Alex (yakshaver) wrote,

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Seeing old marvels with fresh eyes

I helped an MIT undergrad I know get free admission to USENIX next week in exchange for working a few shifts in the terminal room. Today she asked me "what's the terminal room?"

I remember the first time I saw a VDT. It was a Tektronix graphics terminal, a vector display with about an 8-inch diameter screen on a four-foot long tube. It was in a special locked room of its own, off to one side of the main terminal room full of teletypes, and it cost about what my parents' house did. I, an eighth-grader who'd been given an account on the local college's time-sharing system because that's the way the world was then, wasn't allowed to use it. But I got to stand over a real programmer's shoulder and watch it, the beam darting around the screen leaving phosphor trail geometric shapes. It was the coolest thing I'd ever seen.

One generation's marvel, another's antique. That's progress, and it's what every engineer strives to make happen. But it's good to reflect occasionally on the marvels of the past, to note just how marvelous they really are, in their original conception.

When Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon, there was an interview published in one of the New York papers with a woman on Long Island ... they asked her what her response to all this excitement was, and she said it was very interesting, but it was nothing compared to the day they opened the Brooklyn Bridge.
—David McCullough, in Ken Burns' Brooklyn Bridge
Tags: geek, history
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