April 2010 Archives

Saint George's Operating System

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One of the UK's great workhorses of computing, the ICL 1900 series is now just a distant hum in the background, but its operating system, GEORGE, lives on in many people's memories and should be celebrated today, St George's Day!

The Dragon that GEORGE was protecting us from was the hardware - a developing series of machines that grew and grew taking advantage of improvements in technology.

The design of the 1900 itself dates back to a Ferranti paper exercise developed by Harry Johnson and hence often known as the HARRIAC. This design wasn't used at the time and was passed to Ferranti-Packard in Canada who developed their FP6000 series. The design of the FP6000 later came back to the UK as the basis for the 1900 machines.  ICL demonstrated their first two 1900 computers at the Business Efficiency show in Olympia in 1965 and deliveries started in earnest in May 1965.

Rising above all the hardware was the operating system known as GEORGE or GENeral ORGanisational Environment. Developed by a team lead by George Felton in Stevenage, the system name was a actually a tribute to George himself.  GEORGE would provide a consistent and reliable front-end to the developing machines.

Government support for ICL meant that nearly all UK nationalised companies and very many universities used 1900 machines throughout the 1960s and 70s.

I well remember under-graduate computing in the early 1980s when a deck of punched cards would be passed to the computer centre reception ladies. These guardians, not to say dragons, of the university's 1904S would take our meagre offerings and add them to the job queue. Throughout the rest of the day the job list would be printed and pinned up next to reception - a list more than 2m long by the end of the day.

Of course, the low priority jobs from us under-grads would get pushed further and further down the queue, until just before midnight the job would be run. Typically GEORGE would take one look at the control cards, run it past the compiler, and then spit out two or three pages of errors!

Calling in at the computer centre, typically on the way back from the pub, I could grab a quick look at the error report and attempt to punch a few replacement cards. Submitting the job at that time of night meant it might get another run before morning!

ICL sold 1900 based systems until almost the 1980s, but GEORGE still lived on in the ICL New Range machines - the 2900 series. You can follow TNMOC's restoration of an ICL 2966 by clicking here.

Finally, readers of this blog might like to know that they can get even closer to TNMOC, by joining as a member. There is more information here.

DEC's Legacy in Hardware and Software

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Last weekend, I attended the DEC Legacy event in Windermere with Peter and Ben, two volunteers from TNMOC. It was a chance for enthusiasts to show off the fantastic range of equipment from one of the great computing companies.

There was something very special about Ken Olson's Digital Equipment Company and it continues to attract a lot of interest in its history and products. Its machines were innovative and high quality and its software, particularly OpenVMS, has almost fanatical advocates.

From a museum conservation point of view, the wealth of printed documentation that DEC produced is a godsend. Not only do we have all those handbooks, but also sales literature, operating manuals and complete technical descriptions of the systems themselves.

In our attempts at TNMOC to restore as many computers as we can, DEC's solid technical backup is priceless.

Although TNMOC has DEC systems from the early 1960s, we still rely on OpenVMS running on nice new HP (who merged with Compaq who had preciously acquired DEC) hardware for the internal services of the museum - our intranet for example.

We plan to re-instate our retro operating systems machine soon. This is a publicly accessible web server allowing different systems to be used in virtual machines - everything from CP/M to RSTS/E and VMS. If anyone has a spare DS10 we would love to hear from you!

TNMOC provided prizes for the best displays and presentations and it was a pleasure to able to attend the event. Congratulations to the winners and to the event organiser!

Many of the people exhibiting at this event will also be coming to the first Vintage Computer Festival in June so more people will have a chance to see these cared for systems running again.

Finally, readers of this blog might like to know that they can get even closer to TNMOC, by joining and becoming a member and receiving extra benefits and information.

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