Tag Archives: Fortran

Preserving My TRS-80 Likes Me

Things really were simpler then, at least when the topic is computing and the era was before 1980. One document in our catalog (item #1030) is,

My TRS-80 Likes Me – When I teach kids how to use it!, by Bob Albrecht.


The eight page document is “a resource guide for the elementary teacher.” Within those eight pages are example programs, fundamental computing concepts, and a playful attitude. Similar guides are possible now, but their instructions are likely to be layered on browsers, apps, and operating systems. Back then it was: boot the machine, type the code and RUN. But the guide also taught more fundamental concepts, as well as setting a tone and culture that encouraged kids to play and learn.

We’re preserving such documents so researchers and the curious can study and recall an era that redefined the way we learn.

The programs were all in BASIC. He prefaced the text with a disclosure:

“IMPORTANT NOTICE! I am not saying that the TRS-80 is the best computer for a// purposes. I am not saying the TRS-80 is the best overall educational computer. I am saying that I think the TRS-80 is the best computer that I have used (so far) to teach elementary school children, grades 4, 5 and 6, how to understand and enjoy BASIC.”

Programs start with four lines, grow to over a dozen, and end with one program that has three dozen lines. Elementary school students learned to print their name, but also how to write games and create graphics for the screen. 

At the time (1979), BASIC had been available for about 16 years. There were advocates for programming languages like FORTRAN, and for limiting classes to college students and graduates; but Bob knew younger people could learn to program, too.

As he wrote:

Why not? They control the future; so, let them control the computer, the tool of the future; give your kids this tool: let them shape it in ways unknown to us. Then stand back and enjoy!!”

One lesson that helps illustrate the fundamentals that had to be taught were “Tell them about the prompt(> ) and the cursor(-).” Cursors continue, but > prompts are hidden behind those layers described above.

Starting with such simple lessons is logical, but the more important lesson may be the attitude.

“Let the kids do all the hands-on stuff. Be patient- let them make mistakes, correct their own mistakes. and above all, encourage them to EXPERIMENT!”
“Now the fun begins.””

There may only be eight pages, but there’s enough in them to provide insights into history.

Bob Albrecht didn’t do all of the work. As he said in an interview we posted earlier, “people like Gerald Brown and Mary Jo did such a beautiful job of pasting it up, laying it out,…” The story behind the group effort leads to People’s Computer Company (our previous post), the Whole Earth Catalog, and about 32 more books on BASIC published as recently as 1996.

History is a network. Documents influence other documents. Contributors contribute in more than one place, and unintentionally inspire others. There’s enough to explore whether you’re interested in early educational technology, BASIC, the TRS-80, creative hand-produced publications, or a community that mixed programming with wine tasting and Greek dancing. (Read Interview with Bob Albrecht by Jon Cappetta for more.)

Preserving such documents for researchers and the curious is why we’re creating our virtual museum. Even one edition, like this one, can provide a cornerstone from which to build broader research projects and histories. Tell us where it leads you.


Interview with Bob Albrecht by Jon Cappetta

Jon Cappetta: What do you think sparked your interest in computers?

Bob Albrecht: My interest in computers? Well, let’s see; it began in 1955. After going to college for quite a few years, I finally quit halfway through a masters degree and went to work at Minneapolis Honeywell Aeronautical Division in Minneapolis. This was one of those places where almost as far as you can see in this huge room were rows and columns of desks and engineers; sitting at them doing things. At first, I worked on analog computers there- REAC analog computers. It was a room about let’s see two-thirds the size of this room (20 yards by 20 yards) full of these components and analog computers. You would use wires to hook components together and than you can simulate differential equations. We were working on flight control systems for high-speed jet aircraft. There were other ways at that time to analyze control systems, several mechanisms’ feedback control systems. Then upstairs they got an IBM650 computer, the upstairs where I hung out and worked at my desk. One day my boss called me in, I have only been there for three or four months, and he said that he would like me to go upstairs and learn how to use that computer. Once I learned how to use it he then wanted me to spread the word down where we were. So that was my introduction to computers, an IBM650 drum computer. The memory was a drum that would spin. We used punch cards for input and such. So that was my introduction to computing.

