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I remember our first calculator. It was August 1974. We’d been married about two weeks. We were newly weds and newly minted teachers, so we purchased a calculator for about $35 to use in grading. I think it could add, subtract, multiply, and divide. That was it. Today you can get more than that in a plastic toy “computer” in a cereal box.

I also remember the first computer I ever met. I say “met” because to interact with Oz was a close encounter of the third kind. It was a room-sized unit at the University of Akron in the late 1970s.

I was in graduate school and we’d spend hours keypunching our programs onto 80 column IBM punch cards. We’d carefully check the cards for hole errors, put the cards in the correct order, and take the stack to the computer center across campus from where the keypunch machines were located. Then we’d wait, hold our breath, and wait some more in fear and growing anxiety for the “Job” to be returned through the great window to Oz.

Finally, usually the next day, we’d go back to pick up our Job. The worst thing in the world, the absolute worst, was to see folded computer paper—thin not thick—being handed through the window. A thin fold meant something was wrong in the program, some hole, maybe just one, that wasn’t punched correctly. The thin fold was an error statement, so you had to go back across campus to the punch machines, re-punch that one card—once you found it, which could take time—place it correctly in the stack, resubmit, and wait.

Punch cards were gold, your data set. I knew doctoral candidates whose entire dissertation research was punched on cards. Huge stacks they’d wrap in plastic and put in their freezers “in case the apartment burned down.” Better to lose everything they owned than to lose a year’s worth of research punched on those cards.

A couple of years later at the University of Cincinnati we’d progressed to terminals. No more punch cards. Now we stared at huge blinking cursors you can still see on computers in 1980s movies. FORTRAN, COBOL, BASIC, than later, software systems like SPSS, Statistical Package for Social Sciences, or SAS, Statistical Analysis Software. What made these terminals and software packages so much of an advance over the old punch cards is that when a Job went awry you discovered it fairly quickly and could make changes in the program stored on the computer. To my knowledge, no one put a terminal in a freezer.

While a doctoral student, I was hired by the Behavioral Sciences Laboratory (BSL), later the Institute for Policy Research. It was a survey research think tank located on campus. This was Cincinnati, so almost all staff members had German surnames: Oldendick, Kraus, Tuchfarber, Stuebing. I made friends, learned a lot, and made a few shekels to help pay our way.

It was here we met our first P.C. In retrospect it’s a funny memory. We literally, excitedly gathered in the hallway, about 5 of us, than walked to another room to see the new arrival. It was like going to see a new baby. Our new little one was an IBM P.C., jet black, bigger than our terminals, square, and unwieldly, took up the whole desktop.

We oohed and aahed, commented on how it looked just like its father, and said we thought it had a bright future ahead of it. It was powerful. I think it could run a little BASIC. It was 1981.


© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2010

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