17th June 1991
is made up of two programmers. For some inexplicable reason, both are
called Mike. For dramatic reasons, both speak with broad
The two programmers have just finished eating a massive pizza. They
sit back contentedly, patting their stomachs.
- Who'd have thought, five year ago, we'd be sitting here eating L. S.
Grunts' extra-massive pepperoni pizza?
- Aye, and with ten Megaflops of raw CPU power to get back to after
lunch, on a SPARC machine with 8 Meg of core, and a gigabyte of disk
hanging off it.
- 'Course, back in the old days, we had to make do with 68010
machines. We were grateful to have a single megabyte in those days.
Three 'undred K of disk cache, we had ... But we were 'appy,
though we were poor.
we were poor! Remember when we used to run twenty-four terminals off
the Bleasdale? That machine serviced the whole office -- development,
administration, documentation ... the lot!
- Aye. I remember back when we first got the Bleasdale, before we
upgraded its CPU and operating system. Running version seven, it
were: used to crawl along like a tortoise. But it were like 'eaven
- 'Course, I always say Unix started going downhill with version
- Yes, you do. Frequently.
- I remember good old ``sixth edition'' days when there were no
was setuid root, and the shell's
were user programs.
- 'Course, back when I were just starting out in computers, the kernel
were just an ordinary user process. When wanted to alter anything, we
just fired up a debugger and twiddled the bits.
- Machine-level debugger?
- Aye. We didn't have them new-fangled source debuggers back in them days!
- You were lucky! We used to
of 'aving a machine-level debugger. When we wanted to patch the
kernel, we 'ad to
a hardcopy of
work out the offsets of the words we wanted to change, and
them back in.
Luxury! We used to
of 'aving a software interface to the kernel! In my day, the kernel
were 'ard-wired on t'motherboard, and we 'ad to manipulate the
when we wanted to change anything.
- Sixteen-bit words?
- Nay lad,
- Ah, what we would have given for a machine wi' ten bit words! We
used to run our whole office on a PDP-0 with 4k words of core, and
only four bits in each word. All we 'ad for secondary storage was a
paper tape puncher left over from the Crimean war.
- 'Course back in the
early days, we 'ad to make do wi' a PDP -1. It 'ad twenty-seven
1-bit words and no peripheral devices at all. There were no way to do
input or output, and when we wanted persistent storage, we 'ad to
measure the state of the bits with a multimeter and write 'em down
on a bit of paper.
ballpoint pens 'adn't been invented back then, so we 'ad to write
everything in charcoal on papyrus.
[Visibly prepares his next speech]
We 'ad to run the whole of Index+ on a machine so amazingly primitive
that it had an addressable memory of 640k and a segmented architecture
that prevented any C object from being larger than 64k. It ran an
operating system so flaky that the programs -- or rather,
of the programs -- did their own filename-expansion, in subtly
incompatible ways. There were no hardware protection, so any
misdirected pointer indirection could scribble all over the operating
system. The biggest disk partition it could handle were 32 Meg.
And even when we got a similar but updated machine with 32 Meg of core
and a gigabyte of disk, and a '486 CPU that outperformed our main office
machine by a factor of ten, it were emulating the primitive one,
because that's what the users wanted! And that were in the 1990s!
- Oh, come off it! No-one would be gullible enough to believe that!
OK, I admit that this is a very obvious rip-off of the Monty Python
sketch in which four Yorkshiremen look back on their childhoods, and
progressively exaggerate the hardships that they and their families
had to undergo. I'm sure they won't sue.
Since I wrote this sketch (seven years ago as I write), hardware has
of course continued to leap ahead in massive bounds, so that the
super-machine described in the final paragraph now sounds very
mundane. Ah well, that's the price of progress.