Thursday, June 14, 2007

What the wise professor said

I read two graduation speeches that blogger Tuckshop Boy has posted at his website. The speakers were Steve Jobs and Carly Fiorina. They reminded me of some pearls of wisdom that my own university professors handed out to us more than 3 decades ago.

I was studying at the newly set up Industrial and Systems Engineering Department of the then University of Singapore. Our head of department was a Professor Donald E. Morgan from the United States. One day, he made us write an essay, which was quite a novel thing then, maybe because it was generally accepted that engineers ‘cannot write’.

He wanted to know what we thought would be the impact of computers on society. Mind you, this was around 1974 or 75, way before the pc was even invented; when our own computer programs were written in Fortran IV on punch cards fed into our faculty’s IBM1130.

Shy to say, my answer reflected my ignorance and lack of foresight. I said something to this effect. “This computer thing is nothing special. It’s just another of man’s many inventions; no different from the bow and arrows that our ancestors used.”

I will always remember Professor Morgan’s comment when my essay came back. “But this is something that is going to have a huge impact on our society. A time will come when the computer will impact practically every aspect of our lives.”

I think at that time, the wise professor himself did not realize just how accurate his prediction was.

Next time, I will share with you what Professon Goh Thong Ngee wrote in our graduation magazine .. if I can find it that is.

Footnote: Through the power of the computer that Professor Morgan spoke about, I learned that he has just passed away about 2 weeks ago at the age of 90. Read his obituary here.

Interesting Links:

1) IBM 1130
2) Punch Cards


zen said...

What makes a man of vision different from others is that he is able to look beyond the horizon. As a matter of illustration, there were thousand of islands in South East Asia, it only took one man of vision - Sir Stamford Raffles to spot one that has a great future. This is the island of Singapore which he described as the future 'Emporium' of the East. It was his keen sense of vision that we are all here sharing the destiny of this island state.

Victor said...

I too used punch cards before to write some simple Fortran programs. I doubt many of your young readers even know what a punch card looks like. Let me try to describe it.

Each program statement must be punched onto one card using a noisy electro-mechanical machine called a card puncher which looked like an old-fashioned typewriter. A series of small rectangular holes which encoded the statement would be punched onto the card, character by character. If you made a mistake, I think you were allowed to backspace and correct the error, which was still not so bad. The whole stack of cards had to be in sequential order. If you drop the stack of cards on the floor, then you are in big trouble because arranging the cards back in order would be a nightmare. Therefore it was advisable to tie the cards up with a rubber band or string. The cards would be brought to a card reader where the whole program could be read into the computer which was called a mainframe at that time because of its huge size - it can easily fill up a large HDB room. Because of the large amount of heat generated, the computer of those days need to be operated in dedicated computer rooms cooled by powerful air-conditioners. We've certainly come a long way.

Zen - You forgot another great man after Sir Stamford Raffles who made Singapore what it is today.

zen said...

Victor - I have written to feedback unit emphazing the importance of studying history, because if we do not understand the past, how are we to adjust to the present, and prepare for the future. Apparently the present education authority does not take studying this subject seriously, taking it as a subject of no economic value, worth only little attention. The problem is many think that history of Singapore only began in 1959. Now I sense there are small 'tremours' in the ground, and I look forward tonight commencement of a new History Channel in our TV, What is it all about ?

Lam Chun See said...

Yeah; those punch cards were really something. Maybe by Victor's time the technology already more advanced. In our case, any typo error means the card has to be discarded. And we undergrads had to buy our own cards from the computer centre. Later, someone found a shop which sold them more cheaply.

Still later, the uni req'd other faculty student to also take up computer programming. So for once, we got to see many pretty girls turn up at the Prince Edward campus. And of course many of my more daring friends took the opportunity to help out those 'all at sea' girls to operate the dreaded punch card machines. As for the boys from the other faculties ... too bad.

zen said...

From my limited knowledge of science, I understand that quite a number of machines were already invented and were used in the military like the earlier fax machines, computers(?), use of liquid hydrogen in rocketry and so forth. During the time of peace, these invention are redesigned for civilian use. After the cold war, scientists are now concentrating on inventions for peaceful use.

Tuckshop Boy said...

Hi Mr. Lam, I was pleasantly surprised that you read my blog. Just wanted to add that I discovered your blog a few months ago and really enjoy reading your nostalgic posts on Singapore.

Lam Chun See said...

Hi Tuckshp Boy. Glad you liked my nostalgia stories. And thanks for putting up those two speeches. (You didn't have a comments section in your blog.)

I read the Steve Jobs speech before. But this time, it made more impact on me becos, as I approach 55, I am contemplating switching to a doing something closer to my heart.

peter said...

My undergraduate days did not allow me to learn computer programing. Like many of my friends, we did part-time studies at Stamford College down in Waterloo Street in the evening from 7 to 9pm. We were using the Univac 1100 model. Univac later was acquired by Sperry to become Sperry-Univac and then became Unisys much later. We wrote using Assembler language and was taught by this chap from India (no insults intended, Indians make good teachers). Then we sta for City & Guilds exam followed by British Computer Society and then NCC. I am happy to say, my friends and I were the first batch of graduates from Singapore before NUS offered computer science in the mid-1980s and way before National Computer Board was born in 1982.

Then we realised that the British curriculum was different from the Americans because US hardware vendors used COBOL and RPG. So back to the drawing board to rely on vendor ttraining.

Lam Chun See said...

For my final year project, my partner and I wrote a prog to test our inventory model using computer simulation. The prog was was too much for our univeristy's IBM 1130. Luckily our project supervisor, Mr N. Varaprasad was able to arrange for us to use the Univac at DBS. At that time it was the biggest in S. E. Asia and only SIA had one.

I am very curious to know just how powerful these old monsters are compared with today's p.c.

Victor said...

Someone correct me if I am wrong, I think that today's PCs are much more powerful than the mainframes of the 1970s.

peter said...

Comparing yesterday and today:

The first IBM PC (2 X 5 1/4" media) cost S$13,000 when launched in 1982, a 5MB version cost $18,000 list price. As u know IBM seldom discounts.

My first WANG VS Mini system that I sold in 1979 was to Chase Manhattan Bank for S$400K comprising 3 X VDUs (re: display), 1 X 180cps Diablo dot martix printer, 1 X 300LPM Printronix printer and 1 X system console, 32K RAM. I think to set-up a LAN system with similar configuration (except no more dot matrix/line printers) would cost <$10K. You cna imagine the quantum leap in price-technology. Shook Lin & Bok bought our first WANG OIS WP system for S$50,000 comprising 2 terminals and 1 180 cps printer; printer sharing was via a box switch.

OEM price for a SEAGATE 20MB disk was US$180MB in 1984.

Written/customized application software like PAYROLL was priced around S$50,000 and included 3 -4 man months to develop. Today - maybe S$500 for a package?

APPLE LISA (forerunner of Macintosh)when launched by Simer Barby Systems in 1983 was priced at S$100K.

The first government government PC tender was placed out by Singapore Telecoms (Land line Division) and comprised 50 IBM-compatible PCs, a few Diablo letter quality printers for a tender sum of S$100,000.

Before NCM all government purchases must be sanctioned by "MSD" of the Ministry of Finance.

The first Made-In-Singapore computer was called ABACUS (more appropriately "assembled") by an Indian foreign company called HCL (Hindustan Computer Ltd) at Jalan Bukit Merah. Singapore's answer was PINEAPPLE from People's Park Center

peter said...

My first lesson in computer programing was to understand the binary numbers as an instruction code. then we had to learn hexadec numbers. Chia Lak!!!