The importance of being obsessive


“The Desk Set” (1957) with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn

My Mother was a Werewolf

The high school I went to was a Nun-run college prep school, hence, the term, “preppy”.  Back then Connecticut was loaded with private prep schools and if you were from Connecticut all young adults were considered to be “preppies”.

Well, when it came time to go to college, this preppie’s mother would not pay for it, because she claimed I never finished anything. She was an evil creature back then. Depended upon the phase of the moon. I went running to the school Sister Principal who assured me my mother was not a werewolf and suggested I go to the technical college and learn programming and computers. I was skeptical. Left with no other option, I went to the nearby tech college and studied what was then called “Data Processing”. It drove me nuts.


A Very Slight History of Computers (optional)

The first ever computer was the Difference Engine, conceptualized by Charles Babbage in 1822. William O Gibson and Bruce Sterling wrote the book: “The Difference Engine”(1990), a steampunk novel about Babbage’s Difference Engine set in an alternate history. Excellent book. The Colossus was the first electric programmable computer, developed by Tommy Flowers (1943). It was created to help the British code breakers read encrypted German messages. Let’s skip to the UNIVAC of the US Government (1950), considered to be the first computer that was capable of storing and running a program from memory. Along came IBM in 1953 with something called the 701, then PC’s in 1981 with a whopping 16KB of memory expandable to 256KB. Wow. Then there was DEC and HP. Compaq and DELL, Toshiba and of course, APPLE and all the Japanese brands….I think that’s enough information.




The Computing Stone Age

The tech school’s computer was the size of a 1960’s Volkswagen Bug. The only way to communicate with it was first to learn a programming language–back then there were the Big Three: FORTRAN was a scientific language; COBOL was used in business applications; BASIC was for just about everything else especially games .The Data Processing student wrote a program, then sat at a data entry machine, which had a keyboard and slots for your punch cards. That’s right–you had to punch a line of programming language into each card. It was considered to be quite an advancement from the punched paper tape. Once you had your huge stack of cards, you fired up the VW and waited for it to be happy to take the cards. My fellow students liked to move around the buttons on the VW. They were cubes in different colors. If you didn’t know their order you would stand there playing tic-tac-toe, trying to find the right order whilst a long line of antsy programmers were planning your demise.

Self-inflicted OCD

It was a cranky piece of crap and didn’t always like to work. I use to kick it, which actually worked. You had to “compile” your program. The computer would take your high level programming language which was the “source code” and turn it into “object code”, code which instructed the CPU what to do. You would get a “print out” showing you, invariably, that something was wrong with your instructions. So you gathered up your cards and the print out and sat at a table–sometimes for hours–trying to determine which line or lines of the programming language were incorrect, either in logic or accuracy. It was usually hit or miss: punch a new card with different code and run all your cards again and cross your fingers (don’t forget to switch the cubes around for the next guy). The computer room was open to students and faculty until late at night, and I spent many nights there. It helped to be obsessive. We all seemed to be–which may be an industry requirement these days.


Today computers are, well, not the size of VW Bugs, luckily, because the Bugs are bigger now. Here’s a photo of a real doozie of a computational machine.  It’s the  ENIAC. The US Military’s “Giant Brain”, built in secret (Project X) at the University of Pennsylvania 1943-46. It’s an actual Turing machine. Alan Turing in 1936 thought it up and wrote a paper describing it. In the paper, he presented a thought experiment, where a machine would manipulate symbols on a  paper tape according to a table of rules and could calculate anything that is computable.  He didn’t build it, but its the basis of computing today. And these poor women in the photo have to figure out which circuits to open or close. I don’t think they’re in the military, do you? Maybe it’s “casual Friday”.


3 thoughts on “The importance of being obsessive

  1. How things have evolved! Would you believe my first ‘computer’ was something called an Adam?? It had TAPE! I remember how thrilled I was when I could type something and have it show up on my old television screen (now I’m ageing myself! giggle). I began typing my college papers on ADAM; quite a switch from the electronic typewriter.

    I also remember the WANG – do you recall that? The first word processing tool for offices (that I became familiar with, anyway).

    I can remember going to Disney World in the early 1980s and they had an exhibit called ‘I/O’ – it was an exhibit with a talking computer. I/O stood for ‘input’ and ‘output.’ It was all so new to the general population.

    • I of remember the WANG. I use to be a computer consultant and I replaced a transit dept’s Wangs with IBM PC’s back then. I went to the corp office of IBM and told them I wanted 30 PS/2’s–I was their best friend after that. I don’t remember the Adam. I had a Brother word processor, but not until way into grad school. Everything else was typed. I ran my programs and kept my grad research data on the university’s mainframes IBM 360-364. No word processing capability.
      Those were the days, Sister.

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