Jon: How did this introduction affect you?

Bob: I liked that so much better than the stuff I was doing before, and after about a year I started looking around for a job in the computer industry. And, at the time, I especially wanted to go live in Denver because I loved skiing. I got married during this time and also had a child.

I went to a conference, a computer conference at UCLA and then on the way back there was another computer conference in Denver. So I stopped in Denver and I met these guys from a company – from Burroughs Corporation. Burroughs had just acquired a computer company called Electrodata which was based in Pasadena CA. The Oakland office was recruiting, I interviewed and I ended up being Burroughs’ first person in Denver. They had a couple computer installations there. My title was called sales technical rep where I did sales support and also programming. So I stayed in Denver for a while, left Burroughs, did a little consulting, went to work in the aerospace industry at Martin Denver in a math think tank that had various kinds of computer stuff along the way — many different computers in fact. At that time the small computers were all drum memory. This is so much more powerful (picks up iPhone) than those computers were back in those days. The Burroughs205, used when I first went to work for Burroughs, is iconic. In old episodes of Batman you will see the console because they had lots of blinking lights and so it was the Bat-puter in those early Batman episodes. After that I joined Control Data in Denver — back when Control Data was pretty small. I then transferred to Minneapolis and worked at Control Data in Minneapolis for a while. Around the early 1960s or so I quit, dropped out and began doing a little consulting — and by that time I was traveling all over the country to teachers’ conferences giving papers and running workshops. When BASIC came along in 1964, by that time I was already running a course for high school students. So I started teaching high school students Fortran Programming in 1962.

Jon: Can you further elaborate on your experience of teaching and computing in the early 1960s?

Bob: So, in 1962 I began to teach high school students. Some of whom are well known now such as Randy Levine and Bob Kahn, both of whom were in the first group of students that I taught Fortran to in the Control Data office. I talked the University of Colorado Denver Center into going for a National Science Foundation grant. Control Data than provided a 160A, which would run Fortran paper tape, punch a paper tape on flexi readers and feed it in. So we ran that. My students were the teachers; so, they taught students and teachers in the evening classes under this NSF grant. I wrote about these kids in Datamation magazine in about 1964 and the article I wrote was called a Modern Day Medicine Show. We picked up the 160A moved it into George Washington High school and for an entire day my students ran demonstrations for different classes that were brought in. Similar to an old fashion medicine show of some guy standing up there trying to sell phony medicine, it struck with me, that this was like this with my students as the barkers. (Students including Levine and Kahn, and Fred Riss whom, I believe, eventually became a vice-president of Research at IBM.)

Jon: Let’s talk about your campaigning for BASIC.

Bob: Well, this was in the day of time-sharing systems, so the only access to BASIC at that time was by a time sharing system. BASIC was created by Kemeny & Kurtz at Dartmouth, as an open lab tool for any student on campus at Dartmouth. Kemeny is a famous mathematician and I believe he was the President of Dartmouth at the time, so they created this language called BASIC. They wanted to enable students in fields other than science and mathematics to use computers. At the time, nearly all use of computers required writing custom software, which was something only scientists and mathematicians tended to learn. I said that’s it! No more Fortran, so I started traveling all over the country crusading for BASIC.

In Minneapolis I worked for a while towards a PhD in behavioral psychology; and I just wasn’t PHD type, I think. But during that time I taught the teachers at the University of Minnesota High school, which was on campus at UoM. At this time, BASIC had come along and I was sort of touring the country with the National Counsel of Teachers of Mathematics Group called the Computer Oriented Mathematics Committee. The Committee had six members. So we would meet every so often at educational conferences and we wrote a couple of booklets published by NCTM. We decided to write an introductory booklet, a little thin booklet about computer languages suitable for the teaching of mathematics.

