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If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It: Ancient Computers in Use Today (pcworld.com)
250 points by geekam on Apr 17, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 147 comments

A 25-year old Amiga 2000 still provides background music at home (when the wife is away). A couple hundred megs of Mod files provide hours of nostalgia. Some people meditate with incense, Amigans ruminate to the sounds of 80s tracker beats.

Here's a sample of a great mod: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZWgXiVJbpI - albeit from a lame demo. There are thousands more available at aminet.net.

I've tried replacing the machine with emulation, but there is something comforting in seeing the old girl in the corner serving as well as she ever did. Perhaps devices living beyond their natural lifespans comforts man's worries over his own perishable nature.

Not just Amiga, .mod music crossed over into the PC community as well quite robustly, once Sound Blaster cards with digital output entered the market around 1991. I never had an Amiga but I've still got a couple hundred .mods from the BBS and demo scene days, that are still in regular rotation in Winamp. My eternal favorite, Elysium by Jester: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zTtjvbAvsys

They do make great coding music. Not coincidentally, .mods resemble code, being in a way code themselves, with tightly structured and repetitive patterns but also with their own creativity flowing over the top.

Thanks! I haven't listened to Elysium in a long time. Brings back memories of coding to mods playing in WinAmp back in the late 90's...

It's been about eight years since I last saw one in use, but I wouldn't be surprised to still find Amigas with Video Toasters being used for live video switching and overlays.

A bit more recent (from 1995), but this is one of my favorites - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euT-CT6OXpA

Unreal rocks! My son put me onto Sunvox, pretty cool: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Row2VYpz2pY

My favorite was this one : http://youtu.be/ZiTX4dchAnQ

Necros / Isotoxin

Paradox, the legendary DnB producer is still touring the world with his c64, his akai sampler and zip/floppy disks, destroying dancefloors with live tracker sequences. Here's a little video of him at the Sun and Bass event in sardina, showing you his setup: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2e0wg_618ac

Not to be "that guy", but that's a C= 128.

Back in the late 80's, early 90's, a friend of mine bought some used PDP-11/70's from Illinois Bell. He'd sell them as parts into the aftermarket and did okay. Not great but steady.

He kept one in his detached garage that would load the initial bootstrap and then prompt the console for the operating system, which he didn't have. From that point on it patiently waited for a response and was used to heat the garage.

That makes me feel kind of sad. A once-mighty machine waiting hopefully in the dark for an Operator to load a tape.


But the Operators never arrive.

If I recall correctly the prompt was:

boot> _

The developers should have put a countdown timer in there. Each hour, add a question mark and change it to:

boot?> _ boot??> _ boot???> _ hello? boot?> _

wow, this comment made me whimper a little inside.

Grab some tissues. http://xkcd.com/695/

not fair!

Great case study on a U.S. Navy motion simulator that still uses Unibus cards (via a PCI PDP-11 emulator and modern chassis): http://www.migrationspecialties.com/pdf/MSDD.pdf

Fortunately, a friend of mine had kept his old PDP-11 and was able to retrieve some files for me from some old media that I'd overlooked transferring decades ago.

Last month I had the pleasure I of seeing a Dekatron[1] in action (for those that don't know, a dekatron is a decimal based computer, rather than binary). The machine in question is the oldest working computer in the world (older machines like the Colossus are actually reconstructions) and uses relays rather than valves. It was a true sight to see in action as the relays spin round with a hypnotic orange glow[2]

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harwell_computer

[2] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vVgc8ksstyg (the video doesn't really do it justice)

Relays don't glow. Those are dekatron[1] gas-discharge (neon) tubes, the machine version of the human-readable Nixie lamps.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dekatron

Ah yes. I'm getting myself in a muddle as WITCH was/is a relay-based dekatron computer. (how that all hangs together is beyond me. But it looked immense).

The operator very kindly let my girlfriend and I manually control it!

There's a button on a long wire which you could click to advance the current program a single step. You could watch the RAM spin and flicker and the relays(?) 'clack' through the computations :-D

They let everyone play with the stepping control :) (myself included)

It's a great museum because of how massively hands on it is. I can't think of many other places that have that high percentage of exhibits which are there for kids (and adults) to play on.

It may not be "broke", but a lot of the time with these ancient systems ongoing maintenance costs more than replacement would - but quarterly accounting ensures anyone who did the smart thing would be punished for it.

