Mixsonian Larry


New Job

With things more or less under control at home and the phone installed, I stopped by the Customer Programming Service office, which was just a couple miles down A1A, and talked to my new boss Elias to let him know I had got settled in and to give him my new phone number.  After talking a bit, he said he would see me Monday morning at nine and I returned home.  Monday morning came soon enough and I showed up at the office, as I typically do, fifteen minutes before nine and the door was locked.  I didn’t have to wait long before an attractive woman shows up and says, “You must be Larry, Hi, I’m Tanya, Elias’s secretary, he should be her shortly” And she proceeds to unlock the door and I follow her into the office.  We talk for a bit while she is getting settled into her desk when Elias shows up and after greeting Tanya and me, I follow him into his office where he begins to explain the details about my new job.  

He had a contract with the Composition division of the Harris Corporation which made modern electronic “photo-typesetting” machines used by large newspaper companies to print their newspapers.  Newspapers like the New York Times used Harris Composition’s machines.  It was a growing market, photo-typesetting was quickly replacing the old printing which used characters cast into lead which were then set into a page sized trays, thus the term typesetting. Elias went on to explain that the actual creating the actual pages of the newspaper were also done electronically on computer terminals and his contract, and my job, was to help Elias write the software for the latest “smart” computer terminal that Harris was developing.  

The software was begin written to run on a DEC PDP-11 computer upon which the Harris Typesetting system was based.  The system was similar to the IBM mainframe I had worked on at the University but on a smaller scale. While the IBM mainframe took a good sized computer room, the PDP-11 fit in a computer rack the size of a refrigerator.  Instead of hundreds of computers the mainframe had, the Harris system had few dozen which the newspaper staff would use to compose newspaper pages.  Typists would use a terminal to enter the text then pass it to a “typesetter” person who would enter special codes into the text to “mark it up”, codes like <B> for bold, <I> for italic, <IN-12> to indent twelve points.  The text would look something like the following.

<IN-12> <B> <SZ-20> This text will display as bold in 20 point text.<-SZ> <-B> <I>whil this text will be italic.<-I>

Which would produce:

This text will display as bold in 20 point text. While this text will be italic.

There were hundreds of commands for every aspect of laying out a newspaper page and the text soon got so that only “experts” in the markup language could read it.   The new software we were working on used “smart terminal”, terminals that had an Intel 8080 microprocessor in them.  With the smart terminal, the operator could press a key and it would take out all the “mark up commands” and actually show the operator what it would look like in the newspaper. How cool was that!  In a couple of years it would be called “wiz-ee-wig” for the acronym WYSIWYG   , “What you see is what you get”.

I spent the first two weeks at the office studying the PDP-11 assembly language manual and reviewing stacks of computer printouts of the code that Elias had already written.  Of the assembly languages I had worked with, IBM 360, Data General, Intel 8080, the PDP-11 was much easier to learn.  For one thing, the PDP-11 used Octal instead of Hexadecimal as a base number set.   For those non-nerds out there, since we have ten fingers, we humans use ten numbers, 0-9, which is base ten.  Now imagine if we had sixteen fingers, we would count using all fingers so we would need sixteen digits or hexadecimal which uses digits 0-9 then A though F for the other six numbers.  Digits 0-9 are the same but the number 11 in decimal is “A” in hex, 12 is “B” and so on until you get to 16, which is 10 in hex. Example the decimal number 1952 is 7A0 in Hex.  The PDP-11 on the other hand uses base six, octal.  Octal uses only the digits 0-7, while eight is 10. The decimal 1952 would be 3640 in Octal.  Okay, still complicated but a lot less so than having to work with numbers that have the letters A-F in them.  I quickly picked it up and soon was able to read the stack of assembly language print outs with ease.

Elias had an overall design that he was working on, a block diagram with a dozen or so modules that handled different aspects of displaying text on the smart terminal.  Some had been completed, others partially written and some he had not started on yet and soon Elias started given me some simple assignments, to modify and existing program or to write some small new function.  After two weeks I was getting bored looking at hundreds of lines of code and felt I understood the PDP-11 assembly language fairly well and was ready to get on to the actual computer when Elias said we were going out to Harris to test and debug some of the code the following day.  

