Recollections of the first few years of the net

While reading Bell (2001) I was reminded of the time in the late 1960s and early 1970s when cyberculture was beginning.. and how quickly it grew after basic computer access and communication became possible. We are social beings. Let me recall a few things as stepping stones.

My own use of computers began in the days before networks were seriously developed. Computers were largely standalone big machines in air cooled facilities. My first programming exercises at a night class at Leeds Polytechnic around 1967 were submitted on coding sheets via punch operators on punched cards and the turn round was one week to the next evening class.

Things improved when I went to the University at Lancaster in 1969… we could punch our own cards 🙂 and then leave them in pigeon holes to be run overnight on the University’s single ICL 1900 computer. A mistake in the program due to a simple typo was a no no if you wanted to get a result. We could program via flip switches in octal code a DEC PDP-8 that was the size of a large upright fridge freezer. I wrote some interrupt routines for a disc driver on a a basic operating system using a limit of 1K words of memory on that around 1970.

But things were changing and interactive access to the same type of computer was coming thanks to a link up between Edinburgh University AI people and Malcolm Atkinson, then the Computer Manager at Lancaster, and since then a long term colleague, co-investigator and recently Director of the National e-Science Centre based in Edinburgh. A precocious 17 year old programmer called John Scott at Lancaster wrote a real time access version of the Edinburgh POP-2 Language for the ICL 1900 and we were away into the cyberworld for real. We learned POP-2 for most of our programming exercises, for data structures, and for a new AI course at Lancaster around 1970-1971 which I signed onto. These, and the consequent links to Edinburgh researchers interested in planning using computers set the direction for my whole career. With encouragement from Donald Michie and Jim Doran at Edinburgh I did a final year undergraduate project to build my first AI planner – Graph Traverser 4 – and used a “compilation” approach to how plans were composed. I applied it to a range of benchmark tasks that others had tried their planners on. It far outperformed the others. In July 1972 I was able to get a small grant to allow my continued work on this and its writeup to continue after my degree – my very first research grant!

Donald Michie in Edinburgh had offered me a PhD place at Edinburgh and I joined him at the Department of Machine Intelligence and Perception in October 1972. Real time access terminals using POP-2 and the time sharing Multi-POP system were the order of the day. But it was to be an exciting time…

Within a year the DEC PDP-10 that was used by all AI researchers across Britain was installed in Edinburgh and became connected to the ARPANet – it was the 6th or 7th node on that network. Our access terminals could now be used to “Telnet” across to log on to other “DEC-10s”. I especially used the Stanford machine. There was rudimentary chat, and e-mail was started with the famous “@” character being used to address users on other hosts. Working for the first 2 hours each morning UK time I was often one of the few people on the entire network and had access to 2 DEC-10s for my work. Multi-User Dimensions (MUDs) were experimented with soon after in the machine I used at Stanford… and the rest is history…


Bell, D (2001) “Storying cyberspace 1: material and symbolic stories”, chapter 2 of An introduction to cybercultures. Abingdon: Routledge. pp6-29.

[Repost of Blog Entry dated 28-Sep-2011 – to allow for inclusion in Introductory Section of IDEL11 Blog Presentation]

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