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IBM '80 vs Microsoft '08 an alternative History of Computing

Updated on June 29, 2008

How I survived 42 years in the Computer Industry


I started work on computers in July 1965. Way back when IBM was king and a few other Computer manufacturers called the BUNCH existed. The Bunch consisted of Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Control Data and Honeywell (remember them?). In Europe there was International Computers and Tabulators(ICT) later ICL (the L stood for limited as Tabulators all but disappeared) Siemens, Leo Marconi and Bull. The first machines based on the IBM 360 were beginning to appear but all of these computers including the mighty 360 were based on a design by the RCA corporation called the spectra 70. The 70 stood for a machine for the 70's and eventually became the IBM 370.

I kind of stumbled into computers. My first job was in a Building Society (in the USA this would be a mutual mortgage loan society) ,which is not quite a bank but these later became banks (but that is another story). We did not yet have computers in the Building Society world in South Africa, although a couple of Banks were taking baby steps from Magnetic Stripe Ledger Machines to small computers. These were mostly equipped with NCR 315 ‘s , Burroughs B1500 and IBM 1401 04 1440 computers. The reason NCR was quite strong was because of the long relationship in supplying cash registers and magnetic stripe ledger machines.

National Service - the AIR Force 1964 1965

I worked as a clerk on what is known as "the junior's desk", and then later became a junior teller earning the princely sum of Forty Two pounds five shillings ( about R95.00 - twelve US dollars now, but at that stage it would have bought about $100 as the exchange rate was pretty good).During my sojourn here I received the dreaded blue card (our draft card). I applied to enlist in the air force and was lucky enough to be accepted. I was then drafted and reported to the Air Force gymnasium for basic training.

The aptitude test

As part of our induction we were given IQ and aptitude tests. One of these tests was a spatial perception aptitude test. This consisted of a progression of blocks containing geometric shapes and shading with a "chose the logical match" block at the end of the row.. After these test were administered I was called into the CO's office for an interview with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and asked what I was studying and what I did for a living. I told them that I was a clerk/ civilian life They asked if I knew anything about computers. I replied in the negative. They then informed me that these spatial perception tests had been performed since 1939 and I was the first person, to their knowledge, with a perfect score in that section and did I know that I was probably suited for a career in computers. They then advised me to contact them when I finished my military training for some advice in this regard. I agreed.

I then went on to study meteorology and completed my course as well as my airforce training, promptly forgetting about this incident , computers, tests etc.

Civilian life again

I returned to civilian life in early 1965 and promptly found myself back on "the junior's desk", I decided that I was not cut out to spend the rest of my life in a banking environment. I bought The Star newspaper at lunch time and scanned the wanted ads.

I saw an ad for a computer operator (no bells rang for me at his stage). I applied and was granted an interview. I enjoyed the tour of the computer room. The computer was a Burroughs B203 and had a whopping 2.4k (Yes K!) memory with a card reader , card punch, Paper tape reader, a huge drum printer capable of printing 300 lines per minute (wow!) and three Magnetic tape units (No disk!). It took up a room as big as a small restaurant. The power was 3 Phase. It had a false floor to enable the cables that led to each device to be concealed for both safety and aesthetic reasons. It was serviced by two 1,.5 ton air-conditioning units which had a hygrometer with human hair to measure ambient humidity as well as a temperature gauge. Temperature and humidity could not vary by more than 5 degrees each way otherwise the transistors and core memory in the computer would fail. There was also an ink plotter on the wall, with a circular wheel and ink-filled pens with different colours for humidity and record the charts. These charts and the ink in the pens were replaced once a week.

Another separate room had card sorters (IBM 083's), collators (IBM 077's) and a gang punch (IBM 514) for processing of punch cards. Each device was the size of a small car a (mini) An additional room housed the punch and separate verifier machines and the operators. Each of this was thissize of an office desk and were very noisy.

The aptitude test again

I was fascinated and wanted the job...but wait! I had to pass an aptitude test first!. Yep you guessed it that selfsame test. I laughed and told my future boss that if all came down to that test I had the job in the bag ,as I had done a similar test before with good results. He said good was not good enough I needed at least 80%. I laughed. And did the test. He phoned a day or so later and needless to say I had cracked the nod for the Job. So that is how I stumbled into computers

Fast forward to 1980

I worked for that organization (a Service Bureau) for some three years progressing from operator to programmer (Machine language and later assembler) to Programming Manager

In about 1969, I decided that I wanted to work for IBM so I phoned them. Once again I was told "not so simple... aptitude test" . Once again after doing a similar, but different aptitude test I got the Job! At that stage IBM was the greatest, agile , fast moving, fun to work for company. New computers such as the 370 was being released. all the time. It was exciting, it was great.

