Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The First PCs Ever – NOT

Control Data Corporation was a very good place to work. Even though it was a gigantic corporation, it kept all work groups small (no more than 15 or so people to a manager). The pay was decent. The benefits were great. And everything was fairly loose. I was a technical (hardware repair) instructor for most of my 20 years with CDC, and when we were not in the classroom teaching, it was very easy to get part of a day off without having to take vacation or sick time.

In 1975 I was selected to be part of a special group within Engineering Services (our repair division). CDC and the University of Illinois had created the PLATO Computerized Education system. This consisted of a number of gigantic (for those days) Cyber super-computers feeding specially-developed software using the TUTOR programming language. Students took lessons at PLATO terminals, huge boxes with red plasma screens and rear-projection slide projectors for photographic displays, connected via modems or audio-coupling devices to the mainframe. Illinois, then Delaware and a number of other universities had been using PLATO lessons for a long time. Illinois’s chemistry department even had a simulation of lab work which drew clouds of smoke and printed a large “BOOM!” on the screen if the student performed an incorrect chemical operation. Then he/she could press the NEXT key on the keyboard and try the lesson again. When the student finally got it right, he/she could move into the actual lab.

CDC decided that they wanted us to utilize this technology to train our repair people in the field, thus reducing the costs of having folks come to Minneapolis for school. A number of us were sent to learn how to program in TUTOR, and we set to work creating two technical training courses. It was highly successful. Everyone was so pleased that a few of us were chosen to develop more courses in an ongoing program.

As we worked with this system, it seemed that it was ideal technology for public school systems. But there were a couple drawbacks. Either the school system had to get their own local Cyber system (EXPENSIVE!) or they had to pay long-distance telephone costs for a line connecting each and every PLATO terminal in their school (perhaps 15-20 of them?) going to the Cyber mainframe located elsewhere (also quite expensive).

In 1976, we geniuses came up with a great solution. CDC already had what was then classified as “intelligent terminals,” small systems that could perform a lot of operations independently, collect data, then automatically call the mainframe to upload data for processing and hang up. We suggested that CDC create intelligent PLATO terminals that could call the mainframe, have a student sign in for their personal assignments, collect their data, and hang up the phone line. Then the student could work for 45 minutes or an hour at their lessons. When the lesson was complete, or the class time was over, the student could sign in once more and upload their work, test results, etc., and sign off again. Thus a school could get by with considerably less on-line telephone time, saving money, and still allowing their kids to use this great new technology.

Hindsight says that in time, in a very short time, we would have developed the first desktop personal computer (perhaps by some other name) on which students could run a program to study. We would have beaten Apple on the market by a couple-three years!

Management at Control Data wouldn’t buy the plan. Their response was: “We can’t do that! We’re trying to sell super-computers!”

Within ten years, around 1985, CDC was using Zenith PCs as the user interface on their newest super-computers. So the technical types had been smarter and more far-seeing than management. And in my opinion, this was a major reason why CDC went out of business in 1990.

Ah, the clarity of hindsight!

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