We’re quite guilty of looking back through rose tinted glasses at the computers we remember in our youth. Playing on a ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Atari consoles and so on is like being a child again, and recalling the sounds, feel, and smell of overheating electronics.
Those were the home computers though, the entertainment side of computing if you will. It’s often easy to forget that during the ‘70s and ‘80s there was also a serious business side to computing. The Apple IIe, for example, was a fine and well used business machine – as well as being a powerful home computer as well – that saw many years of service. Moving up through the ranks, many of you may have got to tinker with the behemoth mainframes, or those wonderful punch card machines.
Those were the real computers of the time. All radio-like valves, pulsing and expanding like a vertical crop of transparent onions, complete with little pops and crackles, beeps and the continual thrum of overworked machinery.
The truth though was that these were excellent, hardwearing machines. Designed to work continuously for many years. They were constructed in an age where this disposable society of ours was unheard of, where every conceivable part of the machine could be repaired by a skilled engineer.
That skill is still alive and well today, as it happens. We took to investigating these old machines and to our surprise we discovered that there are still a fair few being used right now. A computer system built and designed nigh on 40 years ago, alive and well, and running in some quite extraordinary circumstances and environments.
1 – PDP11 Minicomputer
The PDP (Programmed Data Processor) range of minicomputers, although mini in comparison to the monstrous mainframes, made by the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), was one of the most successful machines of its age.
It started life in 1970, and was one of the world’s first 16-bit word addressed machines, and proved to be blisteringly fast in its operation and remarkably stable. It used an Orthogonal Instruction Set that directly addressed areas of the computer’s memory, and featured hardware interrupts on several priority levels which, when triggered, could fire off different software routines on magnetic tape (the old 270mm reels), depending on what caused the trigger in the first place.
All in all, it was an extremely capable machine. Which is probably why it’s still in use today as a part of the US Navy’s ship radar systems and, as rumoured, at work within the British Atomic Weapons Establishment. It’s also said to be still in use at Airbus SAS, and was part of the designing of the A320 family of planes.
2 – DEC VAX11/780
The descendent of the PDP11 was the DEC VAX (Virtual Address eXtension), a much improved 32-bit complex instruction set computer that was faster and more powerful than anything previously seen in the minicomputer world.
For a short time, the VAX11/780 was used as the processor standard benchmark, but it was the fact that this system, much like its predecessor, was rock solid and rarely failed.
This may explain then why a VAX11/780 is still in operation in part of the F-15 and F-18 fighter jet Hawk missile systems, and can be found throughout some of the older model US Navy submarine fleet, and on board aircraft carriers.
Furthermore, if you’re an engineer working for the Minuteman ICBM system, then there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll come across a VAX11/780 as part of the control and test systems.
3 – IBM 402
The IBM 402 and 403 weren’t, strictly speaking, computers, as such. They were actually tabulating machines, which to quote Wikipedia is ‘an electromechanical machine designed to assist in summarising information’. In a sense then it’s a computing machine, and for the sake of argument we’ll call it a computer in this instance.
Anyway, the IBM 402 first appeared in the late ‘40s, 1948 is quoted in some instances, and consists of a kind of breadboard setup on to which you would wire up connections to perform certain operations. And by wire up, we don’t just mean programming. We actually mean that you need to plug wires into it to make the thing operate the way you want it to. It’s quite extraordinary.
Sparkler Filters, based in Texas, manufactures and sells water filtration equipment. They’re apparently very good at it too, since they’ve doing it from 1928. And should you decide to purchase anything from them, then your payment and your account will be put through the same IBM 402 that the company bought way back in 1949. They even use an IBM 029 punch card machine to enter the data with into the IBM 402. And it’s still going to this day.
4 – DEC MicroVAX 3100
The DEC MicroVAX range of minicomputers were the lower end and more affordable of the minicomputer series. They saw service from 1984 onwards to, unbelievably, December 2000. They were, and still are, considered very capable machines, and a huge improvement from the more monolithic PDP and previous VAX computers.
The DEC MicroVAX 3100 in question, the actual model number is unknown, has been busy working in the Hecla Mining Company since it was purchased in 1987. Somewhere, in deepest darkest Alaska, this ancient minicomputer is attached to a scale that automatically inputs weights into calculation tables, calculates silver and gold ounce per ton values for raw ore sample with flux corrections (yeah, we have no idea what that means either); creates work lists for sample sets and inserts a replicate every 50 samples, and it prints sticky labels on to an equally aged printer.
As the user of the system, YouCantOutrunABear, states on his Reddit account, “there’s no need for me to play Fallout, I apparently work in it.”
5 – IBM XT
The IBM Personal Computer XT was released in 1983, and featured the ability to access the legendary IBM 3340 Winchester hard drive cluster, or Data Access Storage Facility as it was known as back then. It also had 128KB of RAM, a 360KB double-sided 5.25-inch floppy disk, a 10MB hard drive, and an Intel 8088 processor running at a blistering 4.77MHz.
It was awesome stuff this, back in the day. So much so, that the National Weather Service in the US bought several, complete with the Winchester Storage Facility, when they started to interpret weather patterns based on the data sent from weather balloons.
The result was extremely successful, and as accurate as you can get. These days, the NWS utilises the supercomputing power of some of the fastest machines ever created, but they still own and use several old IBM XTs and input the data from the existing weather balloons into the Winchester array.
6 – Magnetic Tape
The old 270mm reels of tape we often see spinning around in old movies were the only long-term, and speedy storage mechanisms for many years. Magnetic tape was first used to store data in 1951, and was capable of storing 128 characters per inch on eight tracks. Naturally the amount of data used back then was very little compared to today’s use, but even still there were entire rooms, warehouses even, dedicated purely to tape drives.
