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Computing fossils: Old tech that's still plugging along

From Windows XP to IBM 402 - why're you all still using the old stuff?!

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Consider the abacus. Developed perhaps as long as 4,500 years ago, this handy gadget served the mathematical needs of merchants and accountants until the development of mechanical calculating machines in the 19th century. But the abacus hasn't been forgotten. Instead it still lives on in niches - for instance teaching preschoolers the basics of counting.

There are a number of obsolete technologies and gadgets that have persisted from slightly less ancient times right down to the current day, though again in greatly diminished numbers and scope. A brief tour through these technological fossils serves as a lesson on the durability of items we sometimes think of as ephemeral.

Plugboards still plugging along

The world of retro computer geeks was thrown into a tizzy a couple of years ago with the report of an IBM 402, a model first introduced in 1948, still in use in the wild. Sparkler Filters, a Texas company that has manufactured water filtration equipment since 1928, still uses one of these punchcard machines for its accounting, and not even a delegation from a hobbyist group could convince them to give it to a museum and replace it with a modern computer.

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IBM 402 Accounting Machine

In a strict sense, an IBM 402 isn't even a computer - it's a tabulating machine, "programmed" by arranging wires on a plugboard. Some of the operations it can perform have analogies in modern database operations (the Wikipedia article on the subject is a good introduction). They were quite reliable, and if you only need one to do one task, and it still works, then why replace it? That seems to be the attitude at Sparkler Filters, at any rate.

Sparkler Filters seems to extend this philosophy to other aspects of its tech as well; for instance, its Web page appears to have not been redesigned since 1998.

MicroVAX put out to pasture

Let's face it: there's a certain amount of perverse pride (we hesitate to call it "macho") that techies take in using a system that isn't just outdated but genuinely antiquated. Thus it shouldn't come as a surprise that a humble-brag post on Reddit from user YouCantOutrunABear, describing the 23-year-old system he uses at his work for a silver mining company, quickly bubbled up to Reddit's front page.

The computer is a MicroVAX 3100 from the legendary Digital Equipment Corporation, and sports what at the time of its purchase in 1989 probably seemed like an awesome 12 MB of RAM. It's running OpenVMS, which, it's interesting to note, was in use in 1989 and is still being produced today by Hewlett-Packard, though you'd have a hard time installing the latest version on that old machine. (Compaq bought DEC in 1998, and was in turn bought by HP in 2002, which is how they came to own the rights to the OS.)

As for YouCantOutrunABear's machine, it's running a number of non-mission-critical programs, including some computations on silver price conversions; it also prints labels onto an almost as antiquated printer. It all could be done just as well with current equipment, but as is appropriate in a mining environment, YouCantOutrunABear says that "our 'things that need replacing' list goes in order of most to least deadly."

The ghost of a PDP-11

The PDP-11 is another classic machine from DEC, originating in the 1970s and being sold into the early '90s. One of the most common uses for the computer was for real-time process control and factory automation; and one of the longest-lived examples of such use was in a particularly quirky application within the U.S. Navy.

In the 1970s, the Navy and American Airlines built a machine called the Multi-station Spatial Disorientation Device (MSDD). It was something like a souped-up version of the Scrambler, that ride you know and love from state fairs, where you're rotated in nesting cycles within cycles, creating either great joy or intense nausea, depending on how delicate your constitution is. The MSDD had the added feature of keeping its riders in the dark; the point was to simulate the sense of disorientation you'd feel in a plane at night or in a cloudbank, and demonstrate that in such situations your brain's approximation of what was happening around you bore little or no resemblance to actual physical reality.

The MSDD wasn't operated by a carnie, but rather by a skilled technician and a PDP-11 - at least up until 2007, when the Navy finally admitted that it was getting too expensive and difficult to keep that venerable computer in action. Migration Specialties, a company specialising in computer migration, as you might guess from its name, helped the Navy move to a more modern machine - but one that was designed to simulate a PDP-11 down to the last detail. All that FORTRAN code is still running on a PDP emulation card, which in turn is helping emulate a fighter jet spinning out of control in a dark night.

The flat file database that wouldn't die

If you think getting things to change in the military's infrastructure is bad, try the true black hole of US government IT: the IRS. For decades, all of the IRS's tax records were held in something called Individual Master File, an enormous flat file containing millions upon millions of records, stored on big spinning wheels of magnetic tape and accessed via COBOL code. This file was the cutting edge of tech sophistication in the 1960s when it was first implemented, but fifty years later it had grown a little rough around the edges, yes?

Ha, we kid about the 50 years thing: it was outdated by the '80s, by which time most everybody else had migrated to relational databases. Still, Master File managed to defeat all the billions of dollars and replacement projects the government could throw at it, trudging happily along and restricting the IRS from accessing individual files more often than once a week. It was only this year that Master File was replaced by Customer Account Data Engine (CADE), a more conventional database system run on IBM hardware - CADE 2, actually, since the original CADE was a failed project that was killed after years of development. And even that switchover was only for data for individuals; taxes for businesses and retirement plans are still kept on the old system for now.

Big Blue predicts blue skies

Sometimes longtime government use of technology isn't the result of chaos and incompetence, but simple thriftiness. When it comes to weather predictions, satellites and doppler radar get all the press, but the National Weather Service still relies on good old-fashioned balloons - and much of the data sent from those balloons is still processed by good old-fashioned IBM PC/XT machines, dating from the 1980s. It did turn out that 640 KB wasn't enough for everybody, but it seems that it's still good for many purposes.

Future generations wonder: Wait, what did 'XP' stand for again?

If you want to find an archaic outdated operating system, maybe you need look no further than your desktop: after all, it's possible your PC is one of the 40.7 percent that still runs Windows XP. This is an operating system that was released in October of 2001 - ten and a half years ago, as of this writing. To give you a sense of how long that span of time is (and to make you feel really old), ten and a half years before Windows XP was released was April of 1991, when Windows 3.0 was Microsoft's reigning operating system. Windows NT wouldn't be released for another two years. XP's been with us for an eternity, in computer terms.

It may not be quite fair to call Windows XP a "decade-old operating system" - it was after all the top of the line until Windows Vista was released, though even that was five years ago. Still, with such an impressively large installed base, it's a good bet that an article like this one written five or ten years from now will include "ancient x86 box running Windows XP" in its rogues gallery.

IBM 402 photograph courtesy of Columbia University 


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