Monday, December 18, 2006

From Univac to Memory Sticks

Chuck Gooden loved to talk. Given a chance, he would start up a conversation with King Tut's mummy. He loved to tell his stories, most of which were not real interesting. However he was convinced everyone needed to hear them.

One that was mildly amusing, and even illustrated with some old Polaroids, was the arrival of a Univac computer to the Franklin Life Insurance Co of Springfield, IL. This was in the late 1950s and was a major event. Univac (UNIVersal Automatic Computer) was the first commercial computer made in the US. Only 4o some units were ever made and were a considerable investment for a company. Insurance companies, needing lots of information for billing and processing claims, were a natural market.

According to Chuck, most of the employees got the day off and most of Springfield watched as a fleet of heavy lift helicopters brought the unit to the building. While the workers used fans and open windows to cool in the humid midwest summer, Univac had his own air-conditioned floor. It took the better part of the day and several weeks of pre and post installation work to get Univac ready to go.

Just as a bit of trivia, UNIVAC used 5,200 vacuum tubes weighed 29,000 lbs, and could perform about 1,905 operations per second. The Central Complex (consisting of the processor and memory unit) by itself was 14" by 8 " by 8.5" high . The complete system occupied more than 350 sq ft of floor space.

Fast forward to today. Technology has rocketed forward in the last 50 years. Univac is now a museum piece. Computers are ubiquitous, and even throwaway. I have a 5 year old Dell in the corner that is now obsolete, it is going to be a second computer, much like the once shiny new car is now the second one for the kids, a newer one taking its place in the pecking order.

This whole essay came about as I bought a 1 gigabyte memory stick yesterday when I was out shopping. This little thing, illustrated here, is 1/100,000 or more the size of Univac. But probably holds more memory than Univac could even imagine. A Univac system cost nearly a million dollars (1950 dollars) to buy and even more to install. With only 46 made a Univac owner was in an elite club. A 1 gig memory stick costs $20 give or take and can be bought at Target. 2 gig sticks are also available and I am sure bigger ones are on the way.


The photo above is about life size.

The old tape drive, card reader computers are dead and gone, computer memory is cheap now. Someone without a computer is either a technophobe, lazy or just dirt poor. You just wonder what the computers of 50 years from now will be. Microchips I guess, maybe even inbred in babies. Provided there is a 50 years from now.

2 comments:

callalily said...

For years now, computers have been doubling in memory capacity and speed each year while the price has been dropping by half. Truly amazing technologically.

The issue that needs to be looked at more is how all the technology is affecting us. Does it bring people together or separate them further? We communicate with people far away, yet we are too busy to get together with friends across town. Are the things we do with computers healthy for us? We spend hours on our butts in front of the screen, rather than engaging in more physically or mentally challenging activities. Are we really improving our lives? We have access to all sorts of content, but so much of it is very superficial. We can waste so many hours on fascinating but meaningless activities like games and "naughty" stuff. We can spend alot of time pursuing our narrow interests, and we are able to ignore bigger issues that might bring us together with more people.
And of course the computer has brought about a huge upheaval in the job market, resulting in various "winners" and "losers".

Sorry, I've gotten off topic here, but I find these questions fascinating. What do you think?

zridling said...

For those of us who are old dogs at computers — I used my first on in 1978, and it had a whopping 5k of RAM and used punch cards to input data — it's been a fun ride.

What you're describing is Gordon Moore's famous observation made in 1965, today known as "Moore's Law." It projects the doubling of transistors every couple of years. Moore's Law has been maintained and still holds true today. Intel expects that it will continue to do so at least through the end of the next decade. As for their impact, I'll comment directly on the next post.