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The lighter side

Baby and me
S UZANNE C ONBO Y-H ILL gives a personal history of computing.
ABY and I got going round about the same time in 1948. Baby, the first machine worthy of the title ‘computer’, took up the whole of one room at Manchester University. She had dedicated carers and, if you fed her coded information at one end, she would react with a satisfying response at the other. I did much the same. After this, we went our separate ways, the only mechanical whizzbang I encountered being the first mail-sorting machine on display at a children’s science exhibition in London. My cousin stalled it, and now he’s a particle physicist doing something similar with the universe. I met my first real computer as an undergraduate in the late seventies, although it was something of a blind date — the chappie in question being located on a different campus and accessible only by telephone. This arrangement provided unlimited opportunities for scrambling data. So, after an unsatisfactory hour spent listening to the squeaks and burps of what then passed for technology, I retreated to my Woolies calculator and a few t-tests. As a postgraduate, the next computer to enter my life was an overgrown washing machine that took up the whole of one end of the laboratory, and, before it would get up in the morning, required enough ticker tape to welcome home the entire crew of the starship Enterprise. Things were not much better as a clinical trainee. The department’s one computing machine required supplicants to punch holes in armfuls of cards and hand them to a TechPriest who would offer them up (at midnight in the presence of toads, no doubt) for consideration. You had to wait two days to discover whether or not you had pleased it with your efforts — incurring its wrath meant another afternoon in the punch room trying to work out which card of the 50-odd had the wrong hole in it. Back to the calculator and a Pearsons r. That might have been it for me and computers if it hadn’t been for Clive Sinclair. Yes, he of the silly bike. Someone lent me a

B

dinky little ZX something-or-other which looked like a chocolate box, had rubber keys and sat on your lap in exactly the way that today’s laptops don’t. I taught it to do a chisquare and change colour midway through. Groovy! Next came a Commodore with 16K, then a 32K with word processing, a spreadsheet and the facility to scroll multicoloured expletives at times of supreme frustration. This facility got rather overused when I discovered that the 32K would in no way demean itself by reading anything written by its little brother, thereby losing the data from an entire research project. Still, it typed well, and somewhere in the family there exists a photo of me producing the menu for Christmas dinner. The Commodore and I stuck together for quite a while, one of us becoming ever more obsolete, the other resisting the trend.

Finally, as much with the intent of winning a round against the Inland Revenue as anything, I pitched up at my local PC shop muttering about megabytes, cache capacity and CD-ROM speeds and hoping not to be sold something pink with a nice line in mega-death games. They kitted me out, and off I went with a box full of Bill Gates. We’ve come a long way, Baby and me — we’re off our knees and crashing forwards into the 21st century in our romper suits. Maybe next time I run into difficulties with a programme, a holo-expert will be automatically activated and zapped straight into my office to reconfigure whatever thingamajig bummed out. Let’s hope nobody invents smart toilets. I Dr Suzanne Conboy-Hill is a consultant clinical psychologist in learning disabilities with South Downs Health NHS Trust, Brighton.

The Psychologist

Vol 12 No 1

January 1999