Programming/computer science/IT terms that refer to obsolete tech?
November 5, 2021 11:36 PM   Subscribe

We all know that software bugs were named after an actual bug. But just today I learned that core dumps are so called after magnetic-core memory. I had always vaguely wondered where the name came from when my debugger said "dumping core..." but never thought to look it up. Now I'm wondering what other names for tech things refer to tech that's no longer in use, particularly if they wouldn't even be recognizable to many practitioners.

I'm particularly interested in terms that refer to something specific to the old, more physical manifestations of computing - like anything that comes from tape or punchcard terminology. But any others you all can think of are welcome too. Even newer ones like when people talk about "writing to disk" although on many modern PCs there is no "disk" as such.
posted by potrzebie to Technology (27 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
At work we use a famous Fortran program with a generations-long development history for Monte Carlo simulations. One of my young colleagues described the input text file: "On the first card you put ... On the next card you put ..." They still call the lines in the input file "cards", after the punched cards that were originally used! My young colleague was born some years after cards passed out of use.
posted by JonJacky at 11:47 PM on November 5, 2021 [4 favorites]

Byte: from 1956, Werner Buchholz of IBM, while designing the IBM Stretch computer, decided to use "byte" to indicate how much data can the computer process at a time, or "bite at a time", but chose "byte" so it is not confused with "bit"

"carbon copy" in email obviously no longer actually uses the carbon paper...

"ditto" is from dittograph aka mimeograph, a way to copy things before the photocopier (aka Xerox machine)

There's also dial the number and hang up the phone, both refer to analog phones and modern phones no longer have the dial nor the hang-up mechanisms, unless you're looking at super-classic stuff or desktop phones.
posted by kschang at 12:05 AM on November 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

> modern phones no longer have the dial nor the hang-up mechanisms

whenever you want to establish a TCP connection from Go, you be dialin'
posted by are-coral-made at 12:09 AM on November 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The popular tar command in unix/linux refers to "Tape ARchive" even though it's more often than not probably used for bundling up files with no writing to tape ever involved.

I'm guessing there are many commands that refer to original hardware uses that no longer apply.
posted by kokaku at 12:09 AM on November 6, 2021 [10 favorites]

The window that you type commands into is called the terminal, named after the hardware devices with a keyboard and monochrome screen that were one of the early ways to interact directly with a computer. At the university where I used to work, computer classes are still listed in the timetable as "terminal sessions" to this day.
posted by Jabberwocky at 12:31 AM on November 6, 2021 [5 favorites]

Not strictly programming related, but when teaching young'uns Word on a computer they don't get why the save icon is this weird square thing.

To be fair it took me a bit to realise you pretty much only saved to floppy disks back in the day.
posted by freethefeet at 1:31 AM on November 6, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Nitpick: It was the first literal bug and amused the computing staff, but the term existed before then.

In UNIX-style operating systems there are some virtual files - /dev/tty, /dev/tty1, /dev/tty2 etc that are named after (and can be used to connect to) teletypewriters, devices invented in the 19th century long before computers. Teleprinters send text as signals, and typed (onto paper) the signals they received. Early computers were connected to one or more teletypewriters and use actual paper as screens. You can, with a bit of hacking, connect teletypewriters to modern Linux systems as /dev/tty1 and type commands into them, getting output back on paper.

Nowadays the tty dev files connect to virtual terminals - if you have a Mac or Linux computer, open up a command prompt and type 'w' - you will see a list of users and the TTY they are connecting with.

STDIN and STDOUT are based on teleprinters too - the idea that characters are sent to a printer, and received from a keyboard.

The standard of 80 or 79 characters width for terminals and text editors (you might see a vertical line indicating 79 characters in your text editor) was derived from punchcards. IBM punchcards from the 1920s were 80 columns wide. I think this was influenced by them reusing equipment for textile manufacturing punchcards, which had standards going back into 19th century or before. When you open a command window in Windows, it opens up with a width of 80 characters.

In ASCII (and modern Unicode) text characters are represented by numbers. 65 is "A", 32 is " ". Character 7 is "BEL" BEL codes date back to 19th century teleprinters - when transmitted they made a little bell ring at the other end of the connection. As early computers used teleprinters this became part of the ASCII standard. If you print the 07 character as text it will make your computer go "ding". On a Mac, with Bash, you can print an alert bell with echo $'\a'

The ping command is obviously a reference to submarine sonar.
posted by BinaryApe at 3:04 AM on November 6, 2021 [15 favorites]

In broader IT, almost all of the language used for Photoshop, InDesign etc came from the olden days when we physically constructed newspapers, books and other print margins. Even cut and paste are called cut and paste because we used to physically cut copy on paper and glue it into the layouts to be typeset by hand on a hot press. Until quite recently in software development, vertical spacing was called leading because lead strips were used to space lines consistently by hotpress typesetters.

