Computers are wonderful things, and it is difficult to overstate the impact that they have had on our lives and our society. I give you one small instance. In 1952 I was busily writing a thesis as required to receive a master’s degree at my university. I laboriously wrote my paper in longhand, after which I turned it over to a professional typist. She then typed it on a manual typewriter, producing an original with one or two carbons attached. I then had to review the paper, make necessary corrections, and return it to the typist to produce the final product. It was a very labor-intensive process. Today, I would type the thesis myself on a computer/word processor. As I typed, spell-check, a dictionary, a thesaurus, and an encyclopedia would all be available to me at the touch of a key. After typing, I could review and correct my paper with a minimum of effort, and I could print as many copies as I might want.
This is only one example of how computers have changed things. In other areas they have had an even greater impact.
My first real introduction to computers came in the early 1960s. My particular concern at the time was how to organize, store, and retrieve discrete bits of information extracted from a veritable ocean flood of incoming data. I soon realized the potentialities of computers in this effort, and I began talking to programmers – the writers of code. It was often difficult to explain our business to a programmer in such a way that he or she could produce an effective software solution, so after a time I found it more satisfactory to learn a programming language myself and write my own software. I was never a great programmer, but I did manage to produce a very effective information storage and retrieval system.
In the early days I found that computer salesmen and computer programmers often failed to understand the complexities of the problem that they were supposed to solve. Computers are great, but you cannot simply set a computer down in the middle of an office and expect magic to happen. A programmer must be thoroughly familiar with the operation and the desired improvements before he begins to write appropriate software. Such an approach takes time and patience.
Patience was not a hallmark of computer salesmen in the 1960s. Sometimes their push to sell their machines was accompanied by promises so outlandish that they might have embarrassed a used-car salesman. Often the result was disappointment and wasted money, and it gave some tech companies a bad name. I will never forget the words of a frustrated librarian as he expressed his frustration with computers and computer programmers. I paraphrase his beautifully worded lament as recorded in some library journal at that time:
“We were given a vision of a distant hill where we could drive our pick into the slope and strike a vein of pure gold. But upon closer inspection, that rounded hill turned out to be the hairy buttocks of the well-fed computer industry, and from such a source we got what you might expect.”
I wished to avoid that rounded hill, and that is why I learned to program computers myself. I have not kept up with computers since my retirement, however, and today I know barely enough to use a word processor and search the internet.
My work with computers began in 1963. In those early days some of the computers were massive machines occupying large areas in our building’s basement. Programming instructions were punched onto cards and fed into the machine through a card reader. It was challenging and fascinating work, but within a few years I moved on to other work. In 1973 I transferred to a new job, and there I began using the internet before it was known as the internet. A data transfer system had been developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and my new office was using it to share information between several government agencies. We were one of the first. How long ago! How things have changed.
I wrote my last line of computer code around 1972, I retired in 1994, and I now consider myself to be a complete technological dinosaur.