I left IBM after a while as I was head-hunted back into the Burroughs world, more money, more interesting job. In the early seventies, I was retrenched, the economy had taken a nose dive and the company I worked for at time went bust. I started my own business with a unique concept ,in that we were selling the programming development service Up until that time, programs were written for free and the cost was recouped either from running the programs (service delivery) or from he capital cost of the computers sold. Remember computers were a big ticket Item. We (three other bright guys and myself) were told "you are mad - no one is going to pay for programming of systems" . We laughed last! Our former employers were our first customers and from there it just took off and numerous other programming houses, following our model, sprang up.

The Soweto riots 1976

Our phones rang off the hook. We were extremely busy until one morning a marauding singing, dancing (we call this toy-toying) mob brandishing clubs, sticks, stones, knives (pangas) and other weapons crossed the bridge crossing the main railway line which separated downtown Johannesburg from the business area Braamfontein. We could see this from the windows of our offices. Our phones stopped ringing and never rang again. Contracts did not materialize or were cancelled.

This was June 16, 1976 where a series of clashes in Soweto, South Africa between black youths and the South African authorities spread out like wildfire. This resulted in a total slow down of the economy and a total freeze on imports. Our business which existed alongside the computer manufacturers sales capability, came to a grinding halt. We decided to close down our business and look for Jobs while we were still ahead (solvent that is). We were all successful in finding employment, mainly from our existing customer base.

1976 to 1980

I ended up working in the newspaper industry and was responsible for the planning, specification and introduction of electronic editing and classified systems in a major newspaper group. This entailed using the new fangled mini computers from DEC (Digital Equipment Company) as well as leading edge Motorola based Microcomputers. The programs from these were stored on the DEC's and downloaded into the memory of these devices. All "green screen" stuff - no graphics no WYSIWIG (what you see is what you get) all mono-spaced characters on green text screens. There were hyphenation and justification algorithms to mark line endings on screen. All printing was done to dot matrix printers and output was directly to Phototypesetting machines onto bromide output, which was then cut and pasted onto form layouts (called dummies).

I felt there had to be a better way and a quiet revolution was on the way.

!980 On - Microcomputers (or the first PC's)

A couple of new device had found their way onto the business scene, the so-called Microcomputers. These were the likes of PET Commodores, RadioShack TRS 80's, Apple Mac and a couple of machines from Britain from Sinclair which used a concurrent disk operating system. These devices were considered toys although most of them had more memory than the first mainframes that I had worked on in the sixties. Cheap dot matrix printers could be coupled to these. Lasers had not yet appeared. Some rudimentary software became available like Supercalc (spreadsheet) Wordstar (word processor) and some terminal emulation software. Most Mainframe manufacturers made a lot of money from terminal sales but these "toys" could emulate terminals and add spreadsheet and word processing capability for less than the cost of a terminal.

IBM's seeds of destruction are sown!

By now IBM was the dominant force in Mainframes but was irked by the inroads these micros were making in the terminal market. IBM decided that if you cant beat ‘em join ‘em. They created a task force and came up with a plan. Intel was to supply the 8086 processor Chipset. They looked for operating system software. They liked C-Dos by Gary Kildall of Digital Research but he apparently went sailing on his Yacht, leaving his wife acting on his behalf. She refused to sign a non-disclosure agreement. They then went to see a fellow named Bill Gates, Gates, who was instrumental in the development of the Basic programming language, claimed to have an operating system called Dos. He hit on a royalty model where he would paid a small percentage by IBM for each operating system installed on IBM PC's.

His proposal was accepted so he went and bought the operating system (which he did not own) from the then owner of QDOS, the "Quick and Dirty Operating System" written by Tim Paterson of Seattle Computer Products, for a prototype Intel 8086 based computer. Gates called this disk operating system DOS and later MS-DOS. The rest, as they say,is history.

IBM's stamp of legitimacy on the PC was the beginning of the destruction of IBM as the dominant force and gave rise to the Microsoft empire. IBM's size had caused it to become slow moving and inflexible "no-body ever got fired for buying IBM" was a rallying call. Sounds familiar doesn't it.

