Sunday, April 26, 2009

How I Came To Be A Total Geek

When I was about nine years old, or approximately 1962, a young student teacher came to do her work experience at our little village primary school. She was keen to prove her idea that nine year old children could be taught how computers work. This bright, clever, eager young space cadet had a whole plan worked out to get us all to understand the new technology of the 1960s.

A few words here about the history of computers up to the early sixties:

Mechanical computing had been around since ancient people, perhaps the Babylonians, invented the abacus and it had been developed further in the early 19th Century by Charles Xavier Thomas and others. Charles Babbage designed a computing machine called a 'difference engine' in 1822 and another called an 'analytical engine' in various versions afterward. Babbage died in 1871 and in 1888 William Seward Burroughs, grandfather of William S. Burroughs the beat generation author received a patent for a simple adding machine. Subsequently, adding machines became quite popular in international business usage but the more complex 'difference engine' and 'analytical engine' remained mere tinker toys until the Second World War when the first electronic computers were constructed at Bletchley Park in England for the purpose of decrypting German codes.

After World War Two electronic computers began to be developed for business use. By 1951 a British chain of teashops called 'Lyons' Corner Houses' were using a computer called LEO 1. L.E.O.1 stood for: Lyons Electronic Office 1.

From 1956 onward the British government raised funds by selling bonds to the public and these bonds functioned as a lottery where people could win a cash prize each week if their bond number came up in a draw. The number was picked by a machine called ERNIE, which stood for Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment.

So, by the early 1960s we were used to hearing about these various electronic computing devices and we saw representations of them in movies and tv shows. They were large, bulky machines which looked a bit like filing cabinets with tape reels spinning around on the front and punched cards put in and taken out. The holes punched on the cards represented coded information.

So our young student teacher set to work to teach us nine year olds how that system of punch coded computer cards actually worked.

She used a pack of index file cards, a hole punch, a pair of scissors and some knitting needles. Each one of the children in the class had a card to write details on. We each wrote our age, name, eye colour, hair colour, etc. and then took the cards to the teacher to be hole punched along the side of the card and holes were either cut with the scissors or left uncut depending on whether information was 'YES' or 'NO' in each of the information categories. 'YES' we were over nine or 'NO' we were under nine. 'YES' we had blue eyes or 'NO' we didn't. 'YES' we had green eyes or 'NO' we didn't. And so on and so forth. Cut through the hole to make a slot in the edge of the card if it was a 'YES' or leave the hole uncut if it was a 'NO'.
Then the cards were put together in a pack and shuffled. (It felt a bit like a magician's conjuring trick being performed).

Once the pack was shuffled, the knitting needles were inserted into the holes in the cards and these knitting needles were labelled to indicated which detail of information they represented.

Our simple computing device was now ready to answer questions. When we wanted to know how many children in the class were blue-eyed and under nine years old we simply pulled out the two appropriate knitting needles and gave the cards a little shake. The cards for the blue-eyed eight year olds fell onto the desktop.

And it worked! Amazingly I found I was able to understand the basic principle of a computer though I was only nine years old and no-one would have home computing for another twenty years yet.

When I moved on to secondary school I tried to explain computers to my teachers there but they didn't get the basic principle of them and they ridiculed me for even attempting to explain it to them. They told me not to read so much science fiction. They said the world I would grow up into wouldn't have 'computers' and 'robots' and 'spaceships' and 'genetic engineering'. Oh no, the world I would grow up into would be the 'real world' of work and suffering and slaving to pay the rent. the world of fighting in a war for queen and country and raising a family. So, they informed me, I should buck my ideas up and stop thinking all this drivel about computers and robots and whatnot and start to live in the real world. They assured me that computers would never improve my job prospects. I knew they were wrong. And I knew it was only a matter of time before they'd be eating their words. So I kept on reading that sci-fi.

And that's how I came to be a total geek.

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