Tech Support During Computing’s Jurassic Era

This is a true story. These events actually happened during June of 1977. There’s little (no) chance that Steven Spielberg will find the storyline worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster, though. Please enjoy!

To set the time and place better, let’s explore what was going on in the summer of 1977. Rod Stewart had Billboard’s #1 song of the year, “Tonight’s the Night.” “Margaritaville” was brand new that year, too! Annie Hall, Star Wars, and Smokey and the Bandit were big summer movie hits. Saturday Night Fever would not come out until December. The world record in the one-mile run was 3:49.4 by John Walker of New Zealand. The New York Yankees were on their way to their first World Series victory in 15 years.

The personal computing world was in its embryotic state. The Apple 2 came out in 1977. Radio Shack and Commodore also introduced new computers. Mind you, these were not of the “turn them on and run your application” variety. You turned them on and got a command prompt. The cursor after the prompt would blink endlessly in some shade of green. It was time to write a program or work on one you had already written. Video game images looked like Lego blocks!

Atari Combat 2

Atari “Combat 2

This story took place at the University of Notre Dame. I had just finished my sophomore year in EE there.

It Started Out As Any Other Day

I spent the entire summer on campus working to pay for college. June in northern Indiana is beautiful and the campus was glorious, albeit not nearly as crowded as when school was in session. For me it was an 8am to 4pm shift in the Electrical Engineering (EE) office doing odds and ends to support the professors while making a bit more than minimum wage – but it all went towards tuition. Evenings were spent at an automobile window factory between 5pm and 1am the next morning. The days were long.

This day started out just as any other would. I arrived on time and asked Nettie (the secretary) what she needed today. “Not too much, actually, Michael. Dr. (James) Melsa (Chairman of the EE Department) and Dr. (David) Cohn (EE Professor) are in Chicago doing their microprocessor seminar.” For me, I’d do the normal daily chores, visit one or two professors to make sure they were OK, talk with a few graduate students and try to keep out of the way.

The microprocessor that was beginning to rock the nation and kick open doors for computing around the world was the 8-bit Intel 8080. If you were not working as a university professor or in one of the handful of computing companies in the industry, this was a non-event. On this day, Dr. Melsa and Dr. Cohn were meeting with over a hundred very interested engineering people in Chicago to tell them all about programming the 8080 based on the book they had written that year.

South Bend, We’ve Got a Problem!

The phone rang. It was Nettie’s job to answer and she always did so with the utmost in professionalism. “Electrical Engineering office, this is Nettie.” I was not paying attention. I never got a call.

“Michael, it’s Dr. Melsa, he needs your help.”

“What could he possibly need my help with?” was all I could think. He never calls me!

I picked up the phone and listened intently. “The 8080 development system is not working. We do not have the boot code. Michael, can you go to the lab and write down the boot code for us? Then, call us back once you are done. If you cannot get this, our seminar has to be cancelled.”

“Sure, I believe can do that, Dr. Melsa. I just took the Introduction to Microprocessors course in the spring semester.” I’m sure he was very impressed with that resume.

“What did I just get myself into?” Talk about a test!

One Toggle Switch at a Time

So, why did I consider this the “Jurassic Era” of computing? Well, there was no tech support line. There was no Internet. There were no dial-up modems. There was no documentation. There wasn’t even a “boot disk” to restart the system. There was this rudimentary development system with a computing board and a few mechanical interfaces to allow humans to develop software and programs. I wish our system had the interface that the picture here shows. We had nothing close.

8080 Dev System

Getting the boot code meant turning on the system and toggling the “next address” switch to write down the instructions for each step from the LEDs. The code was somewhere between 50 and 70 instructions.

Boot code is better known as BIOS today for Basic Input/Output System. It was the set of instructions needed for the microprocessor to start the system up and get all the interfaces alive and well, like the toggle switches.

Of course, the boot code instructions were not FORTRAN or PASCAL or C or anything “object-oriented.” We didn’t even have a cross-assembler to convert 8080 code like “MOV A,B” for the boot code. “The instructions” were single byte (8-bits for those keeping score) octal codes like 352. Hexadecimal was not as widely used at the time.

I looked around the building and there was no one around to help. It was up to me. So much for that cushy summer job in the EE office. The task should not be that hard, right? It was 60 lines of 8 bits each. That’s 480 bits or 60 bytes or 0.000058 MB. Computers transfer that in fractions of a second today!

I single-stepped my way through the code twice. Thankfully, the second time through I got the same answer as the first time through. It seemed like an eternity.

Fingers Crossed

Almost one hour had passed since Dr. Melsa’s call. Since there were no cell phones to call with or text messages to update him that I was progressing along, he and Dr. Cohn plodded their way through the seminar with written materials only. I imagine they were not so patiently waiting for my return call.

I called the hotel where he was presenting and they got him on the line. We walked through each instruction line carefully. I’d say, “Instruction 17, 271” and he’d respond with “Instruction 17, 271.” We went back and forth through the instructions twice.

“OK, Michael thanks. We’ll call you back in a few minutes to let you know if it worked.” They sent the attendees off for a break and began to reprogram the system … one byte at a time … one toggle switch at a time!

The clock did not appear to move at all. I waited for what seemed like forever. “Did it work?” I wondered. Finally, the phone rang. “It worked!” Dr. Melsa exclaimed. “Thank you so much. See you tomorrow.”

Disaster averted. Maybe they’ll give me a full-ride scholarship for these heroics. Nope.

So What?

For any of us who grew up in the days where even the full word “application” was not used in the computing community much (they were “programs” back then!), it’s as though we’ve lived through the full Mesozoic timeline of computing from Triassic to Jurassic up through the Cretaceous period of dinosaurs on earth.

Computing has come a very long way from toggle switches to paper tape readers to punch cards up to today, where Siri and Cortana take voice commands from us. Today’s microprocessors are light years beyond the basic central processing units (CPU) they were back then. It’s been a great journey. We can only imagine what it will look like 40 years from now.



Michael Massetti is a global high-tech supply chain executive, and sometimes computer geek, who really does enjoy being a supply chain professional and a leader!

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 Computer History