving up the ghost (easy enough to replace). The primary floppy drive did spin up and shutdown after some seconds (as expected), but the internal floppy engagement arm (probably not its real name) does not swing free when I open the bay door (so I cannot insert a floppy).

I am hoping to find a home for it in a computer museum, and have emailed the two closest museums. If these museums are not interested, the first person to knock on my door can take it away, along with manuals and floppies.

First language taught to undergraduates in the 1990s

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

The average new graduate is likely to do more programming during the first month of a software engineering job, than they did during a year as an undergraduate. Programming courses for undergraduates is really about filtering out those who cannot code.

Long, long ago, when I had some connection to undergraduate hiring, around 70-80% of those interviewed for a programming job could not write a simple 10-20 line program; I’m told that this is still true today. Fluency in any language (computer or human) takes practice, and the typical undergraduate gets very little practice (there is no reason why they should, there are lots of activities on offer to students and programming fluency is not needed to get a degree).

There is lots of academic discussion around which language students should learn first, and what languages they should be exposed to. I have always been baffled by the idea that there was much to be gained by spending time teaching students multiple languages, when most of them barely grasp the primary course language. When I was at school the idea behind the trendy new maths curriculum was to teach concepts, rather than rote learning (such as algebra; yes, rote learning of the rules of algebra); the concept of number-base was considered to be a worthwhile concept and us kids were taught this concept by having the class convert values back and forth, such as base-10 numbers to base-5 (base-2 was rarely used in examples). Those of us who were good at maths instantly figured it out, while everybody else was completely confused (including some teachers).

My view is that there is no major teaching/learning impact on the choice of first language; it is all about academic fashion and marketing to students. Those who have the ability to program will just pick it up, and everybody else will flounder and do their best to stay away from it.

Richard Reid was interested in knowing which languages were being used to teach introductory programming to computer science and information systems majors. Starting in 1992, he contacted universities roughly twice a year, asking about the language(s) used to teach introductory programming. The Reid list (as it became known), was regularly updated until Reid retired in 1999 (the average number of universities included in the list was over 400); one of Reid’s ex-students, Frances VanScoy, took over until 2006.

The plot below is from 1992 to 2002, and shows languages in the top 3% in any year (code+data):

Normalised returned required for various elapsed years.

Looking at the list again reminded me how widespread Pascal was as a teaching language. Modula-2 was the language that Niklaus Wirth designed as the successor of Pascal, and Ada was intended to be the grown up Pascal.

While there is plenty of discussion about which language to teach first, doing this teaching is a low status activity (there is more fun to be had with the material taught to the final year students). One consequence is lack of any real incentive for spending time changing the course (e.g., using a new language). The Open University continued teaching Pascal for years, because material had been printed and had to be used up.

C++ took a while to take-off because of its association with C (which was very out of fashion in academia), and Java was still too new to risk exposing to impressionable first-years.

A count of the total number of languages listed, between 1992 and 2002, contains a few that might not be familiar to readers.

          Ada    Ada/Pascal          Beta          Blue             C 
         1087             1            10             3           667 
       C/Java      C/Scheme           C++    C++/Pascal        Eiffel 
            1             1           910             1            29 
      Fortran       Haskell     HyperTalk         ISETL       ISETL/C 
          133            12             2            30             1 
         Java  Java/Haskell       Miranda            ML       ML/Java 
          107             1            48            16             1 
     Modula-2      Modula-3        Oberon      Oberon-2     ObjPascal 
          727            24            26             7            22 
       Orwell        Pascal      Pascal/C        Prolog        Scheme 
           12          2269             1            12           752 
    Scheme/ML Scheme/Turing        Simula     Smalltalk           SML 
            1             1            14            33            88 
       Turing  Visual-Basic 
           71             3 

I had never heard of Orwell, a vanity language foisted on Oxford Mathematics and Computation students. It used to be common for someone in computing departments to foist their vanity language on students; it enabled them to claim the language was being used and stoked their ego. Is there some law that enables students to sue for damages?

The 1990s was still in the shadow of the 1980s fashion for functional programming (which came back into fashion a few years ago). Miranda was an attempt to commercialize a functional language compiler, with Haskell being an open source reaction.

I was surprised that Turing was so widely taught. More to do with the stature of where it came from (university of Toronto), than anything else.

Fortran was my first language, and is still widely used where high performance floating-point is required.

ISETL is a very interesting language from the 1960s that never really attracted much attention outside of New York. I suspect that Blue is BlueJ, a Java IDE targeting novices.