Some people in the NCTM lobbied the booklet to incorporate Fortran, and I lobbied, ranted, and raved for BASIC. By that time I had made big buttons that said SHAFT (Society to Help Abolish Fortran Teaching), also I made SHAFT business cards, so I was crusading all over the country for BASIC. We voted and it was 5 and 1 in favor of BASIC. We wrote a little booklet, we wrote most of that booklet in a conference in Miami — wrote a booklet called Introduction to an Algorithmic Language — BASIC, so that was my first BASIC effort.

One day, a member of Addison Wesley Publishing Company tapped me at one of the conferences and gave me a contract to write a book for teachers and high school students on BASIC. So I worked for a while on that book. Although I grew up in Iowa, went to Iowa State for a couple years than UoM — as you may know, Minnesota is kind of cold. My publisher was in Palo Alto [California]. And then one December, 23 days of below zero weather, I said to myself: “Why am I writing this book here in Minneapolis for a publisher in Palo Alto? Why don’t I move to California?” So I did. I moved to California, to San Francisco, and continued to write the book. Took me about three years to write a book I could write in six months now. That was my first big book, it was called Computer Methods in Mathematics. It was mostly about BASIC but they required me to throw a little Fortran in at the end of the book.

Jon: What discoveries and adventures came next?

Bob: Well I piled everything I owned at the time — I was single now — in my Volkswagen bus and drove to San Francisco. Lived in San Francisco for a while, wrote the book (Computer Methods in Mathematics) with lots of programs and some pretty complex programs and I mostly did not have access to BASIC — to a time sharing terminal. So I sat down and hand executed them, and fortunately almost every program worked later on when they were checked. I lived on Lombard, the most crooked street in the world, in the house on the east side at the top of a street. It was several stories and I was in a two story flat with a friend of mine. Every Thursday evening I would run computer programming, wine tasting, and Greek dancing parties. A guy named Dick Raymond came to one of these. Dick told us how he had an idle, non-profit corporation that isn’t doing anything right now, and this looks like something that might be fun to do. So I moved to Menlo Park.

Portola is a very important part of this story. Dick and I started cranking up Portola Institute. Now I was still going around to a lot of educational conferences, especially California math counsel teacher conferences, at the time. I was being quite successful in talking some of the early makers of programmable calculators into loaning me equipment. So I would load up my Volkswagen bus with equipment I borrowed from various places — now I was also able to borrow equipment from DEC [Digital Equipment Corportation] as well as Hewlett-Packard. I would borrow mini-computers and I could carry one, but it was fairly large. I would load up my VW bus with equipment and go to University of California campuses and teach a weekend course on BASIC, and Bob Kahn went with me a couple of times.

Leroy Finkel was one of the most influential people in the early days of computers in education. At Portola our little group was called DYMAX, which came from dymaxian world of Buckminster Fuller. This was in the heyday of the counter culture movement. All kinds of interesting things were going on in Menlo Park, including the Mid-peninsula Free University 2848. There were a thousand or eleven hundred people either giving or taking free classes through the MFU. This is when Doug Englebart was doing his magic at SRI, so we quickly accumulated a few, somewhere between bright and brilliant, high school students that started coming in to use all of this equipment that I got on loan. They were amongst the early hackers — hackers in a good sense. We then caught a contract from Hewlett-Packard which had come out with its first programmable calculator. I think it was called the 9600 and it was about the size of a typewriter and programmed in Reverse Polish notation and it was the forerunner of, eventually, the handheld HP calculators. At the same time there were several other programmable calculators that were coming available. One interesting programmable calculators was the Wang, which had a box about, oh, so big (6 in. by 12 in.), four hardwired calculator terminals, so it was programmable. Of course they had all the scientific operations that you might see on today’s calculators. So this money provided enough income for Portola to began to expand a little bit.

Jon: What were some things that came out of Portola?

