Ron V's

Background in Computers

Last updated 05/10/2017

My First Computer

I became a computer and data communications professional in 1985 but my work with computers began long before then.  Before I share my personal involvement with the computing world, I need to tell a bit of computing and telecom history.

True data communications began in 1844 with the first practical demonstration of the Telegraph.  Digital telecommunications were already in use by the time Bell invented the telehone in 1876.  The first practical teleprinter was invented by 1920 and was in common use by 1930s.

Practical analog computers were in use by the end of the 1930s and programmable digital computers were invented by WWII.  I wasn't born until the war was over.  I didn't graduate high school until the 1960s.  That's when I became interested in electronics.  When I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, I worked in the nuclear bomber program.  We were using analog computers but got our first digital computer in the late 1960s.

Test Stand
Analog and Digital Computers
Air Force Computer Test Stand - late 1960sAnalog and digital flight computers - late 1960s

After fulfilling my military commitment, I went to work for Bell Telephone.  For my first 10 years with the phone company I had basic, simple jobs that didn't require a lot of technology to perform.  The job was secure but the pay was less than I needed to raise a growing family.  

The 1979/1980 winter term, I started back to school to learn computer programming.  Over the next 3 or 4 years I also learned about computer modems, displays, and keyboards (made by Teletype Corporation) that the phone company was leasing to its customers.

Teletype Dataspeed 40 terminal202T Modem
Teletype Dataspeed 40 Terminal202T Modem

My family's first personal computer was a Commodore-64 I bought my son for Christmas in 1983.  I purchased a surplused DECwriter teleprinter for $25 and connected it to an RS-232C adapter which I bought for the Commodore.  I wrote a short program in BASIC where the computer could ask each of my children, "What is your name?"  They would input their name on the Decwriter.  It would then ask, "What is your age?"  When they responded and hit the ENTER key, the computer would output through the Decwriter 10 times:
          Yippee!  _____ is _____ years old !
          Yippee!  _____ is _____ years old !
          Yippee!  _____ is _____ years old !
          Yippee!  _____ is _____ years old !
          Yippee!  _____ is _____ years old !
and so forth.  They were delighted with it since none of them had ever "talked" to a computer before.

Commodore 64Decwriter Teleprinter

In 1985 I took a test for promotion to Systems Specialist.  The test was 6 hours long and was failing 98% of the people who took it.  I passed it in 4 hours and made 98/100.  My performance in other jobs at the phone company had never been that great so it was something of a surprise to me that I understood computers so well.  It was the first thing in my life that came quite easy for me.  I've since learned that I'm a bit autistic enough so that,while work with complex data equipment is often a breeze, simple things like communicating with others comes at a price.

I went to work in Bellsouth's Data Center in Birmingham, Alabama.  Originally, Bell Telephone Company had 7 regional data centers in the southeast but by the time I was promoted these had been reduced to 5 (Birmingham, Atlanta, Miami, Nashville, and Charlotte).  Within the next 12 years they were reduced to just 2 (Birmingham and Atlanta) and by 1997, with the advance of technology and the internet, there was only one that still monitored what were then called "Minicomputers."  That was the Birmingham Data Center.

We had about a dozen mainframe computers, some 2,000 minicomputers, and 30,000 servers
throughout Bellsouth's 9 southeastern states which we monitored 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  

The Birmingham Data Center is a huge 6-story building on several acres located in Hoover, Alabama (near Birmingham) which is close to the Gallaria Mall.  The building is fully self-contained with its own generator backup system and 100,000 gallons of fuel.  The backup system could power a small city for several days.

The corporate database was 22 Terabytes in size stored on large computer disks in a room the size of a football field.

Birmingham Data CenterData CabinetsPDP-11 Minicomputer
Birmingham Data CenterRacks of data cabinetsDEC PDP-11 Minicomputer

I learned to program the PDP-11 Minicomputers in UNIX Shell and wrote several Shell Scripts that helped make our jobs easier.  In my off time and after work I used these computers to write my first two genealogy books.  

There were no word processors back then so every line, every margin, every page number, and new page had to all be formatted by hand one line of code at a time.  I wrote a computer program to generate the index.  That was back when everything was done from the command line several years before Windows came on the scene.  Even back then, we were already beginning to use email in house.  That was many years before most of the rest of the world started using it.

I bought my first IBM PC in 1990 and used 4DOS, a PC user interface similar to UNIX shell, as part of my operating system software.  When I first purchased it, the PC had no hard drive, only two 5-1/4 inch floppy drives and 256 kilobytes of RAM.  Computers this small and weak seem ineffective nowadays but remember that a computer smaller and weaker than this carried our first NASA astronauts to the moon and back.


Thanks to my good friend and computer expert, Rick Jackson, I was later able to upgrade it with a hard drive and new power supply.  I've had many upgrades and owned many computers since then but none were more fun.  One thing I've learned is how best to preserve files.  There are many file formats but Text works on many operating systems such as MS DOS and Windows, Apple and Mac, UNIX, iPhones and Android devices.  I've saved .TXT files on UNIX systems in the 1980s that are still readable on any desktop, laptop, tablet, or smart phone over 30 years later.

Hardware technology and the internet eventually did away with my job.  Huge computers are no longer needed.  Banks of small, efficient servers and bays of tiny computer hard drives now fill data centers.  They form "the cloud."  If something fails, they're smart enough to tell the operators what's wrong and how to fix it.

In 1997, I transferred from computer operations to data communications.  I began working on what is now the internet backbone.  The only difference is my work was for inter-company communications.  Our devices for data traffic were Datakit and AI (Applied Innovations) boxes.

DatakitDatakit Close UpAI Box
A Datakit (about the height of a human being)Datakit shelf close up (about 2-1/2 ft wide)AI Box close up (about twice as tall as a Datakit shelf and the same width)

I worked in a remote monitoring center my last 8 or 9 years.  We kept watch on links to other devices that handled all communications throughout Alabama, Tennesee, Kentucky, Mississippi, Lousiana, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.  I worked at a help desk.  

It was not uncommon for me to on a 5-way telephone conversation with people in 3 differents states for 8 hours or more trying to restore service for tens of thousands of people.  The pressure was often intense because some people were homebound and some businesses were first responders, police and fire protection, ambulance services, or hospitals.  We never knew if people's lives were at stake so it was a 24/7 operation.  We often had to keep corporate directors and vice presidents informed.

I rarely discussed with my family what I did.  My friends rarely understood.  Most weren't computer nerdy enough to care.

When I retired in 2007 I had dedicated 37 years to the phone company.  They gave me a nice reitrement with health benefits.  I also received a grandfather clock.  I was forced to retire early so I got a year off with full pay and benefits until the date of my retirement.

I miss my nerdy friends at work but I don't miss the job pressure.  It caused my co-workers to have health problems.  No one but us really understood what we did anyway -- not even our supervisors.  We learned from each other.

That knowledge has often been invaluable since I retired helping my fellow church members to use technology in furthering the work of the Lord.  The rewards can't be calculated.  It's one thing that makes retirement more wonderful than I had ever imagined.