I’ve always wanted to find out some details about the first computer that I ever got a chance to program and have been on a quest to discover that detail for a long time.
Today, I finally found it.
But first, some background.
It was 1976 and I was in Pre-U 1 (today it is know as JC1 – junior college 1).
Sometime in March or April 1976, it was announced at the school assembly that there will be a computer programming course that will be offered to interested students.
There were two prerequisites: be able to type and to have good math grades.
I signed up and was eventually selected to attend the course. I don’t remember how long the course was supposed to be, but I do recall that it will be held only on Saturday mornings in school. The teacher was Mr Henry Kwok (a fun, delightful and colourful math teacher who would wear shorts and t-shirts and come to school on a motorcycle).
What we learned was the programming language, BASIC. Mr Kwok introduced the class to how the code looks like – he would be writing on the blackboard and we would be coping it verbatim on our notebooks (the paper kind).
I don’t recall the curriculum but I am sure it had the usual topics: line numbers, if statements, goto statements, etc.
After the first three or four Saturdays, we were ready to have the opportunity to actually program the computer.
I am sure there must have been exercises that we needed to run – the “Hello World” as it were, but I don’t recall.
With a set of programs written on paper, we were told to show up at the location where the computer was.
It was at Monk’s Hill Secondary School which was near Newton hawker centre.
The programs we wrote were then to be typed into a teleprinter-like device. These devices had a keyboard and a way to feed in a 132-column continuous paper. These teleprinter-like devices would also output ticker tape which contains the stuff that was typed in – the code.
With the program typed in – the two outputs – the 132-column paper and the ticker tape, that would be the essence of the program written.
I believe there were a total of three teleprinter-like devices and only one of those was actually plugged into the computer – i.e., it was on-line. The other two were, what one would call, off-line teleprinters.
So, with the code typed in and the ticker tape generated, one had to wait for access to the teleprinter that was on-line which will then accept the ticker tape and by pressing some key on the keyboard, the tape is read into the computer. Some moments later, one would tell the computer to execute the code that was input. Most times, it would print out on the terminal (aka paper) errors in the code. It was rare that the program ran the first time.
The errors have to be fixed and a new ticker tape generated, re-introduced to the computer and re-ran.
This was an exciting time for me. I wrote some code to print out the “Mona Lisa” in ASCII chars, a calendar for 1976 and a bunch of other stuff. I am sure I copied a lot of the code from books that I could borrow from the library.
Sadly, I can’t seem to locate any of the ticker tapes or the outputs from back then.
Why am I recounting this story? Because I just discovered a newspaper article that describes this computer. It was printed in the New Nation of 20 February 1974 on page 2 under the heading “Teachers try out computers course by Ministry”.
This was made possible by a new-established S$70,000 computer training centre setup by the Singapore Ministry of Education. The system as a $60,000 computer given by the Overseas Technical Cooperation Agency of the Japanese government through the Colombo Plan.
Here’s the screenshot from the archives at the National Library Board – from https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg.
It took the Ministry of Education about two years – making a guess here – to train teachers so that they can then teach students. Granted, it was days when no one had any computers to access unless they are in the “Electronic Data Processing” or “Data Processing” department who would have had access to mainframes and minicomputers. The notion of a “personal computer” was a few more years into the future.
What stands out for me is that, after almost 48 years, the MOE *still* does not consider skills in IT and Computational Thinking as a crucial life skill.
Over that last several years, when we were running the code::XtremeApps 24-hr coding competition (from 2007-2019), there was lukewarm interest at the Ministry of Education on getting schools to participate. We bypassed the MOE and went directly to schools and we were reasonably successful.
Now that the MOE says that computing is part of the curriculum, I am told that, even in 2023, the number of students who could take the course is throttled. They are also not investing in training enough teachers to run these courses with some schools only having ONE teacher.
There is a huge disconnect between reality and the MOE as far as IT and computing training is concerned. Yes, not everyone would become a developer/programmer, but it is a critical life skill that we need, just as not everyone will be a Field’s medal winner, but they need to know and work with math.
I am glad that whatever I learned in 1976 around BASIC, ticker tapes, 132-column printouts was sufficient for me to want to explore technology for the future. While I have to be thankful to the MOE of 1976 for making things happen for me, after 47 years, there really has not been much progress.
By an amazing coincidence, I came across this post on Reddit yesterday about a punch tape repair device
Hard to believe you’re in the generation that has really seen it all – from actual punched tape to mobile apps and AI art.
Thanks for that link. I never did use the punch cards though. I know those a couple of years ahead of me, did use those cards in NUS Engineering. They had horror stories to recount about dropping the cards and having to reassemble them in the right order etc.
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