Bob: One of the things that happened was — is — Stewart Brand came to Portola and set up his group which eventually produced the Whole Earth Catalog. So Portola is best known for Stewart’s work. My little group eventually split off. We went and found a cheap warehouse in Redwood City and set up there. We had a couple of PDP-8 computers on loan. The PDP-8 ran four terminals with BASIC using high-speed paper tape input, 10 characters a second and high-speed printer output — Teletype model 33. So various people came drifting in to use this equipment: Mark LaBrun, Tovar, Jane Woods, and others. That’s when I wrote My Computer Likes Me. I wrote it. But people like Gerald Brown and Mary Jo did such a beautiful job of pasting it up, laying it out, that they contributed tonnes to this, tonnes — that is t-o-n-n-e metric, I’m sort of a metric evangelist. Then, one day, wandered in to our place in Redwood City, DYMAX, was Judie Wilson from John Wiley & Son’s. She asked us if we would like to write a self-teaching guide. Now Wiley was just beginning to start these self-teaching guides that were initially linear Skinner programs. Linear Skinner programing is a system of self teaching developed by B.F. Skinner, the behavioral psychologist. Other people began behavioral psychology but B.F. Skinner was the great popularize. A linear Skinner program is a book consisting of frames. A frame might be informative and then immediately followed by a question or an exercise or something for you to do to write in the book, which is then immediately followed by the answer. So you go down, frame by frame by frame, with constant reinforcement. Then, at the end of the chapter, there is a self-test with answers. So we started writing self-teaching guides for Wiley and that continued for a long time, for years. So Leroy Finkel and several other people eventually fit in to DYMAX as co-authors of books of this type.

Around 1970, we moved to Menlo Park on Doyle St. Me and Dennis Allison started doing things initially as DYMAX, there on Doyle St., and I got a great urge, inspired by the Whole Earth Catalog, to do a periodical. In 1972 Leroy said we could do it if we can do it cheap. So that is why we did the tabloid newspaper — the cheapest way to publish a lot of stuff. So I decided to call it “People’s Computer Company” in the same spirit as “Big Brother and the Holding Company”. See Big Brother and the Holding Company was not actually a holding company. People’s Computer Company was not a company at the time.

Jon: Tell me more about People’s Computer Company. What were the main objectives?

Bob: We didn’t really think about objectives, we just did things as they occurred to us.

October 1972, first issue of PCC: by that time we were doing all kinds of fun things — like Wednesday night potlucks where we would make our computers available to anyone who came, and I tried to teach Greek dancing and stuff like that. So that was the first issue of PCC which became a six times a year periodical. It’s frequently referred to as a quarterly in some of the current online stuff, but it was six times a year. First issue October 1972 was, what, about 16 pages, tabloid. Mark Labrun drew the cover and I put the stuff at the top about computers being used against people. So that was the beginning of PCC, the newspaper, the periodical. Then Dennis and I, Leroy, and some others decided to start a non-profit corporation called People’s Computer Company. Now we had PCC the periodical, and PCC the non-profit educational corporation. So this was in the early 1970s and during this time and a few years there after, Leroy and I, Bob Kahn and others continued to load up all of the computers and go to educational conferences where they would give us a space. The California math counsel conference was held at a Asilomar every year and Asilomar has all of these wonderful little buildings. They put us in a little octagonal building and we just ran open workshops all day. If the conference doors were open we were open. We would — when we would be doing a presentation [this] allowed us to talk about this or that. And, of course, what we were showing was BASIC and programmable calculators like the Hewlett-Packard and the Wang [calculators] or whatever else we could borrow and take to this thing. We started writing lots of material so that people could teach themselves how to use all of this equipment and of course most of our work was done on the context of the teaching of mathematics.

Jon: What came next?

Bob: Now it was about 1972 or 1973 and I stayed on as editor of PCC, the periodical for the first five years. I then created Dragonsmoke — it was my page or sometimes two pages in PCC. Basically this page was whatever I felt like putting in, so that’s why I called it Dragonsmoke. This was an 8 1/2 by 11 thin periodical consisting of a mish mash of computer and computing related information.