> quarterly accounting ensures anyone who did the smart thing would be punished for it

It occurs to me--is there some sort of financial instrument a company could buy (or sell) which would incentivize them to take a longer-term view of their own performance?

The one thing that comes to mind is Enron's scheme of selling debt backed by the integral of future projected profits from an energy contract, and then writing that debt-asset down as current-quarter earnings. It did overvalue their stock, but it also locked them into a model where contracts with declining long-term outlooks would force a loss, rather than just a declining gain.

That doesn't seem like a glowing recommendation, I admit--but an overvalue of the stock in this case could actually be the "economically correct" value; it could just be incorporating the company's potential upside for being forced to take a longer-term view, and rewarding the participants for taking on increased downside risk.

The stock price, in an efficient market (that is, one that understands what it's investing in, unlike what happened with Enron) would also be offset with lower demand due to said increased risk--but a company could still come out slightly better off for establishing these instruments. It just comes down to whether other short-term investors actually value a company that "goes long" more than a regular quarter-to-quarter-earnings one.

>It occurs to me--is there some sort of financial instrument a company could buy (or sell) which would incentivize them to take a longer-term view of their own performance?

ESOP. When the stockholders are the employees, quarterly earnings take a back seat to making sure the company will still be successful 30 years from now when they retire.


The intersection of public finance and constitutional democracy suggests that nope, this wouldn't work either.

>is there some sort of financial instrument a company could buy (or sell) which would incentivize them to take a longer-term view of their own performance?

I think restricted stock is basically that.

That sort of platform migration should be handled using some sort of capex methodology. We are in the midst of four ERP migrations (at four facilities) and their funding is expensed out over 10 years to keep from taking a big initial hit to the books.

I agree, and if you're still dealing with data loss risk in the form of mangled punch cards from a paper jam, something is clearly "broke," imo.

Not that it's very hard to fix a mangled card--if it's torn, you just look at it and type up a new copy. It's only 80 characters max.

And the massive data loss due to a rat/roach infestation?

When I was in high school in the late 70s, my school canceled their support contract for their PDP-8e, and supposedly that year's support contract money was sufficient to buy a handful of Apple IIs.

Many of these are small privately owned companies, I'm not sure how quarterly 'accounting' has an effect on that.

I didn't see this anywhere in the comments, so here it is.

I think it's really cool that some of these machines are still running just fine after 25-50+ years, and while I agree with the sentiment, it really scares me as a user, and would even more if I were a business owner. I couldn't even make it past the first section.

We spend all this time talking about data portability, using open, non-proprietary formats, and redundant backups. A fire could wipe out everything, as it would be a huge undertaking to either reproduce a copy for offsite archival (which is already likely the case). What happens when the machine breaks beyond repair and a replacement can't be found?

I'm all for repurposing old hardware, extending the useful life of machinery and not upgrading just because. But modern computing systems have huge advantages including physical data size, redundancy and search, among others. Not to mention that even if the Sparkles decided to move to a modern system, the data would have to be transferred manually.

They should have just called the article "Old Computers in use at companies where managment is to stupid to see how much money they are wasting and how much risk they are introducing"

The chemical company in Texas is a prime example: "They use it because its a known entity."


> "They use it because its a known entity."

I would assume that this is the single reason outdated systems continue to exist. People who are using the old systems and feel confident with them. If you want, you can find for any legacy system a person who would be willing to take the risk to replace it. But that would also mean losing control for the existing maintainers...

Agreed, although as time goes on, the costs associated with upgrading increase dramatically as the machine becomes increasingly likely to fail.

I wonder what the risk/time graph looks like for that compared to say, the MTBF of a modern hard drive.

One wonders if IBM currently has a still-active support contract for that box.

Make that two.

Yep, you know you've gone too far with "legacy support" when you get a visit from the Computer History Museum !

I used one of those DEC VAX machines when I was in the military. When considering when they were built they have REALLY REALLY nice GUI. They were built around the time of the first Macs and their interface is significantly higher resolution and more user freindly than those first Macs. They are really nice machines and not terribly big (roughly the size of a small refrigerator).

The money that you paid for one of those first Macs wouldn't buy you a power supply for a DEC VAX. So it's remarkable that Apple managed to commercialize GUIs at a price for the masses, even if their version had lower specs.

