Computers I've Known & Loved

::: DEC PDP 8 (?) :::


I went to school in the Colaiste Choilm CBS in Swords. This school had the distinction of being the first school in Ireland to have its own computer. I believe it was a DEC PDP 8, but I can't be sure. I never did get to use it, but I did get to gawp at it in open-mouthed awe from time to time.


::: Commodore VIC-20 :::

Commodore VIC-20

The first computer I actually got to use in earnest was a Commodore VIC-20 with 4Kbytes of RAM. It was owned by a good friend of my Dad's and I was captivated by it.

One of the teachers in school (Tony Monaghan) had given BASIC classes during lunchtimes for a group of enthusiastic students. However, it was all theory (since we never got to actually play with the PDP) and the VIC-20 was my first chance to actually try out my knowledge of BASIC.

Does this ring any bells ?

10 PRINT "Hello"
20 GOTO 10
30 END

::: Commodore PET :::

Commodore PET

By the time the school let us loose on the computers, the old PDP was gone and was replaced with a handful of Apple IIs and a Commodore PET, just like this one. My first "serious" program was a little game called Dog Race for the this machine. Basically, there were four (I think) little π symbols racing across the screen. You had credit which you could bet on each race.


::: Apple ][ :::

Apple 2

There can be nobody who had any kind of interest in computers in the early '80s who didn't cut their teeth on an Apple ][. It did graphics (who remembers the hires command ?!) and you could play games on it. One of my most treasured possessions was the 180K floppy disk (90K per side, as I recall) which contained my entire digital existence back them (that, and the audio tape I used to keep my Commodore PET programs on).


::: ORIC-1 :::


The first computer I ever owned !! Oric owners all considered themselves superior to owners of Sinclair Spectrums. The Speccie was much more popular and had much more software available for it, but it was for playing games. Us ORIC owners existed on a higher intellectual plane (!). While idly browsing the Internet, I discovered by chance that there remains to this day an active ORIC user community.

The ORIC was built around a 6502 CPU (the same as the Apple) and I discovered the joy of assembly language programming on it. BASIC never felt the same again.


::: Amstrad CPC-464 :::

Amstrad CPC-464

My next computer as an Amstrad CPC-464. It was a step up in sophistication from the ORIC. It had its own screen and a proper keyboard.

Its a funny thing: While I remember the Amstrad fondly and it was a great machine, I struggle to think of anything to say about it here. I do remember writing a BASIC program to solve Karnaugh maps on it, but apart from that...


::: Olivetti M24 :::

Olivetti M24

When I went off to University (to study computers, of course !), I was introduced to my first IBM compatible PC. Dublin City University (or NIHE Dublin as it was then known) had two labs full of Olivetti M24 PC compatibles.

We used them mostly for writing up projects (using Wordstar) and for writing programs using Turbo Pascal (version 1 !).


::: Amstrad PC1640 :::

Amstrad PC1640

This was my first encounter with a hard disk. The 20MB capacity was like a bottomless was hard to see how anyone could ever fill it. And it was fast.

My favourite Amstrad PC story is at the expense of a very bright but somewhat credulous classmate. We had a college project due during a period of industrial unrest in the ESB (for the benefit of foreign readers: the ESB is the Irish power utility). We beavered away on our projects always worrying that the power would vanish at any moment, wiping out hours of work. One member of our group (a known well-known prankster) reassured the protaganist that she (for it was a she !) would be fine working away on the Amstrad because it had batteries for backup. Determined not to be taken in, our hero was having none of it until the prankster lifted the screen off the base only to reveal four AA batteries (used to keep the real-time clock running). You can probably guess how this story ends....!

::: DEC VAX 11/780 :::

DEC VAX 11/780

This was my introduction to the world of "multi-user" systems. We used it for Pascal in first year, and Cobol (yuk !) and C in second year. When we weren't doing coursework, the "hard-core" elements in the class (yes Brian... I'm talking about you !) spent untold hours trawling through the (excellent) VMS help, trying to outdo each other with our mastery of this system. We all fell foul of the system administrators from time to time...looking back on it I must confess to admiring the extent to which they tolerated and indulged our activities !