Bigger and Bigger, Faster and faster

In the meantime the birth of laser printers, development of graphics and graphical users interfaces, initially pioneered by Xerox and adopted by Apple, served to give Apple dominance in the publishing niche market. Microsoft aided and abetted by Intel and Moore's Law also started adapting and making MS-dos bigger better and more graphics oriented.

My History -resumed 1984 onward

With the birth of the new PC's and about the time of Windows 3.1, I believed that PC's could be used in the publishing industry. These were significantly cheaper than Apples, which in any event were not available in South Africa due to sanctions being imposed on the ruling apartheid government. Eastern PC clones were readily available and XYwrite and Pagemaker became available on the PC platform. I then pioneered and wrote within Xywrited Basic, a full blown Newspaper system based on peer to peer LAN networks and workflow using the abovementioned components. I installed these systems in over 60 regional free sheets or suburban newspapers over the next ten years .It is interesting to note that we used laser printers for output. As ,we found that, instead of the copy degrading, through the production process, the jagged edges of the laser characters filled in and improved the output, making it suitable for cut and paste, bypassing the need for expensive phototypesetting devices. We used a program called PhotoStyler and even managed to do colour separations to laser and produced colour photos in the papers using this technique. The display ads were done using Pagemaker ( very similar to Quark which was then not yet available on the PC platform).

IBM ‘80 vs Microsoft ‘08

The developments from 1984 to now have culminated Microsoft releasing the Clunky Vista operating system of today. Microsoft is now big and inflexible a well as slow moviing. Linux and open source are gaining ground and are in my opinion placed where Microsoft was in 1980.

So is history about to repeat itself - Watch this space!



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    • sixtyorso profile imageAUTHOR

      Clive Fagan 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      highway star I agree totally hence my take on the possible demise of Microsoft.

      Perhaps the present economy may accelerate this trend too!. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    • highway star profile image

      highway star 

      9 years ago from Mostly Seattle, Amsterdam and Milan

      This is a very interesting Hub! Your intepretation of the facts is very nice. The future is more interesting since open-source is gaining ground.

    • sixtyorso profile imageAUTHOR

      Clive Fagan 

      10 years ago from South Africa

      Hi Level1diet Thanks again for stopping by and commenting. I have read your hub and there are some interesting parallels. the pictures brought back memories of my days as a computer operator in 1965.

      Patty, Thank you you for taking the trouble to read and pass comment.

      Comments are always much appreciated

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish MS 

      10 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      Thanks for this history; I'm glad to have read it.

    • level1diet profile image


      10 years ago from Albuquerque, NM

      Well, that's certainly an interesting story about your life and computers down in ZA. Didn't know much of this, especially the parts about South Africa, naturally. Read my hub "How I nearly re-invented the modern computer" for my own computer story.

    • sixtyorso profile imageAUTHOR

      Clive Fagan 

      10 years ago from South Africa

      healthmiracles Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Also remember if it wasn't for Nasa and the space program I doubt that digital imaging would have progressed to the start of the art it is now.

    • healthmiracles profile image


      10 years ago

      Wow! Thanks that was so fascinating. I work as a Web Designer and Front end website coder. I am constantly amazed my job wouldn't of existed just 20 years ago! I often wonder what I'd be suited for if not this I can't imagine any other skill I would have. I switched to mac a few years ago and love it. A large reason I quit my employed job is because they made me work on Vista!!!! I once worked in the old IBM headquarters building in Boca Raton Florida! After IBM moved out of course.

    • sixtyorso profile imageAUTHOR

      Clive Fagan 

      10 years ago from South Africa

      Tdrusk thanks for stopping by and commenting. i believe that various iterations of Linux are finding their way onto the desktop in farly large numbers. But the conspiracy between Microsoft & Intel ensures that most PC's come preloaded with windows.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Nice read.

      I agree with the last part. Vista KILLS my computer. It is such a hog. I woul d much rather run a nice minimal Ubuntu install with Fluxbox.

    • sixtyorso profile imageAUTHOR

      Clive Fagan 

      10 years ago from South Africa

      Sweetie Pie thanks for your observations. In South Africa in the sixties, there were  very few computers. Those that existed, where owned by Insurance companies, some Banks, Universities and Service bureaus. I note that you talked about a family computer. we too had a family Computer for the first time in about 1986. My then six or seven year old daughter became a proficient user.almost typing before she could write! Because of our poor bandwidth, internet was only used by us and the public in general in a very limited way (2400 baud modems, mail only) from about 1996. It is only now that we actually have  ADSL and G3 broadband capability. We still don't have the speeds or bandwith that you guys have.