At the turn of the century there were hundreds of DEC machines of various flavors that were "tossed out" because DEC's new owners (Compaq I believe at that time) would not "certify" them as Y2K compliant. I ended up with a complete collection of every q-bus based MicroVAX ever produced, from the MicroVAX 1 through the VAX 4000-770. That represented a range of performance from .1 VUPs (VAX Unit of Performance) to about 100 VUPS or three decimal orders of magnitude.

Spoiler: Yeah, they were Y2K compliant.

I got a VAX post-Y2K and ran VMS and NetBSD just fine.

> Spoiler: Yeah, they were Y2K compliant.

The OSes were, but what about the apps in common use?

It's the same thing on ancient microcomputers: As far as I know, the C64's ROM-based OS doesn't care about the date at all, but various application software likely did, and would probably get very confused at two-digit years which began with a first digit less than 7.

A few years ago I (briefly) worked for a defense contractor maintaining Jovial and assembly language code for an embedded system using 286 processors and running iRMX.

Work was in progress to create the next generation using more modern hardware and software, but the old system had to be kept up and enhanced until the new version was finished and deployed to all of the remote sites. The biggest impetus for change was the difficulty in finding replacement parts for such obsolete hardware.

Unfortunately, an emulator just wasn't an option. Being a real time system, the timing constraints were too strict. Think of the old DOS games that became insanely fast on more modern hardware, but with more significant consequences. For better or worse, I saw sections of code where there would be, say 16 no-op instructions, and a comment like "The following 16 no-ops give the bit-sync just enough time to finish adjusting before the real signal arrives". Tracking down all the timing dependencies and verifying they still worked on an emulator would have been a nightmare, and probably more difficult than creating a new system from scratch on modern hardware.

All of the dev tools were hosted on a VAX system. Fortunately, this one was able to use an emulator, and it actually ran significantly faster than the real system, and increased compile time dramatically. They still kept the real VAX around in the data center, but at some point the replacement parts and system maintenance costs became too expensive.

I toured a US missile sub a few years back with a group from Microsoft. We went into the launch control room and saw a Windows PC running NT 3.51 (or maybe 4) on the control desk. Our reaction was, let's just say, extreme surprise.

The two guys in the room (I'm guessing that room is always manned, even during a refit) immediately understood our concern. "No no," they said, "that's not the missile computer. That's the missile computer." They pointed behind us at a giant grey metal cabinet. I imagine the technology was from around 1980, but from the look of it I wouldn't have been surprised to find vacuum tubes inside.

We were all quite relieved to find that nuclear missiles are controlled by an old computer that presumably doesn't receive security bug patches on a weekly basis.

If it looked vaguely like NT with a Windows 95 look, it probably was NT 4, as 3.51 only had the Windows 95 shell with the Shell Technology Preview, otherwise it ran Program Manager/File Manager.

> We were all quite relieved to find that nuclear missiles are controlled by an old computer that presumably doesn't receive security bug patches on a weekly basis.

That missile control computer better not be on any network..

In 2001, I was going from one Intel factory to another, teaching Nikon technicians about VMS, which ran on the Alpha stations Nikon was still putting into its steppers (big machines used to make computer chips). They switched over to Windows NT and Linux a few years later, but I'm sure many of those VMS-based steppers are still operating.

I have it on good authority (actually I don't remember any of the details except that I found it funny) that routine configuration of various machines inside the most advanced semiconductor fabrication facility in the world was done via hand-carried 3.5" floppy disks as recently as last year.

If it works, it works. The cost to "upgrading" something like this is staggeringly high when you factor in the likelihood that the change is going to break something.

(Open)VMS was still being developed, sold and commercially supported at that time and several years afterwards, and HP still offers commercial support and made (so far) last release in 2010, so that's not so "ancient". HP also kept selling Alpha based hardware until at least 2007.

2007 or 2008 sounds about right for when the Alpha groups were shut down. My dad worked in the Alpha memory group and lost his job around then.

I work for the largest telecommunications company in Canada and all 3 million or so of our customers are running on a few VMS servers

My Carver amp & preamp stereo still plays all day every day and has for the last 30 years. I'll be sad when it finally fails. It's driving some old Dahlquist speakers of the same vintage, also working forever. A couple of the best purchases I ever made.

About the only change is I no longer use a CD player, cassette player, etc., but drive it from an Audiotron box that sucks the tunes off of my computer. The Audiotron is > 10 years old, and I still haven't found anything better.

