My conversations with computers

As an academic in the 1960s my father used several computers – now museum pieces – such as an Elliott 803. Computers in those days were large but elusive beasts. Instead of addressing the computer directly, my father often sent it programs on punched tape and got the results back several hours later, a bit like communicating by telegram. I, Matthew Elliott Edgar, was born in 1970. (My parents spared me the “803” bit.)

At seven I met my first computer, a Commodore PET 2001. It had a keyboard for input, a small integral green screen for output and looked just like the computer in Wonder Woman. My first conversation with the computer probably went something like:

> Hello

Syntax error

Soon my sister and I learned to speak the computer’s language well enough to make it do stuff:

> 10 Print “Hello”

> 20 Goto 10

> Run

Hello

Hello

Hello

What we were using – though we didn’t stop to think about it – was a command line interface. Whenever we saw the expectant “>” prompt and blinking cursor we knew the computer was listening, waiting for our next command. The empty screen invited endless possibilities, though the computer reserved the right to reject them. When we hit “return” it would think for a while then give an answer.

The command line interface was simple and responsive but limited. If I wanted to draw a shape on the screen I had to enter the X-Y co-ordinates of every point. And, while the computer spoke a language, it wasn’t my language. It wasn’t even a human language. Most over sevens found this quite daunting.

A BBC Model B, then an Amstrad PC 1512 superseded the PET in my home. To overcome the language barrier between people and computers clever designers invented a new way of communicating: the graphical user interface, or GUI. Instead of engaging the computer in conversation I could point at the thing I wanted – like an English tourist in a French bakery. There was a great GUI art program on the Amstrad that let me to draw more complex, colourful things than would have been possible with the PET or BBC. At first I still used the command line for most things. But as time wore on the Amstrad and I talked less and I pointed and clicked more.

In general GUIs made the over sevens feel much better about computers (though my dad remains suspicious of any system he can’t interrogate through the command line). Over time the GUI became the default way of communicating with computers. Screens got bigger to accommodate the spreading virtual desktop. The Amstrad with its 640×200 pixel screen gave way to a succession of PC clones, each with a bigger visual display than the last.

Now those pesky icons have found their way onto mobile phone screens smaller than the Commodore Pet’s. Here’s hoping it’s just a phase and that we’ll work out a better way to talk to our computers again soon.

Update 24/4/2010: You should check out How I Met Your Motherboard: tales of early computing

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