      Thanks for your comments as always much appreciated

    • SweetiePie profile image


      10 years ago from Southern California, USA

      Your life is very fascinating and I think it would make a good book.  It is interesting to read how technology evolved during your career.  I find it funny that back in the late 80's we still had computers from the early eighties in our computer lab at school, but the teacher told us that this would help us learn about new technology.  By the time I got to middle school I was shocked to encounter the newer computers, which were much more up to date than the ones I had seen before.  In high school my family still did not own a computer, so I typed all of my papers on a manual typewriter or when I got a chance to use the computer lab at school.  It is funny to think now I did not even use the Internet until I was a Freshman in college in 1996, especially since most kids today are very tech savvy and have computer at the age of seven.  Of course now I love computers and use them for work and hobbies all the time, but it took awhile to convince my family computers were useful and fun.  My mom will use a computer at work, but it took a few years for her to get on the Internet.

    • sixtyorso profile imageAUTHOR

      Clive Fagan 

      10 years ago from South Africa

      In fact Louie. it now fits into a package the size of a cigarette box if one looks at the Cellphone/ PDA (or smartphones as they are called).

      Thanks for reading and commenting. much appreciated

    • Louie Jerome profile image

      Louie Jerome 

      10 years ago from UK

      Interesting article. You have seen a lot of changes in the computing world since 1965. Imagine a computer that took up a whole room now condensed into the size of an A4 notebook. Amazing.

    • sixtyorso profile imageAUTHOR

      Clive Fagan 

      10 years ago from South Africa

      Marisue Thanks as always for reading and commenting and I look forward to your hubs in similar vein your hub on your early life was great!.

      Desert Blondie thanks for your input. As a matter fact I later discovered that the aptitude tests used by the IT companies, were in fact a modified European oriented IQ test, so these companies were actuallly mining the top decile of talent, pretty much ensuring that they got the best people they could and excluding many talented individuals, which the PC and internet booms respectively have unearthed. Many of these people are  self tutored.

      Helen/Creativia Thank you for your comments. I also really value your input. As a matter of whimsey, it seems that no matter what course in life I had chosen, staying at the building society, continuing with Meteorology,or striking out as I did, I would have ended up in the IT field. The buiding society where I worked, aptitude tested their staff and created a giant IT department some two years later and  one of my co-tellers eventually ended up as a senior Manager in that IT department. The South african Weather service became one of the largest IT users in South Africa. no  computers were used when I was stationed with them.

      So se la vie!

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Sixtyorso, This is a great piece of writing you've done here. It incorporates both South African history, IT/computer industry development history, and your own personal history...the stuff of novels in its many levels treated in this piece. And you express yourself in an easy-flowing style. Excellent and intersting work, here. Regards, Helen (a.k.a. Creativita)

    • desert blondie profile image

      desert blondie 

      10 years ago from Palm trees, swimming pools, lots of sand, lots of sunscreen

      You have had such an impressive career with computers! And that test! Fascinating that there are ways to assess the talents that hide within us! Interesting to see one's life laid out parallel with equipment's developments!

    • marisuewrites profile image


      10 years ago from USA

      an interesting span of years in the techy world. I wonder if microsoft realizes or cares how we view them? Like the google gods, probably not. They make the mistake of not asking their consumers, or not listening. I know they field test this stuff, and I appreciate all the things that work, but to some of us who are not proficient in all things that click, I like simplicity, and things that click RIGHT.

      A good education and you are to be admired to be so tenacious. I think I'll do a hub about some of the things I've done in my past, and my current life as a Manager/Marketing guru in the storage industry. A "dog-eat-dog world," one for which foster parenting and life as a cop's wife prepared me well.

    • sixtyorso profile imageAUTHOR

      Clive Fagan 

      10 years ago from South Africa

      Eileen Thanks for your comments as always enriching my hubs


      Yes I had forgotten those quotes Kenneth Olsen was of course the guy at the helm when DEC pretty much dissapeared. Watson of course was Watson Snr when IBM was still Hollerith. Thanks for enriching my hub with your comments.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      I see no reason why anyone would want a computer in their home. Kenneth Olsen

      I think there is a world market for maybe five computers. Thomas J. Watson 


      Nice hub. 

    • Eileen Hughes profile image

      Eileen Hughes 

      10 years ago from Northam Western Australia

      Very good and interesting story of the years gone by. I have to agree with you about vista. Old man Microsoft has realised that he stuffed up with vista and is now getting out before it goes right down. NO ONE in their right mind likes VISTA

      Thanks for sharing that.


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