(The Carver amp on-off switch did wear out last year, but I just plugged it into a bus strip to use as the switch.)

The punchcard system surprised me, but I've seen plenty of Apple II and C64 systems used as standalone in small businesses, and various minicomputers are quite understandable (although most of the normal environment VAX stuff got moved to Alphas in the 1990s, which aren't that horrible from a maintenance perspective).

IBM system-Z mainframes can and do run 20-30+ year old software that was written for previous IBM mainframes. There's an interesting podcast about them on se-radio: http://www.se-radio.net/2012/03/episode-184-the-mainframe-wi...

IBM seems to have a penchant for that, their series i computers run software written for even the previous system/36 and system/38. The i relies on a Technology-Independent Machine Interface to allow the hardware to change without requiring code changes at the software, for many release upgrades user written code simply is recompiled when the upgrade is done without source being needed or user action.

Yeah, the backward-compatibility lengths that IBM goes to are something amazing and wonderful to behold. I think a lot of developers these days don't appreciate the crazy work that into supporting bytecode from before they were born.

IBM's penchant for providing bit-and-millisecond-perfect reverse compatibility back to the 60s is built on the fact that their customers will pay very, very, very high prices for it.

I used to work for EDS (now HP Enterprise Services) about 6 years ago sub-contracting for Xerox. Most of the systems they (Xerox) used for selling/maintenance (order processing, invoicing, etc) of printers were written in COBOL for the IBM System/360 mainframes (which I think were replaced by the System/Zs).

One of the local liquor stores here still uses a C128 w/ green screen as a cash register. They've got a compule of spares up on the shelf too.

10 years or so ago, but I had a storage locker at a facility that used an Apple ][+ to run the two main facility access keypads.

I've kept every single computer I've owned. Still thrilled with how well my Zeos 386 notebook (from the early 90's) works w/ Linux and that ultra thin Sharp PC-UM10 (from '01) that looks like a small MacBook Air and has an 8-hour battery life.

> Still thrilled with how well my Zeos 386 notebook (from the early 90's) works w/ Linux

That won't last long, 386 support was removed from mainline kernel.

Yeah, don't plan on upgrading. Really little more than a "glorified typewriter", but still very cute & light.

> and that ultra thin Sharp PC-UM10 (from '01) that looks like a small MacBook Air and has an 8-hour battery life

You should definitely do a write up on how you're getting 8 hours out of a PC-UM10. Didn't they get like 3 hours under Windows? I could use a simple Linux laptop, even if it's terminal only.

There's still some write-ups out there on the ultra low voltage unit and optional extended life battery that I bought with it.

I really wish I had done this. Besides my embedded systems (now I'm casually collecting industrial "computers"), the only non-PC computer I have is an SGI Indigo. It's pretty and all, but I wish I had held on to all the old varieties of Radio Shack/Tandy computers I owned.

Apparently Polish National Rail(PKP) still uses a 40 year old Odra computer for train logging at one of their stations: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odra_(computer)

Edit: No, apparently it was switched off in 2010, I remember talking to somebody from their IT department back in 2008 when that computer was functioning, didn't know that they actually shut it down now.

A couple of years ago I wandered down the wrong aisle in one of our data centres and came upon a Data General Eclipse still powered up and apparently in use.

Reading "The Soul of a New Machine" [1], the story of building the successor to the Eclipse, when I was 13/14 was what made me want to work with computers, although I couldn't decide whether hardware or software was cooler. DEC had already won by that point, though. I even acquired a DEC Rainbow 100+ as my first "PC" (it was a hybrid 8088 / Z80 which could boot DEC's DOS or CP/M).

A couple of years ago my father and I scrapped the last of the Rainbows (not rare enough for a museum to be interested) and a Micro PDP 11/23 (no interest from museums or UK PDP enthusiasts, and too hard to ship internationally). It was a sad day.

[1] http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0679602615

You know, you get points for reading the book but lose points for buying a Rainbow :-) (kidding) Fortunately you didn't buy the PDP-11 version which ran the "Personal Operating System" (which was a lobotomized version of RSX-11, and aptly abbreviated to POS)

I agree that its a great book, these days it would be much less dramatic with everything running on simulators prior to chip tapeout.

Haha, the Rainbow was a skip-rescue, as was the PDP (which rain RSX-11M). Even came with the "orange wall" of manuals. Made a nice space heater, and we had fun running RS232 all over the house to attach terminals to it. Sadly it didn't have a compiler, only Macro-11...