Margins, gutters, etc obviously also come from print.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:23 AM on November 6, 2021 [6 favorites]

I said "WYSIWIG" to a 27-yo and she had no idea what it meant
posted by falsedmitri at 3:37 AM on November 6, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: A few more:

Calling software updates "patches" probably originates in the practice of splicing updated, fixed lengths of paper tape together to fix mistakes, rather than replacing the entire reel of tape.

Email addresses originally represented a user at a specific large multi-user computer. For example, the address davep@goliath would be one of many users on a computer called goliath. Users would have to log in to read their email.

"~" is used as a shortcut/alias to a user's home directory (where your files are kept) on Unix systems - "~" is your home directory, or ~janed for Jane's. This originates in a 1970s keyboard layout where the ~ symbol shared a key with the word "HOME".

The recommendation to replace passwords every 3 or 6 months originates from a Cold War era study into how long a big Russian computer would take to crack passwords on a big American computer. Replacing passwords before the enemy computer could guess them was a good idea. Of course now computers can take fractions of a second to guess most passwords, so the advice is nonsense.
posted by BinaryApe at 3:59 AM on November 6, 2021 [9 favorites]

The "shift key" on your keyboard refers to typewriters physically shifting the roll up so that the lower portion of the striker (where the upper-case version of the letter was) would hit it.

"Upper case" refers even further back to movable type printing presses where the letters were stored in physical wooden cases. Capital letters were traditionally stored in a case above the miniscule letters.
posted by justkevin at 4:25 AM on November 6, 2021 [13 favorites]

Best answer: A cursor is the sliding piece with indicator hairline on a slide rule.
posted by nonane at 4:57 AM on November 6, 2021 [5 favorites]

On the subject of TTYs, the UUCP system (Unix-to-Unix Copy, for computers that didn't have an always-on network connection) was still in common use into the early 1990s. If you sent mail to an address on a UUCP host that didn't exist, it would send back the error "User is not a typewriter".

UUCP is a historical novelty now, but you can play around with it over TCP connections if you're inclined. I've done it in the past and it was kind of fun.

We're in a new generation of obsolete terminology now, as individual drives are referred to in many large storage systems as "spindles", to indicate multiple "spinning-rust" disk platters being spun by an individual motor. With modern NVMe storage there are no longer any moving parts on the higher-speed flash drives, and the "spindles" being referred to do not exist.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 5:29 AM on November 6, 2021 [3 favorites]

The derivation of "spooling" is uncertain, but may fit this topic.
posted by Glomar response at 5:42 AM on November 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

"Console" is used where it doesn't refer to a physical console. "Linefeed" still has much of its original meaning, but it doesn't cause a platen to move because printers dont have platens anymore.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:51 AM on November 6, 2021

How about the back "button"? Old phones had a physical one.

Also, it seems like people use the word "jack" for all sorts of ports (and plugs) even if the original jackknife design is on its way out.
posted by nicolaitanes at 6:21 AM on November 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

I suppose any reference to printing fits the criteria. Printing was originally about putting ink on a page, which is comparatively rare these days, but print is used in a number of programming languages for outputting text to the display.
posted by DrumsIntheDeep at 6:44 AM on November 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Lots of serial communication terms. "Baud" comes from telegraphy.

"Batch" (as in batch job, batch mode, Windows .bat file :^P ) comes from the punched-card era.
posted by credulous at 8:03 AM on November 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

"Console" is a funny one, because it came to mean "terminal" only when people started using fully-fledged desktop computers as remote connection devices. It originally meant a very special direct-display device, but "console app" now usually means "works from any command line, including remote terminals".

Come to think, the word "terminal" refers to the way the input/output device was at the very end (terminus) of a given communication circuit (serial, usually). I wonder if that's even appropriate in modern use.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 10:02 AM on November 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I found this too: List of computer term etymologies

And I learned a thing or two, like how a "dashboard" was a shield to prevent mud from fast-flying hooves from hitting you in the face. Modern informational dashboards for VP level execs have similar purpose.
posted by credulous at 11:46 AM on November 6, 2021 [7 favorites]

"Return" aka the Enter key, is so named because on manual typewriters, at the end of a line you 'returned' the cartridge to the far left to begin typing a new line of text.
posted by ananci at 12:05 PM on November 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Tab key hasn't been for building tabulations (tables of aligned text) for a long time. Similarly for paper/typewriter/teletypes, the Page Up/Down, (Carriage) Return and Home/End made sense in the days of physical printed forms. We haven't needed to sign in and record the time that we started to use a computer and when we stopped in a physical paper ledger book since multi-user systems became popular in the 1960s, but we still log in and log out. As for the log itself, it used to be a bit of wood attached to a line paid out from a ship to estimate speed in the days of sail.

