A. About computers I used
Here I am speaking of
hardware, and I am mainly listing computers I have worked with:
- mainframe IBM in the
early 1970ies, briefly
I've also seen this
computer, but the actual programming of that day consisted in writing
code for punch-cards in Algol or Cobol, handing this to the technician
who took care of the computer, and wait for a line-print of the output.
In the late seventies a
friend bought a SIM-computer - which was in effect a motherboard with
some chips and other electronics, with a LED-screen on it, for 8
characters or numbers.
To program it, on had to
write machine-code for it. This was theoretically interesting, but not
productive, and also expensive, since it cost much more than a
Texas-Instrument electronic calculator of the day, while it could do
Around 1980 the same friend,
after discarding the SIM, bought an early Apple. This came with a 14
inch green on black screen; one could code AppleBasic for it and see
the results; and one had to store the programs one wrote on the tape of
This was quite amazing and
it also allowed one to do things that were more difficult to do on
paper, such as - in my case - drawing and calculating truth-tables for
In 1987 a girl friend who
had a father working for Philips as a middle manager got his Osborne,
that dated from 1982 or 1983, which was one of the first computers that
were meant to be laptops - i.e. computers one could easily carry around
In fact, the Osborne when
packed for travelling looked like a hefty sewing machine in its box,
and when unpacked had a keyboard and a 4-inch screen, though one also
could connect it to a screen like the Apple used.
This machine ran CP/M, and
came with Visicalc and Wordstar. Visicalc was one of the earliest
spreadsheets and Wordstar one of the first text-editors. Both were
amazing, and made the Osborne a really productive tool.
Its memory was 64 or 128 Kb
(I forgot), minus what CP/M needed, and I think its processor ran at
0.6 Mhz, but it was a great introduction to personal computing.
The Osborne was rapidly
followed up 1987 with a Philips with all of 256 Kb of memory and an
early DOS operating system.
This was the first PC-clone I
worked with, and it was more powerful and faster than the Osborne, and
also ran more powerful software, but the early graphics was awful: Very
big pixels in 4 ugly colors.
This again was rapidly
replaced by several other Philips PC-clone, ending up with
which did have 640 Kb of
memory (minus what DOS 2.1 needed) and a 20 MB harddisk.
The graphics was not as awful
as on the earlier Philips, but still not really pretty or much use, but
this computer could run Lotus, Paradox, Quattro, dBase III Plus, and
any other program that made the PC useful and productive, and also
could run DesqView, which gave the illusion of multi-tasking in DOS.
In the university I had some
experience with early Macs (rectangular boxes with rather small black
and white graphics screens) but I never got my own Mac because it was
Then the internet arrived, and
I got a 486 computer, which was replaced in time by a Celeron or
Pentium clone and another.
These were bought to run
Windows95 and Windows98, which were the first graphical systems (as
opposed to text-based) that Microsoft produced that one could
productively work with, and that got popular very rapidly with PC-users
because of the internet and because of the much more pleasant looking
The main problem with
Windows95 and Windows98, regardless of the hardware these ran on, was
that these crashed often and unpredictably, and also regardless of what
I used variants of Windows95
and Windows98 from 1995 to 2002, and hardly a day passed without a few
crashes. This was annoying, and could be very annoying. Thus, when
trying to program some Java in Microsoft's very own J++ around 2000,
this crashed Windows98 and trashed 45 MB of data on the harddisk, which
took a lot of time to recover from (and quite a lot was permamently
At present and since five
years I mostly use a Hewlett Packard computer with Windows XP, which is
a combination that, for the first time with Windows, is rather stable
(it rarely crashes) and that has been free for years from major bothers
due to the hardware or the OS.
This is not a powerful machine
anno 2007, but it runs at 1400 Mhz, has 256 Mb memory, and can show
films and write CDs - which when compared to the Osborne I started
serious computing with in 1987 is an enormous difference.
And it is an interesting fact,
that illustrates both Moore's law and free market competition, that
ever since the Philips 286, the price of a new computer that I bought
was lower than the price of the previous one, whereas its capacities in
terms of processor speed and internal memory were usually at least
double of the previous one.
I am no gadget-freak and never
was one, nor am I interested in hardware per se or in tinkering with
it, but it is good to have some knowledge of the hardware one uses.
Here is a commented list of some books I have found useful over the
What I am concerned with is
knowledge and understanding of some general principles involved in
hardware, and it so happens that I found the following relatively
dinosaurian books quite useful:
- Digital Computer Basics
- Prepared by the Bureau of Naval Personnel
This is a training course for
U.S. Navy Personnel, that was printed by Dover Paperback in 1969, and
that has the great merit of explaining the basics really clearly. It is
about mainframes, but this does not matter in principle.
- Home Computers: 210
Questions & Answers - Volume 1: Hardware -
This text is from very
really early days, since it is from 1977, but it is quite good and
clear, and also gives a taste of what "home computing" was like around
1977: It needed a lot of careful soldering and patience by the user.
I mention these texts because
they helped me, and because they are - still! - quite good about the
basics, that indeed has not changed in principle ever since Von Neumann
designed the outlines of a modern electronic computer.
The above two books are mainly
practical apart from explaining binary arithmetic, basic programming
etc., but the next two books give some basic knowledge of principles.
- Assembly Language from
Square One - Jeff Dunteman
This is from 1990, and is a
good introduction to Assembly for those who know little or nothing
about it to start with.
If you want to understand the
basics of what a computer can do, you have to understand some Assembly,
and this book explains the very basics quite well.
- Computation: Finite and
infinite machies - Marvin Minsky
My edition dates from 1972,
and is a very clear introduction to the science of computing as far as
mathematics and logic are concerned: It explains what a computing
machine is, mathematically speaking.
This does not give one
hardware knowledge properly speaking, but it does explain very well
what the computing hardware one uses embodies in principle.