This book should be on the HN reading list.

(I still have several boards from a DG computer on my office wall. Geek porn...)

Reading "The Soul of a New Machine" [1], the story of building the successor to the Eclipse, when I was 13/14 was what made me want to work with computers, although I couldn't decide whether hardware or software was cooler.

Same here, pretty much. That was a very influential book for me. I went back and read it again a couple of years ago, and it was still fascinating. Then I found out a guy at our local Hackerspace was there during some of that time and knows some of the folks mentioned in the book. That made it all seem even more real to me... quite an interesting story in any case.

"The Soul of a New Machine" is a great book, about a topic that wouldn't seem that interesting. I second (third?) the recommendation.

My Mom worked at Data General and she used to take home some transparent masks for chips that were "corporate trash". She made art out of them and they're still hanging in her house.

I started my first job in 1974. My first project was to migrate apps running one of those 402 unit record machines (plus an attached adder/subtracter, plus a multiplier/divider/square-rooter) to IBM mainframes. There were a lot of those patch panels, one for each app. So my first step was to write a 402 patch panel emulator. ;) This freed up the floor space we needed to rewrite the apps properly. Quite a difference from nodejs and Angular SPAs.

'If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It': said by IT departments everywhere responsible for the prevalence of old browsers versions in enterprise businesses.

We had a young'un who just graduated college who we hired and recently raised a ruckus about someone using IE8 in the field. I shook my head and silently thanked the powers that be here that we got rid of our WinXP userbase before he got here. Otherwise that poor fella would have had a heart attack. Laddie, you ain't got it bad until you've had to work with IE6.

The thing is, when IE6 was new, it was far and away the best browser of the bunch.

In defense of those IT departments. It usually comes down to some ancient ERM software that only works in one version of IE with one version of Java (or ActiveX). Management has decided it is cheaper to use a pwned version of IE than pay a contractor to update the software.

I used to work in a place that use SAP-like software called MFP Pro that was implemented in IE6 days. Six-figure pricetag. We developed all our business processes around it, and they screwed us on support (which can be summed up by "Here's a URL to the link with the patches, we won't even email you when there's an update"). So we weren't going to give them more business when they came up with a better version... but we didn't have enough money to move to something else (once you factor in training costs etc). I left in 2009, and it was still running on an NT4 machine.

We did look at some cheaper options, but it's interesting that the manufacture of electronic systems doesn't really have anything cheap in the space. Properly managing nested BOMs of an arbitrary depth? Pretty much always a high pricetag or something you have to hack yourself...

They could still be right, though. Keep IE6 for that piece-of-shit enterprise web apps and still install Chrome or Firefox for the rest of your work.

IE6 just becomes the shell to the webapp instead of a browser in its own right. MS probably even has a way to install multiple versions of IE concurrently so you could run IE6 + "modern IE".

Actually, this is something I've been curious about for awhile: I know "modern IE" comes with developer tools that allow you to switch IE versions, and essentially look at the site at hand as if you were using IE8 or IE7, all the way down to IE6. From my understanding, a website can manually trigger this switch by using a special <meta> tag. Can't these legacy systems that only work in IE6 simply use the appropriate <meta> tag and have things work? What are the differences between using straight up IE6 and the IE6 rendering engine in IE8?

Ha! It's a nice thought, but the various compatibility modes are not actually identical to the real versions of the browsers. Close, yes, but there are bugs/features that only show up in the real versions.

Ah, well that sucks. :P

Yes, I don't know if MS makes it or another vendor, but you can get IE version whatever with an embedded IE 6. I've been at two companies now where this solution has been proposed.

Used to be easier to do (ready-made script) in Linux than on Windows. (That is if wine was working.)

On Windows I think the official way is runnng it in a vm.

I know a guy who makes a very nice living writing COBOL - support mainframes still in use. Mostly by the banks.

You can also make a nice living writing xBase (dBase/FoxPro/Clipper) code. Millions of lines of xbase still happily running along.

The best paying job offers I've ever received are for senior COBOL positions (but I'm no senior, I just took a course and had the bad idea to list it on my CV :P ).

I thought "ancient computers" meant more like 1000 years old, like one of those ancient Greek gear contraption thingies. With that in mind, the actual contents were disappointing. :(

I guess there are still a few people using abacuses, if that counts.

