Monday, November 17, 2008

my background in computers

My first experience with computers was just out of high school. I got a summer job, as a good physics student, at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, IL, which was in its beginning stages of formation and hadn't even broken ground yet for the accelerator.

My boss was a physicist, Dr. David F. Sutter, from Cornell. Dave taught me the basics of circuits, and of logic. I was his only student. He would tutor me in his office. My own space was in an adjacent butler building, or large warehouse type structure. It was large and so was my space. Dave gave me a project to build a circuit, a high frequency clock. He stepped me through it at first and I finished it off. Then we debugged it together until it worked. I managed the lab supplies, getting requisitions for all the stuff Dave wanted us to have, getting some of it from the lab stock house, and ordering some of it from mail order catalogs, Allied and some other house. I learned to use the shop in the lab, drill press, band saw, bending machine, punch, etc. The manager of the shop was Bill Carter, a sturdy, unfrilled but warm and fatherly man, and he was very helpful. Another Cornell man came to work with us, Howie Pfeffer. He amazed me with his ability to debug quickly things I thought were real complicated. It always involved the oscilloscope because everything we did involved high frequencies.

Then I was put to work on my own project, a comparator and interrupt of a small minicomputer. I designed the circuit, with clear steering by dave, built it, and scouted out the computer interrupt. To do that I had to learn to program the computer in its own machine language. It was a Variandata 620i computer, with a language called DAS, for data assembly system. Another physicist, Chuck Schmidt, taught me how to run and program it. It was located in another building, supported by air pressure alone for some technical reason. You entered through a pressure-maintaining door.

i was thrilled with the work involving the computer. I picked it up real fast. One of the electronic technicians told me he was really impressed with how fast I picked it up.

There was a teletype terminal that I typed the programs with. It produced a paper tape that was fed into another input. The computer had switches on its frame that enabled you to step through your programs to debug them. These were called sense switches.

Then in the back there was an interface for the interrupt. My circuit had to connect to it there, and there were eight switches on my circuit. these created eight bits, zero or one each, that when the computer clock got to that number in eight bits, it was interrupted. This process was necessary to enable accelerator control to divert local control stations from their routine operations and have them do something special that came up, which it might in such a large machine. The accelerator was to be four miles in circumference.

That's all for this post.