The Beginnings of a Computer Career 45 Years Ago

I attended college and had a career in the computer industry during a fascinating time. When I started college the computer industry was young. I don't think Iowa State had more than a hand full of computers and undergraduates only saw the computer from behind glass. During the 40 plus years since I started college computers have become ubiquitous

I've decided to start writing a series of blog posts about some of my experiences. I hope to write about things that might be interesting to my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.  I would have liked my grandmothers to write for their descendants. They could have written about driving a Model T, teaching in a one room school house, growing up on a homestead in North Dakota or living in the Canadian Rockies in the 1930s.

I remember being intrigued by computers during my last couple of years in High School. I built an electronic decimal to binary converter for a science fair, I think during my senior year. It was a project from a book. I knew nothing about soldering and not much about electricity. I built it but it didn't work. As I recall my Dad took it to one of his friends who got the project working for me. It had a few resisters, some wires, some lights and some push buttons. You pushed a button next to one of the numbers 1-9 and the right combination of four lights would come on to represent the binary equivalent of the number.

This is a picture of me in January 1969. I was 17. January is the beginning of the school year in Australia.

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I attended school in Australia from 1964 until 1969. I went to high school at Clayfield College a Presbyterian and Methodist Girls school in Brisbane. The space flights leading to the first landing on the  moon were during this period. I was fascinated by space exploration. The practical use of computers and science in the space program fueled my interest in computers. Not long before we left Australia my Mom brought a television to school so we could watch the first moon landing on  20 July 1969.

From Australia we moved to St Charles Illinois and I started my senior year of High School year there in September 1969. It was hard being a new kid and having no friends. I was really glad to leave St Charles and move to London, England. I attended an American military dependents high school. I'm not sure but I think the science fair and the binary converter project may have been while I was a student at London Central High School. 

I got contact lenses soon after we moved ot London. This is my HIgh School graduation picture.

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I knew I was going to go to college in the U.S. but I had no idea where to go. I took the SAT test in Brisbane before we left Australia. There was one other guy taking the test at the same time. I remember I had to have a social security number to sign up for the test so that is when I applied for and received my social security number. 

While we were living in Illinois one weekend my Dad drove me out to Ames, Iowa to visit Iowa State where he and my mother had gone to college. It is a beautiful campus. We met with the admissions director because I had a pretty strange high school transcript. He said I was admitted. As part of the admissions process I had to declare a major. I remember pouring over the Iowa State catalog which was a thick paperback book listing all the majors and classes. Since I enjoyed math I thought "What the heck, Computer science looks interesting." and I checked that box on the application. I figured I could always change it later.

At Iowa State in the Fall of 1970 my first computer science class was Fortran. We wrote programs on key punch pads so the key punch operators could punch the cards for us. Each line on the programming pad became a card to read into the computer.  If you procrastinated on your programming assignments you would have to use one of the key punch machines in the  basement of the computer science building to punch the cars for your assignment yourself.

This picture of one the keypunch machines in the basement of the computer science building is from my college yearbook.

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Once we had our program on cards we would hand in our deck of cards to the clerks behind the desk in the basement where the computer was and the program would be run through the computer in the room behind the glass. Just finding all your syntax errors could take several cycles of handing in cards and coming back a few hours later to get the results of your run.

Although there were very few woman  in my classes my first computer science teacher for the Fortran class was a woman. I think June Smith was here name. We learned early on that if a line of code was longer than the 80 characters that would fit on one card we could create a continuation card by putting an x in the first column of the next card.  I remember her telling us about the student who thought you made continuation card by stapling the two cards together. You can imagine the serious damage that did to the card reader machine!

The first electronic pocket calculator the HP-35 was introduced by Hewlett Packard in 1972. It cost $395. I don't think I ever owned a calculator while I was in college. We did math for classes like Physics by hand or we used a slide rule. This picture of the HP-35 is from the book Core Memory – A Visual Survey of Vintage Computers.

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 Student protests against the war in Viet Nam and the killing of students at Kent Sate by the national guard occurred during my Freshman year at Iowa State. I was politically very conservative and Iowa State was a fairly conservative school. Although I had misgivings about the war I supported the U.S. policy in Viet Nam so I took no part in the protests at Iowa State.

If you have memories of this era please add them in the comments.

Author: marionvermazen

I am a traveler, hiker, avid reader, Sun alumnus, computer geek, Spanish and French language student, knitter and genealogist. I am retired after working for almost 30 years in the Computer Industry. I live in Reno, Nevada with my husband Duke.

4 thoughts on “The Beginnings of a Computer Career 45 Years Ago”

  1. This sure brings back some great memories! When I lived in Tehran, I had a part-time job doing tests on water samples for a company drilling wells up by the Caspian Sea. In 1973 or 74, the company bought me a programmable calculator. Instead of calculating the test results on a simple calculator, I could program in the formulas, enter the data, and let the calculator do all the work including printing out a report. It was one of those “and then a miracle happened” events!

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  2. Very interesting, Marian, I took a computer class at Iowa State in the late 70’s. We did not use a computer, rather we learned how computers were going to change the future. I was hoping we would use them. No one that I knew owned or used a computer at that time. I was quite popular in my dorm as a freshman because I had one of the few electric typewriters.

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  3. Yeah I went to ISU 1971-1976, Started out in the Comp Sci department. June Smith was a real Dragonlady. She did NOT like under graduates wasting her time and informed us at the start of the first lecture in Fortran that her job was to weed out a third of us. I got As on all the tests but really screwed up the punch card programming. Decided that perhaps English lit was the way forward. Roommate did programming for the Physics students so we had access to the key punch. The mainframe was an IBM 360. Got exposed through another roommate to the PLATO network, an early precursor to the internet. Fun times. I remember seeing a grad student drop his advisor’s deck of punchcards in a puddle in the parking lot out side the library. He remarked that perhaps the French Foreign Legion was hiring for he was doomed. I helped him pick up the deck, damp and randomized.
    JD Bell

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