Too bad we forgot about analog computers for 20 centuries. I guess you mean something like this [1], just saw it up close.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antikythera_mechanism

Yes, I believe that's what I was thinking of.

The sad reality is that some businesses use old equipment and software because its more reliable than some of the built-to-fail junk you buy nowadays. I've still got a Commodore 64 complete with tape deck and more games than I can count, I'll probably never part with it and to this day it still works better than any console or computer I've owned since. It's outlived everything.

My partner worked for an insurance company and a lot of their infrastructure is from the late 80's so is the software and it's always worked for them. Their reason for not switching to modern equipment is that it is more reliable and their business centers around data. If the software or data were to fail them in anyway that's potentially a lot of money or worse credibility and trust lost. I think they saw it as being cheaper to maintain the current system and I can't blame them, a lot of banks are the same too.

> I've still got a Commodore 64 complete with tape deck and more games than I can count, I'll probably never part with it and to this day it still works better than any console or computer I've owned since.

Is built better, maybe. But "works better"? It would take that thing 20 minutes just to load Ghostbusters. That in no way could be considered working better than today's computers/consoles.

> It would take that thing 20 minutes just to load Ghostbusters. That in no way could be considered working better than today's computers/consoles.

The solution to this is simple: Pick some arbitrary point in the past, and declare that every feature which became common after that point is 'bloat' that 'nobody really needs'. Obviously, a good program doesn't have bloat, and a good system can't be expected to run well unless it is given good programs, so all good systems run well, which means better than anything that will run bloat.

My best example of this (currently) is at home... I have an old 1995 (or so) era whitebox PC, with - I think - a 100mhz Pentium processor - running Red Hat Linux 9, serving as my firewall. It's ancient and I'm scared that every time the power goes off or something that it'll never boot up again. But it quietly sits there running iptables and routing traffic between my cable modem and the rest of the network.

Outside of my home, I saw an ancient DEC PDP/11 still in use at a newspaper in North Carolina as late as 1999 when I worked there. They also had an old IBM S/36 which only got replaced with a (then) modern AS/400 box about 1999. One of the machines they had in there (and I'm not even sure which one it was) used those old drum-based disk drives, with the big drum with the spinnable handle on top, that weigh about 20 lbs each, and old a whopping 50MB of data.

Wouldn't you save on power bills (not to mention space) by replacing this with a router running custom firmware?

Absolutely. But it works, I've gotten used to that particular box sitting in that particular spot for years (and it serves as a platform to stack books anyway), and the power cost is probably negligible anyway. So, given all the other things I could spend time on, why would I bother futzing around with that?

And I think that's kinda the point about a lot of these kinds of stories. Everybody knows that there is a better solution, but inertia, lack of resources, and or risk related to the new solution, keep people from doing anything about it.

So, one day sooner or later (probably sooner) the power supply in that thing will crap out, and I'll bite the bullet and reconfigure my network to use my wireless router to do all that stuff. Unless... I think I may have another one of those power supplies in a box in the closet somewhere....

Last year TIME had an article about OS/2 and how NYC was still using it http://techland.time.com/2012/04/02/25-years-of-ibms-os2-the...

During my brief stint at a POS provider, I was in charge of an OS/2 Warp system. This was last year, and the client using the system was a pretty major clothing retailer. never thought I'd have to learn Rexx in 2012.

I think my first experience with programming was a Rexx app on an old Palm OS device back in elementary school. I made an interactive fiction game, if I remember correctly.

I went to an undergraduates open day at IBM's Perth Development Lab. The exercises to try were in Rexx.

They skipped over the HP3000; the workhorse of many manufacturing and banking organizations. I work in aerospace and we have three boxes in our server room.

I spent three days salvaging critical data and pre Fortran77 programs from a still running HP1000/RTE in a forge, driving automatas with timing and oven temperature settings. A PL2303+linux+screen's serial mode and subsequently python+pyserial saved the day.

What pulled the trigger on this project was that the factory's management noticed that the last guy knowing the machine and the whole process design was retiring. I changed jobs in the meantime and I bet the thing still runs to this day: the planned migration will probably take years but at least enough knowledge and data has been passed on for that project to complete.