During that time I began the move to create the Community Computer Center. We rented the space next door. My group eventually moved downtown in Menlo Park. PCC, the periodical, was produced by PCC, the non-profit corporation, and Community Computer Center set up its very own non-profit corporation that remained on Doyle St. Of course during all of this time we were writing books. From 1969 when Computer Methods of Mathematics was first published until 1996, I was author or co-author of about 33 books. Most of the books about some form of BASIC, up to and including visual BASIC, but also other things like Ramon Zamora and I wrote a shareware book. The shareware book was 768 pages, a big thick book on shareware word processor and spreadsheet and, I think, a drawing program. Ramon and I wrote a book, a little tiny book, on Excel. So we kept on writing books and brought in other authors. I think something like 10 or 11 people wrote their first book as my co-author and then they would branch out and write their own books. Jerry Brown wrote a beautiful book. Jerry started as a co-author on our first Wiley book called BASIC a Self Teaching Guide. Then he wrote a beautiful book later on his own called Instant BASIC. Jerry was a graphic artist and video artist; he had a huge collection of talents and skills. I have no idea of how many of his copies sold but I hope a lot of Instant Basic. He would do the whole thing — he wrote it, did all the graphics, laid it out, pasted it up and everything, and sent it off to a publisher, and it got published

Jon: What was it that made you see the potential in the concept of education through computing?

Bob: What got me into that was when I taught Fortran to those high school kids. I said, “Wow this is so much more fun than anything I have ever done.” So because of that – and word started getting out – I was then invited to lots of teachers conferences, mostly math teachers. There were also a few beginning conferences about data processing and computing which eventually led to the huge conferences that exist today, but these were smaller conferences. So I was still with Control Data at the time and Control Data acquired Bendix Computer Division. Bendix had a computer called the G-15. The G-15 is about the size of a Coke machine with a typewriter input and output paper tape — input and output. Later on they had some [magnetic] tape drives for the G-15. Well, Control Data wanted to sell these G-15s to schools, very cheap at the time, although it was kind of a trap because you needed access in the same town to an engineer in case it broke down. So I got involved with G-15s. I would travel around to an educational conference, computer conference. I would go in two days early and Control Data would ship a G-15 in and I would teach 10 or 12 kids and help these kids teach themselves on the G-15, the language called Telecom. So I traveled around the country with a G-15 and then these kids would put on a show. They got out of school for this. They loved it and every kid would produce an interesting program, typically related to mathematics. They would then demonstrate that program to everybody who wanted to see it at the Conference. Later on, at the Association for Computing Machinery meeting in Denver, my high school students: Bob Kahn and Randy Levine, those guys were set up by Control Data on the exhibit floor and they spent the entire conference demonstrating what they had learned about Fortran. ACM at that time did not like this. They castigated me. They dissed me for having the audacity to teach computer programming to high school students. At the time they thought they should teach computer programming only. Also, they felt it should be taught only at the college level. A couple of guys would get on my case because I was using BASIC instead of something like APL (a computer language that uses Reverse Polish notation).

Jon: How did Fortran Man come about?

Bob: Fortran Man was done by two guys. They were classic nerds or geeks if you will. They were so clever it was terrific. One lived in Chicago and one lived Milwaukee. On one of my trips I made it a point to visit them and talk to them. They were just classic nerds and I wonder where they are today or if they are even still alive. As Fortran Man grew it became graphically better. I think Ann, Mia, or somebody on the PCC staff started re-doing their work and it really looked beautiful. Not only Fortran Man but Billy Basic too. Billy Basic came in later and it was sort of like the dynamic duo so it was Fortran Man and Billy Basic. The best thing to do about Fortran Man is just for you to sit down and read all of the episodes of Fortran Man. It is beyond me to describe, it was so much fun.

Jon: What was your favorite experience in People’s Computer Company?

