The first computer that I ever programmed was a small 1401 at Cooper Union (1969). It had 4K ram and no disk drive and originally leased for 2500 a month. It had real magnetic core memory. You also had to program a board using jumper wires in order to print. It used a compiler deck of punch cards, a program deck and a data deck, all loaded in the right order. There was no operating system per se. We programmed it in Fortran with Format, the computer language that preceded Fortran IV.
I remember that the compiler deck had a bent card and you had to bang the side of it on card #88.
One of the senior Electrical Engineering students had hacked a printer board so that the thing could talk. He was able to hook it up to a primitive vocoder circuit and it made odd sounds.
I saw in BoingBoing today about an Icelandic musician that has taken an old 1401 (they were built like tanks and will probably last forever) and used it to create music by placing a radio receiver in the guts to pick up the strange electromagnetic whale song of the old beast. It reminds me of the old TRS-80, before disk drives, that you had to put a radio next to the computer to see if the program tape had finished loading. You could hear the transistors switching – it sounded like whistles and moans.
Go to the website and listen to the mp3 samples.
The cool prase of those days was “Hollerith Fields”. They were one of the hard part of programming. I had no problem with the dreaded “nested loops”, but the weirdly obtuse “computed go to” always gave me pause. I found Assembly Language remarkably easy because I cut my teeth on such a primitive language.