We are just planning our migration away from the HP3000 platform and the MANMAN ERP. I am eternally grateful that the Sys Manager didn't let them customize the source and instead used the ancient reporting tools (QUIZ, QTP) to create report driven work solutions. Otherwise the next three-years of my life would have been a nightmare of deciphering Fortran77 programs. Surprisingly, if you have HP3000 and MANMAN on your resume, you will get a surprising amount of job calls.

I still use my TI-86 which I bought 13 years ago. Does that count?

Surprisingly, a new one sells for double what I paid for.

My son (in high school) took into use a HP-15c that my wife bought in 1987. Alas, it broke after travelling back and forth between home and school for a few months. A true loss, but it wasn't as strong as I thought it would be.

In 1985, I was preparing for the matriculation exam (at end of high school). I was worried that my Sharp EL-506 battery would run out in the middle of this important exam, because it was already 3 years old. However, I did not change it. It lasted the matriculation exam. It lasted also my MSc studies and army, 9 years altogether. And beginning of my working career. And it actually still works, though nowadays I don't need it so it's just at the bottom of the drawer. But it is OK, 31 years after buying it, with original batteries and some significant use during high school and uni. I just don't understand.

My HP-48sx is 21 years old and I still use it roughly daily at home.

I have an emulator on my phone but the tactile response of the keys is awful and the display and keyboard are tiny compared to the "real" thing.

Its just too easy to use. Latency of the calc on my phone is very high compared to a fraction of a second. If my desktop is up and running and logged in and a webbrowser is running (lots of ifs) then google and wolfram alpha are starting to eat into the 48's territory. But it still gets plenty of use. Batteries last about a year.

I also have a 32Sii at the workbench vaguely 90s vintage.

Still using a HP-16C (the computer scientist) bought in the mid 80s, the first set of batteries lasted about 10 years.

My first set lasted longer. Still on second set.

I sold mine recently on ebay. 30 year old original battery still worked! I think it found a nice home with a collector.

Obligatory: http://xkcd.com/768/

TI has a pretty good gig going since they're selling a "calculator" and not a "computer". "Calulators" don't follow the same market dynamics as "computers", so as long as everyone in that market plays along and competes on features (or no one adds features) they should be able to maintain their margins ad infinitum

My HP-42S calculator is 23 years old and I keep it at home than bring it anywhere as it can be snatched easily and sell on eBay for 3x the original price!

Same here! I keep Free42 on my iPhone when away from home. It's a pretty nice app for the price (free).

You know, I'd think this would be an embarassment rather than a source of pride.

I certainly would take my business elsewhere if I discovered the company was doing their accounting on a punch card machine because the 60-year-old white guys were too afraid to learn how to use windows.

There are reasons to be more comfortable with them using a punch card system:

* All their "software" (ha!) is stored in physical form, on a shelf, as a board full of wires--hard to mistakenly delete it or lose the registration key.

* Their code has 60 years of testing behind it

* Cards provide a physical record while also being machine-readable and, as I pointed out elsewhere, if a card gets mangled, well, you just sit down and type up a new copy

* They'll never lose your credit card details to hackers

* They're comfortable with the technology and have a very clear process. You'll never call them to hear, "Oh, well, they just updated the system and now I can't find the link to our invoice archives"

> I certainly would take my business elsewhere if I discovered the company was doing their accounting on a punch card machine because the 60-year-old white guys were too afraid to learn how to use windows.

With the average computer level skill in the society, the likely alternative is your order information being stored in an Excel file in a Dropbox account with password "files123." I'll take the punch cards.

What's wrong with this machine?

With typical Windows PC would come occasional hardware failures, crashes, data losses and viruses which all are serious trouble if you don't have somebody knowledgeable on site to mitigate and fix them.

I don't think anything is wrong with the machine, fundamentally.

But seeing it in use just screams "I fear change" to me. In what other ways are these guys in the dark ages?

I have a Hickok 580-A Tube Tester that I've been having a hell of a time trying to get calibrated correctly. Someday I'll figure it out (it doesn't help they used factory tubes for a lot of the calibration)

I love my Tektronix 2430A. I have some of the Tek 160 modules for the modular oscilloscope from the 50s, although I haven't really tried that. If you saw the guts, it's a point-to-point wiring masterpiece.

Go figure... befoe reading this I was proud I still had a 2005 Celeron laptop that I still use now that I've installed Ubuntu on it...

