Monday, November 30, 2009

How I learned to live with a Computer.....

There are two distinctions that I have that I think about from time to time. First, I can remember traveling across Snoqualmie Pass (major mountain pass between Seattle and the east side of the State of Washington) BEFORE there were freeways. It was a two lane road quite often blocked in the winter by either rocks and boulders or just heaps of snow. Hours of long waits while they cleared the road. In todays world it is rare to be held up going over the pass.

But my second distinction that I claim is that I taught before there were computers. In fact for much of my younger life, there were no computers. Zip. Nada. Zero. With the advent of the resistor, all sorts of change was initiated in the world. What a wonderful invention--the resistor.

But early computers did not use resistors....they used tubes. The United States began to invent and build computers during World War II primarily to figure out the trajectory of shells shot from large guns. Battle ships needed to know how high to raise their turrets in order to lob the shells on the enemy. These early computers were large affairs which you could walk through--indeed you had to from time to time to replace tubes that were burnt out.

One of my favorite early computer gurus was Commander Grace Hopper, USN. She started her professional career at a small New England university as a Mathematics professor. That in itself was interesting since that was at a time when women were not considered very good at mathematics. But the Navy "drafted her out of the college" and she took over the computer to do trajectory calculations.

Here is a story that I really treasure. After WWII, Commander Hopper felt that she should be promoted to being an Admiral. Other male Commanders were being promoted--why not her? It turns out that the Navy had a policy that no female would be promoted to the rank of Admiral. So they told her "No." Fine with her, she would turn in her commission and resign from the Navy. As she told the story to me, she went to her home in Washington, DC to do some needed reading and some house cleaning. She figured it would take the Navy about three days to see the error of their ways. She was right. It took an emergency act of congress to promote Commander Hopper to Admiral and the reason? No one knew how to operate the computer. And that is the story of how Grace Hopper became the first woman admiral in the U.S. Navy.

But this was the beginning of the era of large computers--ones that took up entire floors of buildings and mandated air conditioning. About this time IBM executives said that they were pretty positive that only seven of these large computers would ever be needed in the world. They have long regretted that statement. Another aside: Did you know that in 1939 World's Fair in New York, IBM passed out letter openers that said IBM would cut your expenses and that they were the purveyors of "...meat choppers and slicers, coffee mills and electric tabulating and accounting machines." Interesting, eh?

It was shortly after the infamous seven computer statement that large universities started to acquire these large computers for scientific research. Indeed, my own Western Washington University built a multi story brick building just to house an IBM 360-40 computer. This would be in the early to mid 1960s.

It was at that time I was a doctoral student working in the new area of Instructional Technology. The name had not solidified as yet--College of Education with a Technology department. Heaven forbid. I think it was then called Instructional Media. We had lots of technology like 16 mm projectors, cameras, opaque projectors, and the ubiquitous Kodak carousel slide projector. We also had a variety of tape recorders. Did I mention the overhead projector? Of course if you had all these projectors, recorders and such you had to be able to teach how to make the media that went along. That was our job in the department--to teach undergraduate education students how to use all these equipment. I can remember more then one student muttering as they left the learning laboratory of all this stuff, that once they passed the test they would never touch this equipment again. I suspect some teachers-to-be never did.

Remember my three objectives? Cognition or knowledge of technology was one area. Another objective was Psychomotor or muscular skills such as threading a 16 mm film projector. Our students were good at these was the affective domain that we did not do a good job at; getting students to see the value of using this technology in the classroom.

One day my department head and major professor told me he was going to put a computer in my office and would I study it and give a report to the department at a future date. A computer in my office? I had the smallest office of anybody on that floor--no one was going to put a computer in THAT office. It only had one wall outlet and I was using half of that one for my desk lamp.

But a few days later a large teletype machines was set up next to my desk. Teletype machines were used mostly in news rooms by the AP (Associated Press) to transmit news from around the country. You can see one once in awhile in an old movie either in a newsroom or a police station. Noisy critters--they chatter away banging out print on a roll of cheap paper. A day or so after this was established in my office someone from the local IBM office joined me for a lesson on how this worked. He showed me how to load paper, how to turn the machine on and off and then told me it was connected by phone to an IBM 360-40 computer in Palo Alto. Then he said "have fun" and left. Oh yes, he also said it was programmed in BASIC. I had no idea what BASIC was but some phone calls and I had a general drift of what I should do. I really think that the IBM guy had no idea was this teletype was for. He could turn it on and off--that was it.

After turning it on, I would manually type: MENU and it would clatter to life and type out of fairly long menu of programs it could do. I don't remember most of them and if memory serves me correctly I think many were Mathematics programs designed for engineering students. But one program caught my eye--it was called, "Statpak." It would do statistics. I was taking an advanced stat course--could I use this program to do some of my homework assignments? Ah, let's give it a try.

By now I had a little understanding of BASIC . It only had at that time twelve commands. I could handle that. So I typed, "Load Statpak" and the teletype machine started clattering right away. It was a noisy machine--very much so. The first thing it would print was, "Are you an Expert?" There was no welcoming paragraph like welcome to IBM, or "we're glad you are using our machine." Just, "Are you an Expert?" I typed, "NO." and then it came to life. Explaining this was a computer statistical program able to do the following things and then it printed up another menu of statistical procedures. Holy Sh*t! I couldn't believe it. I happened to have a Chi Square problem to do and decided to try it out. Load Chi Square. And then it typed for awhile telling me what Chi Square could do, how to interpret the data and how to enter the data. I did that and within seconds the teletype was printing out my Chi Square program with my numbers in the correct spaces and at the end it even suggested that this conclusion was not reliable and that I ought to do some other calculation. "Would I like the program to do that?"

I sat back stunned. What I expected me to do in several hours with an electric Marchant calculator was completed in about three seconds. I didn't even have to go to my textbook to figure out what those numbers meant. To say I was overwhelmed would probably be the understatement of the year. In the following weeks each time I received a statistical project in class to formulate, I would amble back to my office, then excitedly type in the new data and say "RUN." It would and it did--the work for me. I probably was the only one in that stat class that was not stressed.

But now I had an ethical problem. Do I tell my statistical professor about the device (computer) I was using? Do I tell the rest of my colleagues in class? There was no question in my mind that this computer in Palo Alto would change the way we teach statistics. As it turned out, I decided to tell the professor. He was new (some of you will remember the overhead transparencies that I did for his class--snow job) and I though I should let him know what I was doing. He made it easy on me by brushing me off so to speak, saying, "I don't care how you do it as long as you complete the assignment." I really don't think I conveyed to him what the computer was doing. I don't think his concept of a computer had even been composed in his brain.

But the computer was my friend--dearly beloved. I'd pat it as I came to my desk in the morning. And yes, I did finally give a report to the rest of the department on what it could do. We spent several departmental meetings discussing what the future would hold with computers and I am afraid we were all off of the mark. Predicting the future is difficult at best and making decisions today is probably the best way to ascertain the future. In this case I have to give all the credit to my department head for getting us into the computer life early on.

So thanks, Dr. T. for providing me with my own IBM main frame computer to play with. What a way to learn. And thanks to all those teachers who help their students learn.

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