Bob: We became a focus for a lot of activity during these early days of computers in education. Then, of course, I loved traveling all over California and teaching weekend courses. We typically get around 30 teachers to attend the courses. These courses were called “Computers in the Classroom 1 and 2”. Two different courses two credits from the University of California extension. Teachers could use these credits to lobby for pay raises, and the other courses were called “Games Computers Play 1 and 2”. Whenever we went to teach somewhere we ran all four concurrently, so if you have taken Computers in the Classroom 1, you can sign up for 2. If you have taken Games Computers Play 1, then you can sign up for Games Computers Play 2. There was virtually no structure, the instructors, usually two of us, would wander around and help people play games or if they wanted to learn to program we would give them teach yourself set up materials so they can start teaching themselves how to program. Sometimes we would wander around and say: “For all of you people who crave structure we will be in the lunchroom at 1:00 for an hour to have a seminar if you want to come.” And a few people would come and some wouldn’t. Some would just continue working away. We also asked these teachers to grade themselves because I was not a classroom teacher in a normal sense. A lot of teachers intensely resisted grading themselves and practically begged us to give them a grade. So I have no idea of how many of these we did, but it was a lot of them. We taught a few at Lawrence Hall of Science (UC Berkeley), UC San Diego, UC Riverside, UC Santa Barbra, UC Davis, and we even ran one course at the airport in San Mateo. We traveled to almost all of the campuses of the University of California extension and ran these courses.

Well, all of this happened because I began teaching kids how to program, and I liked doing that so much that it sort of just took over my life. Almost everything that was going on was related in some way to helping kids teach themselves. I don’t like to say that we are teaching, I like to set up environments in which people can teach themselves with a little help. That is why I write ‘teach yourself’ instruction materials. I wrote teach yourself books so that people who did not have access to a computer teacher could use these books as an alternative; so all they need is access to a computer that ran BASIC and they could teach themselves how to program. It was really fun. I loved Wednesday evenings because all of these interesting people would come in and they would play computer games; especially when the computer center was set up next door. So, we had these two places; we had so many things going on at the same time.

Why Computers In The Classroom

Why computers in the classroom? That question is rarely asked today. Many other questions are asked. Which computers? When and how can computers be used? But it is part of modern life that computers will be in the room. Even places dense with information and things to study, like libraries and museums, have found that keeping out smartphones, tablets, and soon wearable tech is too disruptive. Getting everyone to turn off their devices takes more convincing than just saying, “Turn it off.”

November 1975 was the era after “how many classrooms per computer” and before “are students allowed to use their own (BYOD)”. The people at People’s Computer Company asked the right question at the right time.

Scroll through the PCC edition

People’s Computer Company

recently scanned and added to Stanford’s Digital Repository. Stop at page 28 (after skimming past pages that have layouts with high levels of innovation.)

“I believe that most teachers are overwhelmed by the dilemma of what to present to their students. They are aware that their material will be used by more students more often and they conclude that it must be prepared with a proportionate increase in care. In addition, the teacher is a learner on each new machine and often hesitates to step down to the role of classmate.” – Liza Loop

That quote from Liza Loop (founder of HCLE) could be copied and pasted into today’s debates. Evidently, we haven’t made much progress in the last few decades, despite the billions that have flowed to improving hardware and software. (And on certain days after certain upgrades that’s debateable too.)

This is a #ThrowbackThursday post, an informal bit of fun enjoyed by museum and library types because we have so much access to so much material. Yet, it is poignant to come across such a timeless passage while looking for images of dragons (common throughout PCC) and FORTRAN Man (an action hero based on a programming language with a sidekick called BASIC.)

We certainly do need to look back to see where we are going, and at least for this one passage, it seems that to pick up the pace we’ll have to do something differently.


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.


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.

Tom Trimbath a Story from 1976

My story, 1976, my freshman year at Virginia Tech. Welcome to computers. I’d never seen one, and now that I think about it, I didn’t even see one then. What I saw was a marvelous time of transition. As I recall, 1976 was the last year they offered a class in slide rule, the first year they required hand calculators for engineers, and an era when I could meet my foreign language credits by learning FORTRAN.

I learned how to use a slide rule in high school, a very nerdy thing to do. But college courses were suddenly abandoning slide rules in favor of hand calculators, particularly engineering hand calculators that could calculate exponents. In a nod to a time of transition, the school offered one last class in slide rule. It felt more like an homage to an era, where the instructor philosophized the perspective gained by noting the physical proximity of certain scales, and the accuracy actually required measured in an eyeball’s guess of a fraction of a millimeter. Yes, double precision on a mainframe was necessary for orbital mechanics, but the greater an engineer’s understanding of the basic physics, the easier it was to make very quick approximations without worries of batteries or bugs.

