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Their Computer Knowledge Is A Little Floppy

, , , , , , | Learning | June 17, 2022

In the late 1970s, I worked as a lab assistant in the computer department. A sense of humor was required for the job. We had yellow vests with the label “Lab Asst.” on them, and we had a bit of yellow tape covering the T. Collectively, we considered buying a T-shirt for our department secretary that featured images of floppy disks and the banner “mini-floppies.” Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and that didn’t happen.

This all was years before the first IBM PC and when the only real alternative to big computers was the Apple II. The computer our department depended on was a PDP-11. It was over seven feet tall and roughly the shape of a filing cabinet. It featured a 200-Mb internal hard drive and a 50-Mb removable drive for backing up data. By modern standards, that’s pretty pathetic, but by the standards of the day, it was already light years ahead of using floppy disks for storage. For those too young to remember, the floppy disks of the era held about 180 Kb of data.

The computer could also handle a dozen users connected by terminals. The terminals were just a screen and keyboard. Students had no access to the actual computer itself, which was in a room separate from the computer lab.

As an example of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing, a student came into our offices one day.

Student: “You guys need to listen to me!”

Coworker: “What’s wrong?”

Student: “Your computer memory space. You don’t have enough.”

Coworker: “What do you mean?”

Student: “I was doing some reading about keeping everything in memory.”

Coworker: “And?”

Student: “You guys need to add a floppy disk drive to the computer.”

We all looked at each other in bewilderment.

Coworker: “Okay, we’ll keep that in mind.”

Student: “Great! I just wanted you to know.”

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