Programming loops were originally physical loops of punched paper tape for controlling early numerically controlled automatic machinery. If your machine could feed itself from bar stock, the tape would keep looping until you ran out of stock.

Cookies were singular tokens given to steam locomotive drivers to ensure only one engine could be on a section of single track at a time.

SSDs have neither motors, so can't be drives, nor are round, so can't be disks. The idea of solid-state is rather quaint, too: it means there are no thermionic valves (tubes) or relays involved, but rather diode or transistor logic using semiconductors. So SSDs are entirely defined by what they're not.

Your computer's screen probably hasn't had a phosphor-coated metal screen (or screens) inside a large evacuated glass enclosure as a display since about 2006.

Most people's mental models of computers are very out of date, but the language hasn't caught up. A processor is more like a cluster of computers with internal networks and memory. Your program instructions don't necessarily execute in the order they're written. Counter variables often don't exist as a memory location that can be inspected. Tasks (where computable) are split apart, processed as parallel vectors, then recombined, even on the same processor core. I'm not going to even start on what DDR memory is like ...

(In a turnabout way, Windows 10 and 11 may still not allow files to start with CON, PRN or AUX, since they were the output channel device names for CP/M. CP/M hasn't really been a thing since the early 1980s, but compatibility outlives everything.)
posted by scruss at 12:23 PM on November 6, 2021 [3 favorites]

The popular tar command in unix/linux refers to "Tape ARchive"

When I worked in Virginia, certain folks in management insisted on calling the result a tar-ball which was so close to ((racially-charged term MetaFilter won't let me post)), it really annoyed me.

I said "WYSIWIG" to a 27-year-old and she had no idea what it meant

Not sure if you do, either. It's WYSIWYG - What You See Is What You Get (which some attribute to Flip Wilson but this etymology of the expression traces it back to at least the 1940s).
posted by Rash at 1:07 PM on November 6, 2021

I'm late to the party, but a couple things:
1) On mainframe IBM computers when an abend (abnormal end) to your transaction or batch job occurs, you get a system abend and/or a user abend code, the former beginning with S and the latter with U. In both cases they represent the 3 hexadecimal digits related to the problem. However the system abend codes are presented with the hexadecimal value (like S0C4) whereas the user abend codes are presented with the decimal equivalent of the hexadecimal value (like U4039), which I believe dates back to the days when there were system programmers inside the "machine rooms" and application programmers outside looking in through the windows. I don't have a citation but I began my career in the 70's.
2) In the early days programmers were tunnel visioned about the USA and English (ASCII being the original standard). The fact that the rest of the world used other languages and alphabets was only partially considered by IBM in the EBCDIC standard. Even into the early 21st century you had articles that tried to get people to wake up and notice the rest of the planet. See The Absolute Minimum Every Software Developer Absolutely Positively Must Know About Unicode and Character Sets, No Excuses!.
posted by forthright at 4:13 PM on November 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

"Hacker" may come from "hacking" meaning to ride horses so informally that you don’t even wear special riding clothes. If so, it’s a cousin derivation to "hack cab" and "political hackery", and related somehow to a neighborhood of London called Hackney that for a while had stables, but I guess not fancy ones.
posted by clew at 8:04 PM on November 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Radio buttons! This user interface convention is named after the type of button that mechanically stored station presets (most commonly seen in cars). When you pressed a button it would physically pop any other depressed button.

Inbox (and outbox) were actual boxes on your desk. Actual files and folders are less common now, but we still use those.

"Shift" on a typewriter would actually move the "basket" down to change to capital letters. Caps lock was typically called "Shift lock" back then and would physically lock that mechanism in place.
posted by O9scar at 8:47 AM on November 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

A "shift lock" is a separate mechanism to a "caps lock". The difference is that by physically locking the shift key in place (as on, say, Commodore computers of the late 70s/early 80s), you would also change the effect of the number keys, rendering the punctuation above the digits. Using Caps Lock has no effect on anything but letters.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 1:10 AM on November 8, 2021

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