Tom Trimbath’s Story PCs Break Through

Kids fresh out of college are lucky. They don’t have to winnow through decades of experience when they are deciding which tool to use. The newest tech is as easy to learn as the heritage equipment, so when learn the old ways? Well, if the same old work is getting done, then the same old tools will be used – for a while. As a fresh kid graduating from college in 1980, it made more sense for me to learn how to use a computer than how to navigate office politics, even if it was just to get a letter typed.

We know the stereotypes from the 1980s. Computers lived in refrigerated rooms. Programming was done by punchcard. Graphs were plotted by hand, in pencil by the engineer, and then in ink by the tech aid upon approval of the lead or supervisor. Each group shared a secretary with the boss. She guarded his office and the typewriter.  Of course the secretary wasn’t always a woman, and the boss wasn’t always a man, but that was the best bet.

Happenstance establishes habits. In my first week of work, everyone I was supposed to report to was on vacation. As a neophyte engineer I understood the theory behind my assignment, but I didn’t understand the process. I was handed long equations and piles of numbers and told to calculate the curves that would go on a graph. Here’s the pencil. Here’s the paper. Of course I had my own calculator and drafting equipment (two triangles, a french curve, an engineer’s rule, and an eraser.)

Making Data

I also knew where the “mini-computer” was. A PDP-11/70 was down the hall.  I didn’t know how to run it either, but I could get an account, I knew FORTRAN, and was knew it would take less time to program the machine than to wear down the keys on my calculator.

There were no classes in how to run the computer; so, whenever I had a question I’d methodically start at the left side of the four-foot long rack of documentation and read until I had an answer. Indices helped. So did the sympathetic users.

When everyone returned from vacation, they encouraged me to use the old ways. If I wanted to use the computers I should use the mainframes which were run from punchcards.  I was to write out what I wanted typed, hand the sheets to the data entry pool, wait for the cards, check them, and then submit the deck if necessary.

My handwriting was worse than my typing. I felt sorry for the keyboard operators. So, instead of typing commands into a file and submitting a RUN command, I made friends with the keyboard pool so I could type my own cards.

Eventually that looked silly enough that I was allowed to use the mini-computer and 9-track tapes, then a 300 baud modem, then eventually an internal computer network.

Making Words

Words were different, for them.

Whenever I had to write a memo, letter, or document I was required to write it by hand, submit it to the secretary, wait for her to type it, review the result, and repeat as necessary.

I type faster than I write and as I said, my writing isn’t very legible. I wasn’t allowed to use her typewriter, and I preferred to make less mess by typing; so I’d retreat to the computer room, a place my lead and supervisor rarely visited, and type my draft using the line editor (this is before copy&paste and WYSIWYG), print out the result, and hand it to the secretary.

Silly or not, the authorities wouldn’t challenge the secretary’s role.

Silly or not, this was happening to so many people that eventually someone started programming an unofficial word processing program.

Whether it was because of our efforts or not, the secretaries were provided with WANG word processors,  computers designed for only that task. My response, well, they wouldn’t let me use her machine, but she was happy to have me help by fixing things on the screen rather than after she’d hit print. It wasn’t as efficient as possible, but it was better than the old way.

Making Graphs

Plotting data by hand is a valuable experience. There’s an intimacy with the results that is necessarily tangible. The process of inking a graph made it archival, yet was too tedious to be an efficient use of an engineer’s time. Technical aides were assigned the task of adding permanence to the results.

Plotting data by hand made sense when data was acquired in small packets. Airplanes were certified with data copied down by pilots glancing at their cockpit displays. As electronics improved and storage media shrunk it became possible to record data multiple times per second, and then to attempt to duplicate the flight in the flight simulator. The data task become overwhelming, especially when the real world data was to be compared to the computer’s results.

Retreat to the computer room again, and thank my friends who figured out how to make an electrostatic printer produce geometrically accurate plots by faking up a character set in their word processor. I still don’t know exactly how they did it. But plotting up computer results by hitting print was far more reliable than hand-plotting new curves from reams of data.

Breakthrough

Each of those battles challenged someone’s role: the engineer and data, the secretary and words, and the technical aide with graphs. Part of the resistance was a necessarily conservative approach to analyses affecting public safety. Part of the resistance was respect for established skills and preservation of livelihoods. Part of the resistance was challenge of authority because youth knew more than experience. Part of the resistance was simple human reluctance to change.

Each of those battles prepared the groundwork for the introduction of personal computers.

Personal computers were unproven. There were technical doubts that their numerical precision wasn’t sufficient. They were so small that they were considered toys and distractions. There was no internal support staff, so there was no authority figure to champion their introduction.

Reluctantly, the awareness of the activities of the younger engineers and aides convinced management to allow one PC, and it had to be an IBM, into each group.

Color like that came later, much later. Didn’t it?

If nothing else, it would free up time on the more expensive machines; so, it came across as a cost saving.

The real breakthrough though, was probably the fact that the well-paid supervisors were engineers too, and therefore curious. They bought PCs for home, and quietly asked the young engineers for advice about how to run them, and what to use them for. As capabilities increased and prices dropped, fears faded

I don’t recall any grand campaign, no great demonstration, that heralded the introduction of a new way to work. I can’t recall taking any classes about how to use any of the devices. I did write one of the first manuals for how to remotely use the flight simulator, saving two hours of travel time for each session, and easing the way for batch processing when piloted sessions weren’t necessary. Most of the effort was like that, personal, unofficial, and produced from having experienced the lack of more understandable support.

Battles continued. A bit of civil disobedience, or at least asking forgiveness instead of permission, helped bring laptops into the workspace. Trial programs with company supplied laptops were actually too early. The first one I used was an Osborne 1 (22 pounds and a 8.75 x 6.6 cm display. That’s 128 columns!!)  The first one I used regularly was a PowerBook 170 that I bought and used against company directives (it wasn’t an IBM) because I was working from home and traveling. I was willing to spend thousands of dollars to save myself some time and make myself more efficient, even if the company disagreed.

Battles will continue, and I suspect in most cases it is not through concerted efforts, but through quiet persistence of innovative individuals who can see a better way to do things, and who won’t stop because someone said No.

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