Computing Fossils: Old Tech Holds on for Dear Life

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Source: flickr/Dallas Krentzel

You might think that flat files, VAXen, and punch card readers are things of the past -- and you're right, for the most part. But here and there, these fossilized technologies have found places where they can survive in production use.

Consider the abacus. Developed perhaps as long as 4500 years ago, this handy gadget served the mathematical needs of merchants and accountants until the development of mechanical calculating machines in the 19th century.

But the abacus hasn't been forgotten. Instead it still lives on in niches -- for instance teaching preschoolers the basics of counting.

A number of obsolete technologies and gadgets have persisted from slightly less ancient times right down to the current day, though again in greatly diminished numbers and scope. A brief tour through these technological fossils serves as a lesson on the durability of items we sometimes think of as ephemeral.

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Plugboards Still Plugging Along

The world of retro computer geeks was thrown into a tizzy a couple of years ago with the report of an IBM 402, a model first introduced in 1948, still in use in the wild.

Programming with wires? Source: Arnold Reinhold/Wikipedia

Sparkler Filters, a Texas company that has manufactured water filtration equipment since 1928, still uses one of these punchcard machines for its accounting, and not even a delegation from a hobbyist group could convince them to give it to a museum and replace it with a modern computer.

In a strict sense, an IBM 402 isn't even a computer -- it's a tabulating machine, "programmed" by arranging wires on a plugboard. Some of the operations it can perform have analogies in modern database operations (the Wikipedia article on the subject is a good introduction). They were quite reliable, and if you only need one to do one task, and it still works, then why replace it? That seems to be the attitude at Sparkler Filters, at any rate.

Sparkler Filters seems to extend this philosophy to other aspects of its tech as well; for instance, its Web page appears to have not been redesigned since 1998 (See also "IBM: Highlights of 100 Years.".

MicroVAX Put Out to Pasture

Let's face it: there's a certain amount of perverse pride (we hesitate to call it "macho") that techies take in using a system that isn't just outdated but genuinely antiquated. Thus it shouldn't come as a surprise that a humble-brag post on Reddit from user YouCantOutrunABear, describing the 23-year-old system he uses at his work for a silver mining company, quickly bubbled up to Reddit's front page.

Perching the monitor on a brick is a nice touch. Source: YouCan'tOutrunaBear

The computer is a MicroVAX 3100 from the legendary Digital Equipment Corporation, and sports what at the time of its purchase in 1989 probably seemed like an awesome 12 MB of RAM. It's running OpenVMS, which, it's interesting to note, was in use in 1989 and is still being produced today by Hewlett-Packard, though you'd have a hard time installing the latest version on that old machine. (Compaq bought DEC in 1998, and was in turn bought by HP in 2002, which is how they came to own the rights to the operating system.)

As for YouCantOutrunABear's machine, it's running a number of non-mission-critical programs, including some computations on silver price conversions; it also prints labels onto an almost as antiquated printer. It all could be done just as well with current equipment, but as is appropriate in a mining environment, YouCantOutrunABear says that "our 'things that need replacing' list goes in order of most to least deadly."

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