Conversation with a Univac

Boing Boing readers Scott Lloyd and his wife found this old printout of an interactive session with a Univac and sent it along. Ah, memories!

Conversation With a Univac, courtesy of Scott Lloyd (Thanks, Scott!)


  1. Wohoo! A conversation with a computer before I was even born. And I am 36 years old.

    The future is now.

  2. At around the same time there was a computer in the London Science Museum that would do this kind of thing. It would suggest itineraries using the London Underground, too.

    More than once I got to the museum when the doors opened in order to be able to have a turn on it without a queue of people behind me.

  3. I vaguely remember a similar conversation with another computer that would play a “moon landing” game. It gave you altitude and velocity (initially downward), you entered the rate of fuel burn, then it would give you the new velocity. Repeat. Ultimately you either landed, crashed, or ran out of fuel (and, presumably, fell and crashed).

    The first computer game I ever played. At the time, totally awesome.

    1. I played that game on the Sperry/Univac AN/UYK-20, which was part of possibly the US Navy’s first computer-automated shipboard communications system, in the mid-70s. It was indeed an awesome game for its time, as was the “Yuk-20”. I especially loved the winking register lights on the front panel.

    1. I never cared for the ’33. The older Mod 28 ASRs were a thing of beauty. 75wpm with nary a semiconductor.

  4. Thanks, boingboing. LOVE old computer stuff. Ironic that one of the most expensive and powerful machines you could obtain was dispensing astrological information, just like the ancient Babylonians.

    1. Amazingly enough, useful things were done with these computers, like design spacecraft and stuff.

    1. Nice.

      I find it interesting that the Google and MS data centers are so beginning to resemble Multivac. For a decade or two there, a massive computer was looking laughable, but the reality is back in force. I think about the Multivac stories every month or so…

      1. i found myself wondering one day if the net could have happened back in the big iron and terminals days, if said terminals had the ability to dial into multiple servers at the same time.

        thing is, thats basically what a internet browser is doing, especially if one is using these “cloud apps” that the tech press love to write about.

  5. The only thing I ever did on the one in my high school (1980-82) was play Star Trek.


    * *
    < *>


  6. That’s a lot of communication errors for such a short printout. I don’t remember ever seeing errors like that using the DEC equipment we had in high school. Of course, we had real decwriters and glass TTYs, which were miles ahead of the teletype in reliability.

  7. That looks a lot like the kind of stuff coming from the GE/Honeywell-635 up at Dartmouth that my Junior High had a dedicated line to for a few days a week in 1968.

    1. I was a computer operatior at Hughes Aircraft in Los Angeles in that same era, an I operated a GE 635 computer. It had a much better ‘user interface’ than the IBM mainframes of the same era. :-)

  8. Did anyone else, as they were reading this, use the classic “computer voice” in their heads?

    1. “Turing FAIL.”

      Aye. I always thought it’d be neat if we created a machine that was so inextricable from us that all it wanted to do was drink beer and watch cartoons.

  9. Yet another old fogey here, reminiscing about my first encounter with a real computer. With me, it was punch cards. And just like any other old fogey, it’s hard for me to imagine what “kids today” feel about their computers.

    I suppose the idea of programming these things is going to go the way of the slide rule and analog clocks. humph! You kids get off of my lawn!

  10. Astrology and predicting the future? That’s

    WITCHCBAD . .. 4%
    WKTCBAFT . .s443^

  11. I read this post with a dose of affectation.

    In my old days (1980-ties), I used to have similar dialogues with ICL computer running “George 3” OS…

    We even started to call him/her Georgina :-)

    Auld Lang Syne …

  12. AT&T and the Bells are still keeping all their wire records and wiring orders routed through a system that is mostly older than this.

    COSMOS, an acronym for the COmputer System for Mainframe OperationS, originally was written in FORTRAN and ran on a DEC PDP 11/45 running a custom fork of UNIX 1.0. Most BOCs started using it in 1974/5. Cthulhu

    It was re-written in C for standard Unix later, and ran on various machines, got a name change to SWITCH/FOMS, (Frame Operations Management System – Cable Telephone HeUristic Lookup Help Utility would have been a better name) but is still requires a genuine Wang terminal emulator with some very eccentric settings, and (as of 5 years ago) it still has the same cantankerous, opaque interface which requires the 2-letter wire center code to look up records (like in old movies where the guy would get an operator just by picking up the phone then would bark something like “Cheltenham 3422!” – the wire center is Cheltenham, then one would have to guess the abbreviation CH or CM or CL – no lookup to translate a telephone number into a wire center.)

    It is highly secure – they change their passwords every lunar month for all the different machines (the precise lunar phase varies by user and may affect one’s access rights) have no usable documentation, and who has a Wang terminal emulator, anyway? And if that doesn’t work, well, using it is its own punishment.

    This shambling, distributed pile of wreckage still holds the authoritative cable and wire pair information for most of the phone and DSL in the US.

    1. Amazing info about an amazing system. Sounds like what they’d be doing in the old Soviet Union if it still existed. Guess they’re operating under the principle of “not broken, don’t fix it.”

