Monday, May 19, 2008

How Does That Compute?

If you saw two students on campus today playing checkers, like the ones pictured above from the early 1970s, they would more likely be doing so using some kind of video game format, or even doing so on-line and prehaps competing against multiple opponents.

Technology...particularly the rise of the personal computer... is probably the greatest change that has occurred since we left Vanderbilt 35 years ago.

For example, we had a computer center while we were in school. It housed the Vanderbilt in one...a singular piece of technology so large it took up the entire bottom floor of the large circular building in the middle of campus where it was located.

If you'll remember, to run a program on the computer you had to create all these punch cards. If any one piece of data on any one of the cards was wrong, the computer would spit out the whole program, and give you little or no clue what was incorrect.

I can remember being frustrated for hours while trying to get a program to work for a political science class I was taking. It was so embarrassing I think I have blocked out any other memories about it, including what the exact assignment was. I think it had something to do with analyzing some survey data.

Steve Womack of the Class of 1973 has an ever "better" memory to share. As a computer major in the School of Engineering, he had lots of opportunities to work with the University computer. That includes the time he says he had "a suitcase full of punch cards to run a relatively simple program that came back with 846 fatal errors!"

Is it no wonder some of us are still afraid to do things on a computer for fear we might "break" it?

And there was other new technology coming out in our day. Steve Womack reminds me that the first hand-held calculators from Texas Instruments went on sale in stores our sophomore year (1970-71). "They cost $400. All they did was add, subtract, multiply and divide." Nevertheless, as Steve remembers it, those new devices "were banned from being used on E-school exams, you had to use a slide rule. By our senior year, they were $100 and mandatory."

Isn't technology wonderful?

And you know those early calculators had about as much computer power back then as that key chain in your pocket or purse today that you use to open your car door or the trunk.

And of course, unlike in our day, everybody now has their own computer, which probably also has about as much, if not more computing capacity, than the entire University computer had we were on campus.

In many ways, we certainly could not have guessed how technology would change our lives after leaving college...and it's probably only just begun. The internet, web sites and blogs all help us keep in touch better these days. And hopefully what you read and share here on this blog, along with what you find on our class reunion web site, will help you get ready to join us for our 35th Vanderbilt Class Reunion, October 24-25.

So leave your thoughts and memories below, remembering a time when computers were truly strange and mysterious things, and the coolest way to play checkers or chess was with a bag lunch from the Burger Whop while occupying a warm sunny spot on Rand Terrace between classes.

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