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Kids and their newfangled computers: who would have expected computerized doorknobs in 1978?

I'm not to the "Hey, you kids! Get off my lawn!" age yet, but I can remember the days when "computer" meant a Big Iron IBM 360 mainframe kept in a refrigerated room, stoked with COBOL and FORTRAN by men--yes, almost exclusively men--in lab coats. We all rode to work on stegosaurs and my best friends were my neighbors, Betty and Barney Rubble.


Well, maybe not that long ago, but I began my working career about the time when a "mini-computer" was the size of an office desk, had a full 36k of memory [most LCD watches have much more, now], and users had to sign up to share time on it.

It came as a surprise a couple of years later to see personal computers on display in the local Radio Shack store, on sale for a couple thousand dollars. It wasn't so much the price that was a surprise as it was the idea that I could buy my very own computer. What I'd do with it, I wasn't quite sure. Spread-sheets were the main selling point but games--only slightly more sophisticated than Pong--came in a close second.

As my wife and I stood in the store, taking a hands-off attitude toward the computer, a couple of 10-year-old boys came in and headed directly toward it with a completely different attitude. They started punching the keyboard and in less than a minute had by passed the demo program, had found a game, and were playing it. That's when I became aware of the paradigm shift.

No, Not a New Dance Craze

"Paradigm shift" was one of those business buzz-phrases popular in the 1990s. It literally means a change of perspective. Businesses were supposed to change the way they looked at things in order to become like The Six Million Dollar Man: better, faster, and able to zoom in with telescopic eyes. Okay, maybe not the latter.

The paradigm shift I saw in the electronics store that day was that upcoming generations would no more be in awe of computers than mine was with the telephone. I suppose back in the early 20th Century, people considered learning telephone skills the same way people at the end of that century were worried about learning "computer skills".

As far as I can tell, "computer skills" amounts to learning which button to push to turn it on, how to type, and maneuvering a mouse. What we really need to learn is how to run different programs on the PC. A high-school graduate who doesn't know a word processing program, a spreadsheet, and e-mail today might as well be a stegosaur-rider like I was back in the early 1980s.

Computers and computer chips are now ubiquitous. Coffer makers, washing machines, and toasters are now computer-equipped. We put our lives in the hands of computers every time we fly. Jet engines are now completely controlled by computers. Sure, pilots can control them, but in essence, they are only making suggestions to the computer about what they want the engines to do. Pilots can't over-or under-run engines or take them out of their correct operating parameters, the computer controls won't let them.

They're Everywhere! They're Everywhere!

Even experts in the computer field couldn't see the shift coming. A story, perhaps apocryphal, tells about an engineer at a chip manufacturing conference back in the days when Big Iron ruled the earth. A manufacturer giving a presentation said his factory would have the capacity to produce a million processors a year. This is at a time when there were perhaps 10,000 mainframes on the entire earth.

"What are they going to do with all of those processors?" the engineer asked his colleague. "Put them in doorknobs?"

It's the rare hotel today that issues metal keys to rooms.

The paradigm shift is becoming more apparent in the job shop. Manual machine operation gave way to NC machines. CNC machines are now the norm. Machines are getting smarter to relieve the load of the operator. Operators now must know not only machining, but computer operations as well.

One of the regular features in MAN is "The Bull of the Woods" cartoon. A recurring theme of The Bull is the advancement of machines and machinists, making The Good Old Days obsolete. These were cartoons created in the 1920s through 1940s. Today, old dinosaur riders like myself, who still hold some awe of computers are witnessing young workers coming into the business who take computer controls for granted. And, its about time.

Pete Nofel

Modern Applications News
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Title Annotation:EDITOR'S CORNER
Author:Nofel, Pete
Publication:Modern Applications News
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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