Within the years I attended achieving my bachelors, the calculator became such a powerful necessity that its use had to be restricted. From the first year where the college imposed minimums, eventually they had to impose upper limits to keep richer students from exploiting an unfair advantage. While working on my masters, the calculator was unfettered and it was possible for them to produce graphs and solve complex equations like matrices. Then the sly professors would create problems that took longer to solve if a student relied strictly on their calculator, but that could be solved quickly by inspection or with a simple equation. I’m glad I understood the basics.

In those years, almost all computing was done by cards. Days of my life were spent staring at rectangular holes in eighty column pieces of paper. Punch them in. Load them up. Run them through, then wait hours until the results arrived in a fanfold stack of paper in a mail slot. Oops. Missed a continuation character. Try again. Wait again. Hope to get it done in time for class.

When I finally stepped up and into my masters classes, we graduated to terminals. My brain had to be rewired to understand how the lines on the screen related to the holes in the non-existent paper. Much better. Then be amazed at being able to watch the program work its way through the queue and have the results displayed on the screen. No more need to clutter my room with green and white striped paper.

Except for the FORTRAN classes, everything was learned peer-to-peer, and by trial and error. The technology was almost as new to the professors as it was to us. We caught up quickly. Of course we slept less than the faculty and had greater incentive to learn if we were going to get our homework done on time. Everything was also remote. I know I used an IBM mainframe I knew which building it was in. I never saw it. I rarely even saw the printer.

It wasn’t until I graduated and got a job at Boeing that I became hands-on with hardware. From there it was PDPs and VAXs in person; Harris and Cray over 300 baud dial-up modems; and joining the bureaucratic fight to get PCs in the door and on our desks. But that’s another story.

OMSI Watches Computers Grow Up

First, barely a mention. Next, a short meeting or two. Within a few years, labs, field trips, seminars, workshops, and pages of possibilities – and then barely a mention. So went the integration of computers into the psyche of OMSI (Oregon Museum of Science and Industry). OMSI was one of the first organizations in the country, and maybe the world, that paid attention to what many considered a fad. And now, computers don’t generate as much attention because they have been so well integrated that we no longer shine spotlights on them. The people at OMSI helped their members then, and they are helping HCLE now.

HCLE’s founder, Liza Loop, and I are in Portland, Oregon attending the Museums and the Web conference (MW2013). Being within walking distance of OMSI was definitely a bonus.

OMSI was nice enough to let Liza Loop spend hours (I helped a bit) sifting through decades of records. The staff had even found a volunteer to collect newsletters and quarterly catalogs back into the sixties. Then, four of the staff offered their conference table as a temporary work space. Hours later, dozens or hundreds of photos had been taken to document OMSI’s public relationship with computers.

I was intrigued by what I found. Every time we found a mention of computers or programming, especially if education was specified, we took a photo of the page. In the early sixties there was very little. Flip through a lot of aging paper before setting them aside to be photographed. In the seventies, the mentions were more common, once or twice per newsletter, usually for a recurring meeting or class. There were enough pages to photo that it just made more sense to work standing. By the eighties, there were classes for kids and adults. Instead of a 1 1/2 hour class about computers, there were drawn out courses on specific programming languages. Assembly was taught to adults. Graphics programs were taught to five year olds. OMSI - Science Scope newsletter The course listings went on for pages and my camera’s batteries ran out. But I noticed that it didn’t seem to matter. Within a short while there were fewer photos to take. OMSI had ridden the wave from everyone’s a novice, to crowds dividing out of crowds to specialize in programming versus usage versus general interest, to where we are now.

Now, most people use computers without knowing binary math or assembly. Few have to deal with compilers and motherboards. We know the computers won’t work perfectly, but rather than debug and fix, we leave the diagnostics to experts, who may also not know the fundamentals of the situations they are asked to resolve. We rely on trust, perseverance, and sometimes acceptance of imperfections to get the job done. We’re trusting the computers to the point that, from at least one perspective, we’ve put them in control.

We’ve come a long way in a short time.