One of the most recently developed tape drives can squeeze a modest 185TB of data on to its layer of superfine crystal particles, and it’s said to last for at least sixty years. Longevity is the key here, which is probably why the US government’s IRS still uses it.
Amazingly, it wasn’t until recently that a flat file database of every US citizen’s tax was replaced by a modern system. What they used to have was a bank of magnetic tapes, storing a single database which needed to be accessed via a COBOL created interface. The new system is as modern as you can get, but the old magnetic tape, with the single database, still exists as a backup and is still maintained by IRS staff.
7 – Apple IIe
The Apple IIe was the third generation series of Apple personal computers that was launched in 1983. It ran Apple DOS, had a 1MHz 6502 CPU, 64KB of RAM, and several auxiliary slots into which you could fit extra RAM cards, printer cards, connection cards, and an improved video card. It was quite the bee’s knees.
Kevin Huffman, who owns the Huffman Industrial Warehouse in the US purchased a couple of Apple IIe’s back in the day, and has never looked back since. One of his Apple’s is, and has been all this time, running the company’s accounts and has never failed him yet. The other is in storage and will be used in case the main Apple ever becomes faulty.
All of his accounts, dating back many years now, are all stored on 5.25-inch floppy disks and it prints invoices, cheques, and inventory forms as well as being used as the business spreadsheet machine.
8 – HAM Radio computer interface
Amateur radio, or Ham radio, users share a common spirit with computer enthusiasts. They’re often seen tinkering with mind boggling electronics, they generally operate in a room that’s far too small for all the kit they own, and they are often regarded by outsiders as a bit of a strange breed. We know how you feel fellow Hammer, or whatever you call yourselves.
Ham radio has been around since 1909, apparently, when the First annual Official Wireless Blue Book of the Wireless Association of America listed a collection of amateur radio stations. In fact, many of the great Ham radio enthusiasts moved into computing in the ‘70s and ‘80s thanks to their electronics genius. It’s little wonder then that Ham radio computer interfaces are still being produced today, and are in use in many a home across the world as well as some notable military bases.
Allegedly, the likes of NORAD in the Cheyenne Mountain Complex, the Raven rock Alternate Command Centre (Site R), Area 51, Mount Weather and many other places of a black ops nature have a doomsday scenario backup Ham computer interface setup up and running.
Presumably this is in case of some form of Armageddon, be that nuclear, alien invasion, zombie apocalypse, and any other Hollywood scenario you can think of. The point being, they can still coordinate and contact other surviving bases while keeping a chain of command.
You’ll also find it alive and well in the International Space Station. Wonder what the reception up there is like?
9 – HP 3000
The HP 3000 series of minicomputers were released in 1972, and featured such revolutionary concepts as an operating system, RISC processors, and you could easily interface with the mainframes of time and large storage arrays.
They were exceptional workhorses, with support lasting well into 2010. This then is probably why the Department of Defence used them as test machines for the HARM missiles that were fitted in aircraft carriers in the mid-eighties.
Apparently, according to those who used these systems in their military setting, there were two ways in which you could boot the machine: one was by using paper tape, and the other was by flipping a sequence of switches which emulated the sequence that would be on the tape.
Memory boards were often created, with different test scenarios laid out to help try and improve the effectiveness of the system when aiming, launching and doing whatever else you do with a missile system.
These systems are still in use today, in fact there’s even a company, which the US military hires, who specialises in using modern hardware to emulate the HP 3000 based missile system.
10 – Commodore 64
This final entry is certainly an interesting use of old technology in a modern setting. The Commodore 64, which needs no introduction, is still alive and being used in the 21st century outside of the retro computing scene.
A bus company in Brisbane, the MYER Centre Bus Terminal to be exact, used, up until 2010, a C64 as their main monitor display for the bus timetable. According to the company, the old C64 isn’t in use as the main display unit anymore, as it has been replaced something of a more modern nature. However, it’s still being kept as the backup unit for those times when the current model fails.
Now, if we can only find a company that still uses a ZX Spectrum…
You may be asking yourself why all these organisations, especially the ones that look after an arsenal of scary weaponry, are using such antiquated technology? Well, in most instances the answer is simple: it just works.
These systems are designed in such a way that they rarely fail. They have very basic mechanical based interfaces in place that are made to work and last for a very long time. And as we said earlier, they were made in a time where repairing a system was the norm instead of scrapping it and buying a newer model.
The minute you start to include a more sophisticated system, with a higher software level other than on or off, yes or no, there then becomes more room for failure. And if you’re in control of something that can effectively wipe all life, other than cockroaches, off the face of the planet, then even a small chance of failure is something you really don’t want.
It does make you assess though, why we need such powerful and expensive machines. When all most folks do is browse the internet and maybe write an email or two. Even a twenty old computer can manage that.
Even more old kit and technology in use
Indeed, old technology refuses to die off. So here are a few more instances where the modern world around is being controlled by something that was designed and built thirty-plus years ago.
- Some traffic signs in the US still use TRS-80 100 laptops to control their displays.
- The US Secret Services allegedly still uses an IBM mainframe from the 70s.
- The New York subway Metro Card system still uses OS/2.
- The Expo and Millennium SkyTrains in Vancouver ran off three IBM XTs.
- Apparently, some 70% to 80% of UK plc business transactions are based on Cobol.
- There are apparently 36 million pagers/beepers still in use today.
- Part of the US nuclear weapons facilities, spread across the country, uses 5.25 floppy disk.
- UCLA still has, and uses, an IBM System/360 mainframe.