  13. Christ, this is what we had to program with at Lincoln High School (RIP) in SEATTLE (of all places) in 1980/1. Those f’n cards, I think I spent a week making cards to calculate something ridiculous like 42xb=c.

    I’d kill to see the printout. I kept saying, man this isn’t the shit Martin Landau was using in 1999! Once during lecture I fell asleep with my head in my hands, when I went into REM my head slipped and literally bounced off the desk in the pool of drool that had collected beneath it. Even the teacher laughed at me…all freaking 128 years of him.

  14. I wonder if someone’s still using those “computer horoscopes” dot-matrix printouts at county fairs, I remember seeing them looooong after dot-matrix printers were passe.

  15. If you enjoy these sorts of rustic old computer programs (and games), have a look at these:

    There was a renaissance, of sorts, in the 1970s, which was captured in the book “BASIC Computer Games”, by David Ahl. You can still get this book used on Amazon, but the above web site has the source code for all the games, as well as scans of the book. The source is available as individual files, or as a .tar/.zip.

  16. From the look of the page I’m guessing a 110-baud ASCII printer … 10cps.

    And now, a little secret I’ve never shared: NEVER run a deck with a card in it punched with 80 Z’s through a card-sorting machine. EVER.

    1. Dang, now I want to try it. What happens?

      Card-sorting machines are like clocks with heft and attitude, pinnacles of mechanical design. I am surprised they have a weakness for Z’s.

      1. You are correct sir. LOL, I had NO idea that Encyclopedia Galactica had an article on that!

        When I did that once, late one evening, I spent a couple of hours trying to clear all the spindled, folded, mutilitated and amazingly tightly-jammed cards out of the machine. (Luckily they were ‘garbage’ cards anyway, not the only deck of someone’s chess program!)

        1. Unfortunately there is not yet an entry or photo of the “card knife” mentioned in this encyclopedia. Maybe I can find it in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — seems like relevant cultural knowledge for any species that happens upon card based input but neglects the extremes of punching.

          Or are we lone idiots for even trying it?

  17. The real hardcore Star-trek computer game addicts (at Uni early 1980s) would specifically log in to teletype terminals so that at the end of each game they could collect the entire printout (often an inch or two thick) to keep for future reference.

    1. Wow. I used to play Star Trek on the PLATO terminals at Leal Elementary, in Urbana, around 1974-75. AFAIK, Leal was the first elementary school EVER to have computers (or at least terminals) in the classroom. Nostalgia.

  18. In the early 70s, I visited a cousin whose school had a microcomputer. Card reader input, teletype output.

    I played game called DEEPSPACE. You arm a ship with weapons from a menu, then sent it into battle, deciding which weapon systems to fire.

    I kept the green-bar printouts of the two battles I fought for YEARS. The experience was utterly fascinating. I occasionally took out the sheets and relived the battle.

    Later, when I got my own PC, I found a BASIC listing for DEEPSPACE and typed it in. It wasn’t as much fun once I saw the relatively trivial “guts” of the simulation.

  19. This looks like a program written by a student (Mansfield State College) in the programming language “BASIC”. Probably a class assignment. I wrote similar programs at old Frostburg State College in the late ’70’s on a similar teletype keyboard – but I’m unsure what type of computre the mainframe was. We could program directly on the teletype – which was a big improvement over the card decks! In the card deck input days, we could really tick off someone who was acting up by shuffling their deck of cards, thus screwing up the order of the program steps. Since memory was at a premium, and input was a pain, we used to have contests with each other to see who could code the assigned program in the least amount of steps. No junk code allowed. That’s how we got to the moon, too!

  20. I guess I’m a relic. I worked for the UNIVAC DPC in Manhattan as a secretary. The computer took up the whole bottom floor, was very temperamental, hated any kind of excessive heat, and was “down” more than it was “up”.

    Our programmers and systems analysts had their hands full with armfuls of printer generated paper and boxes and boxes of punch cards and I never knew how they made sense of them.

    The office was at 1290 Ave. of the Americas, and the computer had its 15 min. of movie stardom in a Doris Day picture with Rock Hudson.

    Those really were the “good old days”. Electric typewriters were a new thing; the IBM “ball” typewriter was not yet invented, the girls were wearing mini-skirts and the Beatles came to town when I worked there.

    What fun.

  21. I used to work for Sperry Univac and I have pleasant memories of playing the first adventure game. It was text based we spent many hours after work wandering through the cave.

    Somewhere I still have the Fortran source doce for the game.

  22. Anyone remember Empire – used to play it to the early morning hours on a modem to a PDP 11/44

  23. In 1966, INGRID communicated via the console-typewriter and gave not entirely predictable and somewhat relevant responses to questions typed in, those questions being stored for use as replies for the next user. Sorry UNIVACers, nothing beats an IBM 1620 IID in 1966, when men were men, core was core and cards were punched. (And GEORGE III, living up to his namesake when we later had an ICL 1904, on occasion printed eternally “The impossible has happened.” but I cannot remember now just why.)

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