Tag Archives: Digital Equipment Corporation

A Glance at Early EdTech a la DEC

Screenshot 2018-02-03 at 09.42.14

Digital (also known as DEC and Digital Equipment Company) did more than sell one of the first so-called minicomputers. It also published some of the first educational software to be used in regular subject classrooms and pioneered in supporting computing teachers. Our Collection includes several documents in the EduSystems series; “computers are for kids – EduSystems – expandable, economical”.

Screenshot 2018-02-03 at 09.41.27

See, for example, HCLE Item 1015: Advanced Problems for Computer Mathematics. For $2, students and teachers received a 75 page resource manual that took at least two approaches to teaching programming and problem solving. (Today you can get it for free by clicking on the linked title above.)

As the general headings in this booklet suggest, approaches to mathematics can be dry, with abstract titles that are correct and descriptive but not particularly exciting.

  • General Mathematics
  • Intermediate and Advanced Algebra
  • Geometry
  • Probability and Statistics
  • Mathematical Analysis and Physics

Under these headings you find sets of increasingly difficult problems that might be solved more easily using a computer program that either paper and pencil or calculator. Today, an educational software company would be likely to supply the student with either 1) a graphically fancy, game-like program that provides a solution to the student followed by a multiple choice quiz; or 2) a computer-generated video that lets the student make predetermined choices within the problem space without requiring that the student understand how to state the problems or generate the answer. In the mid-1960s when Advanced Problems for Computer Mathematics was published there were not computer graphics or videos. Only images created with typewriter characters could be made. There was no internet and no common medium on which to supply and store the programs. The most practical way to share the software was to print the program itself in the booklet and let the students type it into whatever computer they had access to. This process built a bridge between the academic discipline being studied (mathematics, in this case) and computer programming.

In Advanced Problems for Computer Mathematics problems were frequently presented in a way that suggested the steps required to solve them. Then, the student is instructed to; “Write a program…” (in BASIC.) A sample program is provided to demonstrate one possible solution. If the learner’s program actually worked (ran) after a couple of tries s/he could move on to a harder task. But the computer isn’t actually doing any teaching. It’s role is more like a laboratory or playing field.  When the learner must troubleshoot and debug a teacher (or fellow student) will be a key tool for learning. Digital’s early approach to educational software illustrated the utility of the computer along with experience of computers’ limitations. It also demonstrated that answers might be approximations, not exact. There’s even a study of how rapidly and accurately (or inaccurately) π can be calculated. “At 10,000 terms, the approximation to π is off by 1 in the 4th decimal place.

Advanced Problems for Computer Mathematics provides some abstract problems but several are word problems that suggest a variety of practical, real-world applications for computer programs.  

  • What’s the volume of a potato? A study in calculus.
  • How far must someone travel to get from various places in Possible Gulch over Bell Mountain to Probable Junction? Bell Mountain has the shape of the normal distribution curve, providing a study in statistics.
  • How does a crosswind affect a plane’s flight? An exercise in a simple simulation.

While the utility of the computer is demonstrated, alternatives to the latest technology are also supplied. For the potato problem, they include a solution Archimedes used over 2,000 years ago. Sometimes a bowl of water is all you need. As it says in the text; “Hey, that’s a good method…keep the beaker and get rid of the computer.” The computer is presented as a tool, but not the only tool. An interesting perspective considering the publication is from a computer company.

The document itself is worth studying. Even though the publication is about computers, it didn’t use desktop publishing software. There were no word processors at the time. Some pages are photocopies of computer printouts. Fonts change depending on the source. Symbols like π and graphics like the airplane were hand-drawn.Screenshot 2018-02-05 at 10.16.03 The last page is copied from the list of Digital’s Sales and Service contacts around the world, an implicit reminder that at least one motivation for producing the series was to increase sales.

Computers, computing, and new ways and reasons to learn developed together. While such publications may have helped sales, they also represent a time when an industry knew it had to build itself, its user community, and its future workforce. Prior to this, there would’ve been a much smaller audience and the publications would be directed at professionals who cared more about content than layout. Soon after this, the audience was much larger and broader, and the expectations were for more polished presentations.

Preserving such documents for researchers and the curious is why we’re creating our virtual museum. Even one edition, like this one, can provide a cornerstone from which to build broader research projects and histories. Tell us where it leads you.



Computer Dating a la 1965

Do you think of computer dating as a very “today” thing? Like many computing activities, it actually originated years ago and hasn’t changed all that much. I first used a computer dating service in 1965. Here’s the story.

I had dropped out of college, was working as a chemical lab technician, and was sharing a house with 3 friends, two of whom were attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, MA. One morning, at breakfast before we all took off for the day, Joel pulled out a large paper form with lots of little fill-in boxes on it and a No. 2 pencil. “Liza,” he said, “we’re all applying for this computer dating thing. Andy will read you the questions and I’ll fill in the answers for you. It matches you up with guys you’ll be compatible with. I tried it, it’s fun.” “OK,” say I, “how does it work?”

My roommates all worked with computers and explained to me that the form would be automatically read into a big machine that would compare the requirements of all the other applicants. Then it would spit out a list of guys who fit my criteria. (I don’t remember whether gay matches were an option in that era.) This certainly seemed more logical than hoping my mother would introduce me to someone or cruising the local bars (besides, I wasn’t yet 21). I mention that the target computer was “a big machine” because there weren’t any little ones in those days. One roommate, Richard, was actually working for Digital Equipment Corporation, a company that pioneered “minicomputers” but “microcomputers” only existed in science fiction stories.

The multiple choice questions on the form were not surprising: age, physical characteristics, ethnicity, nationality, religion, education, intellectual interests, hobbies, pastimes, sports, etc. There was a section for me and another for the “target”. It never occurred to me that my roommates might not be filling in the answers I gave and I never found out. I wasn’t picky except about education and intellectual interests so I answered “any of the above” for lots of them.

Three dollars and about a week later the results came back: 13 names and phone numbers, 9 of whom I went out with at least once. Most of my “matches” were from outside the US. I don’t know what the matching algorithms were but I suspect that there were a lot of lonely foreign students in male-dominated, high-tech Cambridge. It may be that most of the female applicants were looking for white Americans of a specified religion. It did not occur to me to ask my “matches” what they had put on their forms.

So what has changed? We use online screens now instead of paper to initiate the matching operation. The results come back faster and we can exchange photos online although some services suggest you don’t do that until you get to know the person. We now have the option of using email as well as phone and face-to-face meetings in a neutral setting. Many of us have online personas that can be searched. But the questions are the same and the need for “chemistry” in a real-world, romantic relationship is still there.

IMHO, the most significant shift is that we now have the opportunity to participate in rich online relationships with individuals located around the globe. History gives us many examples of friendships and romances conducted by letter but the timing is very different. And, video technology allows us to simulate an in-person experience that only lacks smell, taste and touch. I hear they’re working on that too.

Oh, you want to know what happened with my nine dates? Six of them were duds and we only met once. One I went out with three or four times but there was neither “chemistry” nor enough common interest for me. As for number 8, I enjoyed hanging out with Basil, a tall, beautiful and very bright Jamaican, for several months but I think he lost interest in me. The last one, Charlie, was actually rooming with the girlfriend of one of my roommates so it’s likely that we would have eventually met even without the computer. Charlie and I hit it off, became lovers and lived together for more than two years. Although our romance ended we remained friends for about 20 years until he passed away unexpectedly in his early 40s.

And those roommates with our crowd from Cambridge? We’re spread across the county now and, you guessed it, we check up on each other via Facebook.

You can read more about early computer dating at http://www.onlinepersonalswatch.com/news/operation-match/