Don’t Drop the Cards!

You all have your own little compact laptop computers, which you use to find things on the Internet, write documents, keep in touch with your friends, edit pictures, or maybe keep track of your personal finances. You have no idea how differently it was back in the day. I realize that you will read this and probably think it’s kind of boring—not quite as whimsical as some of my other posts. But I am trying to give you a window into how it was in my day—when I walked many miles to and from school each day.

As you recall hearing many times, I worked as a computer programmer, which was a skill I learned in college on Grandpa’s recommendation. There were several computer languages which I learned—FORTRAN, COBOL, BASIC, PL/1. I used three of them in my four programming jobs.

The process was extremely tedious but improved greatly through the years. Both in college and at my first job as an intern at Grandpa’s company, Allied Chemical, the process of writing computer programs was very un-green.

First we wrote our code on paper, and then we had to type the code onto special cards using a typewriter-like machine—one line of code per card. Depending on the intricacies of the program, there could be several hundred or thousand cards per program.

punchcard

The cards were numbered, so that in the event of a klutz episode and you tripped with your cards in one hand and coffee in another, you could put your program back into the correct order. Then you stuck them in a box which was about the size of a shoebox or you bound them together with a rubber band and hoped it didn’t break and scatter them all over the office.

These cards together comprised a single program called a “job”. They were fed into a machine called a card reader, and then you waited for a printout of your program (sometimes many hours or even a day later), which you now checked for errors..

There were many rules for writing these programs, and if you did not follow them precisely, error messages informing you of a missing comma or missing word would greet you. Then you would hit your head against a wall, correct the mistakes—called debugging—and repeat the process. It was not fun.

After graduation the technology improved so that we could bypass the cards and type the instructions directly into the computer. That was a huge improvement.

When I went to IBM, which is when we moved to New York, I got a job working in a group that basically wrote programs to generate reports. This can now be done with Excel and Word, which would have been the end of my job.

What I remember vividly about my later days at IBM was when one of the young programmers whose office was near mine announced he was getting his own personal computer. I could not wrap my mind about such a purchase. Why, I thought, would anyone want a computer in their own home? What a ridiculous waste of money, and what could he possibly do with it at home? Was I short sighted!

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