Mainframes and the Unix Revolution - Computerphile | Summary and Q&A

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July 19, 2013
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Mainframes and the Unix Revolution - Computerphile

TL;DR

Computing in the early 70s was dominated by mainframes shared among multiple users, but the rise of mini computers and the UNIX operating system revolutionized the field.

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Questions & Answers

Q: Why were mainframes the primary computing machines used in universities in the 70s?

Mainframes were widely used due to their computational power, but their high costs, import restrictions, and limited access led universities to share a single mainframe among multiple users.

Q: How did mainframe users interact with the computers?

Mainframe users typically used "dumb terminals" connected to the mainframe via cables. They submitted batch jobs with decks of cards or paper tapes and received printouts with the results or used glass teletypes for limited interaction.

Q: What challenges did computer scientists face when using mainframes?

Computer scientists wanted to run non-standard software in non-standard ways, but this could potentially crash the machine and disrupt other users. Negotiating with the computing center for approval to run such software was a challenge.

Q: How did the introduction of mini computers change the landscape of computing in the 70s?

Mini computers, like the PDP 11, provided computer scientists with their own computing power and the ability to run non-standard software independently. This gave them more flexibility and freedom in their research and teaching.

Q: What was the significance of the UNIX operating system in the 70s?

UNIX, created by Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie, was a clean and efficient operating system designed for computer scientists. It revolutionized multi-user and multitasking capabilities, leading many computer science departments to adopt it.

Q: How did the UNIX operating system change the world beyond the field of computer science?

Although initially restricted by licensing agreements, the UNIX operating system eventually paved the way for commercial implementations. The widespread adoption of UNIX and its derivatives, such as Linux, transformed the computing landscape.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • In the 70s, mainframes were the primary computing machines used in universities, with limited access due to high costs and import restrictions.

  • Students and researchers had to share mainframes, causing conflicts between different departments' needs and limited computing power.

  • The emergence of mini computers, like the PDP 11, allowed computer scientists to have more independence and run their own non-standard software.

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