Don Edwards Literary Memorial

May 12, 2008

The Perfect Computer


Who would have expected profundity about the perfect dining room table? Now that you bring it up, we never had it. The Perfect Dining Table, that is. Our first was, as you describe, a hand-me-down that barely fit in our 54’ Chevy, our first car. After that we just had tables. A black one we bought in Italy, an oblong one we bought in Atlanta. A glass one now with wicker underpinnings that will seat 6 comfortably. So I don’t know what the perfect dining room table for us would be. Our family is relatively small, even with grandchildren, at most 9. We could jam three more chairs at the corners of our present table and make do.

But you had me thinking about what might be a symbol of my life. It isn’t furniture of any kind…I just don’t care much about furniture and Valerie is a genius when it comes to decoration. Even the few antiques I’ve inherited from ancestors don’t reflect anything much about me symbolically. Cars? I couldn’t care less about cars. The only one I really liked was a ’57 Chevy, and that was destroyed in an automobile accident. Probably because of our joint peculiar teenage lives in a Roman Catholic “Junior Novitiate,” I never got into cars. To me, cars are tools….good if they work, bad if they don’t.

So what could be a symbol reflective of me? It took me some time to come up with something plausible. Probably the “Perfect Computer.” All my adult life I’ve been involved with these relatively stupid electronic devices. I’ll try to explain.

My dalliance with computers began a year after I left the Brothers. A modest experiment at St. Johns College in the physics lab got me interested in computing. We actually constructed a slide rule using an Archimedean spiral projected onto a linear surface.

The summer following that year at St. Johns, I needed a job. I heard of an internship program at Westinghouse in Baltimore. To my amazement, I managed to pass an aptitude test…I say amazingly, since Brother Vincent had told me in high school that I had no talent for mathematics and should avoid it when I went to college. So I would up working for Westinghouse in their aerospace division near “Friendship Airport” as it was called in the ‘50s, just outside of Baltimore on the way to Washington DC. I was assigned to be a technician on a project that was the prototype of what is now the AWACS radar system, used the world over. Most computers in those days took an entire room with air and water cooling, wires and pipes under the flooring. Ours consisted of only two racks of electronics because we used the brand new devices invented at Bell Labs…transistors…and an analog computer box which directed the antenna. That was my responsibility, lots of gadgets that calculated the position of the aircraft carrying the radar and kept it pointing towards the target no matter what maneuvers the plane and target took. Great if you are good at trigonometry. Amazingly again, I was a whiz at trig. I was good at analytic geometry…Rene Descartes would have been proud of me. I was good at calculus and complex variables. Not only was I good at mathematics, I liked it too. I carried around an Aristo “log-log, decitrig, hyperbolic function” slide rule that made my earlier physics lab experiment look like child’s play. I could use it too. I still have the damn thing somewhere. I named it “Clyde,” shown here. Clyde was, and is, a damn fine slide rule, but it wasn’t the Perfect Computer. You could compute to about three decimal places at most.

My next adventure was with computers was with a subsidiary of ITT, but it wasn’t very interesting. The project was the world wide communication system for the Strategic Air Command and they used all kinds of computing things including a “Military Computer” designed by IBM. I wasn’t impressed. It still took up a whole room. I designed a computer which could theoretically “talk” or translate messages between SAGE, SAC, the Air Defense Command, NORAD and almost any communication system It was never to the best of my knowledge, but it would have worked. Maybe that is why it wasn’t used. I didn’t give it a name, though, because it was only a paper design.

Then back to California, I worked for Northrop Space Laboratory in Los Angeles. I designed and built my own computer this time using “solid state logic,” the very first chips. It was intended to process information from scanning devices in the visible spectrum, infra red, ultra violet. The devices were going to be used to detect missile launches and feed information to military intelligence, much as radar does. I helped solder wires, tested the thing and it worked the very first time we powered it up. I was so proud of it, I named it “Earl.” But it wasn’t perfect. Earl was designed for a very specific purpose and it wasn’t movable. This is Earl at his best, wires combed, circuits impeccably manicured.

Then I participated in the Apollo program. I had begun work for IBM and we designed the guidance computer for the Saturn V booster rocket that propelled the astronauts to the Moon. But it wasn’t very interesting, bolted to the side of a huge cylinder, and it was also designed for a very specific, though important purpose.

That ended my computer design and building career. After that I began to work on commercial projects, on-line teller systems for European banks, then data base systems for Japanese banks, then reservation systems for the airlines. I worked for the San Jose division which invented the hard file. The first one, on display in the lobby of the plant, had disks 3 feet in diameter and spun on spindles. Interesting, scientific breakthroughs, but hardly cuddly. I wasn’t about to name any of these computing behemoths…they calculated alright, but they were incredibly boring. There were tapes, drums, disks, enormous mainframe computers still with water and air to cool them and programmed with cards with holes in them.

Then I went to Florida in search of the Perfect Computer. It looked good for awhile. IBM was going into the little computer business. At that time Apple, Atari and Commodore were the only small machines available, so IBM got into the act. My first IBM computer was a PC Junior. The only problem was the stupid operating system we got from a geek in Washington, this guy named Bill Gates who dropped out of Harvard. DOS was the worst operating system ever…EVER…invented. I hated it. Even the huge mainframes had decent operating systems, cards with holes or not. So Earl remained my only computer with a name.

Finally, after some years, Windows caught up with Apple more or less and Microsoft came out with a half decent operating system, Windows XP Professional. The computer itself was put together by the company I worked for, VirtuCom, a small family business that made and serviced computers for the K-12 school market. After a time it performed so well I decided to name it. At the time it was a killer computer with all the whiz bang stuff, latest software, a ton of RAM. But, sadly, Farley, shown here, is now almost 6 years old…around 82 in computer years…and while a little slow…well, so am I for that matter….it is now like an old friend, my trusted sidekick like Tonto.

I recently had a new one built for me. It is a killer computer, with all the latest software, a ton and a half of RAM, a huge LED display. It has more computing power than all the computers in the world put together when Clyde was born. Melvin (shown to the right with his cousin, Clyde) might well be the Perfect Computer.

Or not.

Filed under: DON POSTS — Don @ 3:12 am

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