OMSI does pioneering work; and, they save their history. By building HCLE’s archive and database with such resources, we’ll be able to better understand how people and organizations adapt to rapid change. Rapid change is now the norm. Looking back at the history of computing in learning and education it becomes obvious that we, as a society, passed through phases; and, that we’ll pass through similar phases in other fields.

OMSI and HCLE use the past to help others adapt to the future. I thank OMSI for their help. They’ve provided a wonderful example of how a few documents can provide rich insights. We worked through dozens of folders. The HCLE collection contains about ten thousand artifacts. We know that many times that is out there in corporate archives, people’s garages, and even in other museums. Many are only stored in people’s minds. We look forward to your stores and stories being added to the HCLE database, and we look forward to the experts who will know the right questions to ask of such a resource.

For now, I’m glad I found some spare batteries, and that leafing through so many old records refreshes my memories of learning FORTRAN, the first time I used a terminal instead of punch cards, and why I was so glad that inkjet printers were so much quieter than the chatter of fan fold and dot matrix.

Building A Computing Education Museum

There’s an irony and an everyday lesson in building a virtual museum for how computers and computing became part of learning and education. Almost every step requires learning, and it requires a style of learning that didn’t exist prior to computers – which is yet another reason for a museum that saves the lessons from that transition.

I’m not a computer expert, nor am I a neophyte. I’m a geezer geek, someone who was an expert but whose specific expertise faded in importance with each software and hardware cycle. Want someone to program Fortran IV from punch cards? How about a bit of assembly code on a Harris via tape? Okay, yes, I use real computers with monitors, keyboards, and disk drives; but, soon they may give way to virtual displays, virtual keyboards, and cloud memory. The only way any of us maintain our computer skills is from usage and a reliance on Help menus, user forums, and a lot of trial and error. Those learning skills are accepted, usually grudgingly, as part of our normal routine.

Decades ago, the normal routine for learning a skill was: listen to lectures, do homework, maybe experiment in a lab, take tests, and wait for an authority figure to decree a verdict on at least pass or fail. On-the-job training existed for the hand crafts, but the rest was book learned first and exercised later. It was a model that worked for centuries. It worked because change was slow.

Computers changed all of that. In the pioneering years, computers were custom built by hand, probably by the people that would become the programmers. They had no reference books. Eventually, the computers became products that could be bought, delivered, and installed – and even had user manuals, but the programming was unique and frequently poorly documented. By the 1970’s and 1980’s stability came to hardware and software, at least enough to allow teachers to arrange classes about computers and eventually used computers for classes. But, it didn’t end there.

Now, we expect hardware to become obsolete within a few years and software upgrades to be delivered every few months. Very few take classes to manage the changes or new features. The upgrades include self-paced tours, which can’t convey all of the changes, just a few the producer wants to emphasize. We train ourselves by experimenting when our previous techniques fail. We scroll through menus hunting for remembered commands, hoping they haven’t been renamed. Calls for Help via social media may be more useful than perusing a Support web site. And the changes continue.

That self-learning describes most tasks in building a Virtual Museum. Our sites span this blog, a wiki, Facebook, Google Drive, Google+, Google Hangouts, Twitter, and the general suite of programs we use for the normal basic office functions. No conference call is immune from at least one digression as someone tries to find a file or a function or an operation. (My camera’s little green “On” light continues to glow after our meeting this morning and I can’t figure out how to turn it off without rebooting.)

Our acceptance of the self-learning task may not be apparent to anyone who entered school after 1990. I am glad I witnessed the transition, if for no other reason than I can appreciate the paradigm shifting changes that faced the pioneering teachers. No one told them how this would turn out. They helped define what to teach in-person and what can be taught by computer.

When Machines Teach by Arnold Keller

Their work is the core of what we will save with the Virtual Museum. How they dealt with transition, how students accepted the new environment, and how we all live and learn differently now will finally have a home.

I’ll be blogging more about the process and progress of how the museum is being built. For now, we’re established those footholds and foundations in this blog, our wiki, and our newborn social media platform. Each has been a learning experience. Each is an opportunity for you to watch what we’re doing and for you to share your stories and contributions. Stay tuned. There’s a lot more to come.