My first job after graduating from Dublin City University was as a Software Engineer for a company called Retix (now defunct). For a while, I was a system administrator of a VAX 8250 running BSD UNIX, which is a much more civilised use for a VAX.


::: Olivetti M290 :::

Olivetti M290

This was my first PC compatible. It started out as a 80286 with 2Mbytes of RAM (an embarrasment of riches at the time). We were still using the Olivetti M24s and Amstrad PC1640s in DCU and this thing was in a different league completely.

Eventually, it became like one of those axes with five new heads and three new handles as I upgraded various bits of it over a period of years.


::: Gould :::

No Image Available

This was our introduction to UNIX in second year. I can't say it was love at first sight. I've yet to meet anyone who isn't a little fazed when they discover that "ls -l" is the command to view the list of files in a directory, and I was no different. However, in time I grew to be a serious UNIX fan and so it remains to this day. My interest in VMS waned gradually as I became more interested in UNIX. I still get involved in religious arguments with misguided people who labour under the illusion that VMS is superior to UNIX in any way ( know I'm right !).

I don't even know what model of machine this was. We simply knew it as "The Gould". It was presided over primarily by one of the lectures, Martin Doherty, known to all as "The Doc". On many occasions, there would be 30 of my classmates logged into this machine, all running vi and the C compiler. I believe it had 4Mbytes of RAM at the time !!


::: Sun SPARCstation SLC :::

Sun SPARCstation SLC

These arrived into DCU around the time I went back to work as a Researcher. At a time when Microsoft Windows 3.0 (a 16-bit GUI for an 8-bit operating system for a 4-bit processor designed by a 2-bit company that can't stand 1-bit of competition, as someone memorably characterised it) was the height of technical sophistication in the PC world, these things had X-Windows and were fully networked. On the other hand, they were pure black-and-white (that wasn't as outlandish then as it sounds now, but even back then some greyscales would have been nice!)

When I took over as System Administrator in DCU, my network of these - and their younger siblings, the SPARCstation ELCs - were my pride and joy. I spent three great years fighting a battle of wits and wills against the student-hackers intent on acquiring root access to "my" Suns. Send a thief to catch a thief, I guess. It was often hard to keep a straight face while ticking off students I'd found up to something they shouldn't have been. have been.

The Internet as we know it today really only got going in earnest around the time I was playing with these. The first web server I ever worked on ( ran on an ELC.


::: IBM RS/6000 :::

IBM RS/6000

Strictly speaking, this doesn't belong here at all because I absolutely hated the thing ! It ran (or rather crawled) AIX which was vaguely similar to UNIX but with all the character choked out of it. Nothing worked exactly the way it did in "proper" UNIX. It look a lifetime to boot its enormously bloated operating system, during which it deigned to communicate its painfully slow progress via a 3-digit LED display (while the expansive 19" screen - the only redeeming feature of this hideous machine - remained utterly blank). And when it finally did get around to letting you actually log in, it seemed to do everything else at a similarly glacial pace. Student hackers weren't a big problem on these things because they hated them as much as I did (or perhaps I just never caught them)

Looking back now, they probably weren't really as bad as all that (were they ?). I'm willing to concede that my perspective may have been coloured by an utterly miserable week spent trying to rescue a student laboratory full of these things from a failed upgrade to AIX 3.2.5. That and my history with IBM (those of you who know me will know what I mean !). I did keep one in my office for a while, trying to learn to love it - even just a little. I can't say I ever actually got there, but I did manage to acquire (barely) enough grudging regard for it to warrant a couple of paragraphs here.


::: Sun SPARCserver 690MP :::

Sun SPARCserver 690MP

In 1992 I became the system/network administrator in the DCU School of Computer Applications around the time we were moving into a new building. It was a very exciting time as we got to design and build the systems from scratch (always fun !). To support the School's UNIX activities, we bought a Sun SPARCserver 690MP. It had four processors and was - for a while - the biggest and most powerful Sun server in Ireland. And it was all mine (in my own mind anyway). It was called 'samson' and sat side-by-side with a (then) top-of-the-line Compaq Proliant fileserver (running Novell Netware version 3,1) called 'delilah'.


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