50 Years a Programmer

Robert Iles

Well, it is hard to imagine but it is 50 years ago, to the month, that I wrote my first computer program – and 25 years ago that I created my first Web/Gopher service on-line – that means that I wrote my first program before the Internet as we know it even existed!

Over those 50 years I have used many languages, been a sysadmin on many different systems and seen many (many!) new-fangled ideas come to sweep the old away only to be left by the wayside themselves. The road to today’s computing is littered with great ideas that never gained traction and bad ideas which did. We are, as they say, where we are!

Nowadays it is usual for boys and girls to start programming early, in fact it is encouraged and taught from a very young age. In the 1960s this was definitely not the case but I was lucky, I did my Maths O Level early so that I’d have time to do my Additional Maths and in the brief end-of-term lull our teacher, recently down from Imperial College, decided to give us some Fortran. Programs were copied to pre-perforated Hollerith cards and sent off by post to be run through the cafeteria system with boxes of line-printer paper being returned some 5 days later. My batch job was called “Cucumber Patch” and drew a sine/cosine wave (when it finally worked!).

It was a few years until I had access to computers again, once I got to the University of Essex, but in the meantime I had been to Folyes, got myself a Fortran recipe book and learned, on paper at least, how these beasts worked. My brother-in-law had also introduced me to the big computer he worked with in the City – a whole floor of a building with a 24/7 team keeping it happy! At Essex there was also a cafeteria service for Fortran on a “large” IBM but also a number of PDP-8s that we could code in assembler and the chance to build logic components in the electronics labs. My third year project was a touch-sensitive keyboard (made using drawing pins) and 7-segment display using a 6502 microprocessor – so I was now programming in machine code.

My first computing-related job was with Marconi Space & Defence designing embedded missile guidance systems using computers we designed and built from the amazing 2901 bit-slices. Now I was programming in microcode – 64 bit binary controls that actually wiggled the voltages to make things happen – I loved it! In the end I built disk interfaces, wrote a tape loader and a simple Basic interpreter and assembler but I loved being so close to the hardware. I moved on to build computerised test rigs using the HP 1000 series of computers – I had to argue long and hard to get a second 9.6Mbyte disk added, after all, who could possibly want all that storage!

I moved on from there to NAG Ltd, a specialist numerical and statistical software house working with some of the leading lights in world computation. I am not a numbers person so worked on frameworks and ended up running the Software Environments division looking at compilers, tools, databases, visualisation systems and expert systems (AI). I got the chance to work on so many different systems; VMS, Unix (more flavours than I care to remember), DOS, CP/M.

In 1994 I set up a Gopher service, this was like a world wide directory structure which quickly got replaced by the world wide web that we know today – seeing that as the future I moved to a company called Domino Systems developing websites for the likes of Del Europe, Lloyds, SmithKline Beecham and others. During this time I also continued working on our own website which was formally launched in February 1995 as UK Theatre Web.

The rest, as they say, is history!