I got to play with one of these at the Computer History Museum during a field trip. We went to the back and punched our names into a card and placed all our cards into a stack where the machine sorted our names and printed everyone's names out. It was cool and it smelt like oil. I wouldn't ever want to program on one of these ancient relics though.

I do "apt-get upgrade" as a nervous habit. Sometimes more than once per day.

I find this truly fascinating.

My computer club at university runs our DNS server on a MicroVAX II machine. If you're patient, you can use SSH to log in, and when you're in, you got the choice betweeen vi and ed to edit files. vi of course take ages to load.

How's that go? Oh right


Isn't that much better to know you can update your software and transition to another system every X years ?

Knowing you can update or change your system implies nothing or no one is really indispensable. I would much prefer something like that.

"Well, in our country," said Alice, still panting a little, "you'd generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we've been doing."

"A slow sort of country!" said the Queen. "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

- Alice in Wonderland

Hrm, interesting but I was hoping for a bit more. These are mostly collectors keeping things around for nostalgia purposes. I was hoping to hear more about legitimate systems being run on 20/30/40 year old systems.

What is considered more legitimate than ICBM's?

Yeah, military and space hardware feels like a given. You could always say the Voyager is the oldest running program.

I'd be more interested to hear about computers that are in use being actively changed, with new software coming out on them to support whatever unique need they have.

That or highly specialized one-trick-ponies that cannot change due to their complex nature.

The military mass producing 100,000 <insert thing> from the 70's with computers on them, or a person maintaining their BBS doesn't really feel the same.

You might find it more interesting to check in on the Amiga community, perhaps.

AmigaOS is still being commercially developed, though it 'only' dates back to 1985: http://hyperion-entertainment.biz/

And there's new hardware for it: http://www.a-eon.com/ http://acube-systems.biz/

The market is tiny, and mostly hobbyist focused, but there is even the occasional commercial software release, now often targetting AROS and MorphOS (AmigaOS inspired OS's) too. For example:


The Amiga community is interesting because there is a distinct split between different factions, with some insisting on only supporting "classics" (the M68k machines) and sometimes reimplementations (there's a series of FPGA based projects), some only interested in the current generation PPC systems (from AEon and ACube), as well as AROS and MorphOS camps, and those only interested in emulation.

Of course a lot of people couldn't care less about the various splits and just want to get on with things, but this is a community where you will find people actively using anything from 7.16MHz A500's to high end PC's to run OS's that are widely source compatible and that either directly runs or have some level of integrated emulation capability for old M68k apps, and where a lot of the community still run and/or tinker with software that was released back in 1985 (e.g. there are people still tweaking the original roms to cut more cycles off the odd system call...).

Z80 family has been in continuous production since '76 mostly in embedded devices since the 80s. Even today someone's probably writing a new photocopier controller or a thermostat or something for a Z80.

The allen bradley/rockwell 500 series PLCs have been in continuous production since the 90s, lets say the 5/01 has been made from '95 (although probably earlier?) till today as far as I know, so that's 18 continuous years of production. They're pretty simple but sometimes that's all you need.

If you allow a compatible family orientation, the first vax rolled off the assembly line in '77 and the last in '05 so thats a good 28 years of continuous production. Of course thats a trap, I would imagine "PC/XT compatible" boards will be made basically eternally for embedded work, etc.

The US DoD is still paying for maintenance of a Symbolics Lisp Machine. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symbolics#Endgame

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It

That system apparently works only 60 percent of the time.

Indeed. If it's broken 40% of the time, don't fix it, replace it.

If it consistently and predictably works only 60% of the time, it might be a better fit than a shiny new solution that breaks when you least expect it and 'upgrades' you to something different in three years.

I bet many of the wire-wielding programmers of the old IBM systems were women - a higher proportion in those days than today.

Yep, the many miles of wire inside old mainframes and scientific computers (CDC, Cray, etc.) were all hand-soldered wire by wire, connector by connector, mostly by women. Must have been seen as requiring similar skills as sewing or weaving.

And people think I am stubborn for still using Windows XP...

I see some opportunities for disruption, heh?

Son, disruption is exactly the antithesis of what motivates these folks to use these machines. The bombs may fall, the solar winds may fry the network, but that blasted 402 will keep clicking and ticking into doomsday given the opportunity and maintenance.

You probably don't even support IE8 anymore. :)

Yeah, I'm sure they'll love to switch to a hip new startup that's guaranteed to be around for at least six months.

Been waiting for this comment for forever.

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