The next day we get in Elias’s brand new white Corvette and go to Harris Composition Division which is on the west side of Melbourne.  To get there we go north on A1A from our office and take the Eau Gallie Causeway across the Indian River which I hadn’t been across before but I had seen it three miles to north while crossing of the Melbourne Causeway.  After crossing the causeway, we continued west on Eau Gallie Road to just before Interstate 75 where we turned left onto John Rodes Boulevard and in a half-mile came to a set of low industrial buildings which housed Harris Composition.  We parked and entered the building where Elias was friendly greeted by the receptionist and asked to sign. Elias introduces me as his new programmer and explains I will be working their regularly and would need a badge, so the receptionist makes a call and soon a woman comes out and friendly greets Elias and me and takes us back to her desk where I fill out some paper work and she provides me with an access badge. 

From there we go down a hall and though some doors and enter a large, brightly lit, development and assembly area.  As we walk through the area, Elias introduces me to several people who all seem friendly and know Elias quite well.  We finally get to the PDP-11 computer in a rack that has a console attached to it and one of the “new smart terminals” that was being developed.  The smart terminal looked half finished, not having a cover on it and with several wires leading to some sort of test instrument. Elias explained the hardware engineer was still working on the code that ran on the new terminal, but it was mostly functional.

Elias and I pull up a couple of chairs and we sit at the console for the PDP-11. The console interesting enough was and IBM Selectric computer terminal like the ones I used at the University. The code we were developing ran on the PDP-11 and  communicated to the new smart terminal.  Elias then spent several hours showing me how to use the programming environment on the PDP-11.  We had brought several printouts that  Elias and I had marked up as well as several pages of new code, also handwritten.  After showing how to use the editor, Elias left me to edit and enter the programs while he went to talk to some of the Harris people.   I’m pretty good with a keyboard, thanks to taking typing class back in 9th grade, so I soon had the edits done and new code entered when Elias came back and we started testing and debugging the code.   This cycle continued, a couple days in the office, then a few days at Harris testing and debugging and I soon was proficient at it was writing more complicated parts of the system and spending more time at Harris.    Elias and I made a good team, at first he would “man the console” and I would sit by his side watching but soon I took the controls and maned the console while he sat next to me. It worked well, with both of us catching mistakes or making suggestions as the program advanced.  I remember one time there was a particularly bad problem and we were having a hard time finding the cause.  We had narrowed down the issue to a section of code, I was at the console, Elias was directing, having me look at some code, instruction, or variable as we stepped line by line though the code but neither of us could spot the problem, when suddenly I stopped typing. Elias asks why I stopped, and I said, “I see the problem.”  and Elias asks what it was.  I wasn’t sure, I couldn’t right then just point to it and say what it was, but something was lurking in my mind, more at a subconscious level that sent up a flag to the conscious.  I sat there for a minute in a half-daze staring at the console printout when the problem just popped into my mind, an assembly instruction that we stepped through a dozen lines up the printout was incorrect.  I didn’t see it at the time we stepped through it, but it did register in my mind and took a bit for me to recognize it.  I corrected it and the problem was fixed.

I liked Elias, he was a nice and friendly guy, and we worked well together.  There was only one thing I didn’t like about him was that he smoked a pipe and when he was smoking it, he had it in his mouth or hand.  When we sat at the console debugging code, he would use the pipe in his hand to point at things on the console or printout.  Smoking wasn’t allowed in the computer room, but at his office he was always smoking it.  The entire office as well as Elias always had that sweet smell of pipe tobacco smoke.   I suppose at least that it was better than cigar smoke which I really couldn’t stand.

I enjoyed the work, working with Elias, and working at Harris.  The work was interesting, challenging and fun and over the next few months we made good progress on the software.

Updated: 03-01-2023