THE UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON ALUMNI MAGAZINE
Seeing the Potential
In the mid-1970s I spend six months as the tape librarian at a computer center in a college town in the Midwest. I had no interest in computers, but I needed a job before I started graduate school. To me, computers were mammoth, mysterious machines that eventually were going to replace humans. Working at that computer center only confirmed my prejudices. The mainframe (a UNIVAC 1110) was as temperamental as a mother-in-law on a 500-mile car trip. "The 1110 crashed again," some computer type would scream, and I would have to dig out tapes from the library to help restore the lost memory.
The mystery was only enhanced by the strange language everyone spoke. Not only were there odd uses of everyday words like "bugs," "boot" and "hardware"the computer operators used foreign languages such as COBOL, FORTRAN, EXEC 8 or BASIC to communicate with their machines.
I did see my first hard drives and video computer terminals while I worked there. Most of us had to use punch cards to interact with the 1110, but the mainframe operators had a little green TV screen and a keyboard at their command. Even a disinterested worker bee like myself thought that was "pretty cool."
While everyone around me took it all seriously ("Have you heard about FANG?" one gushed at me), I felt like a foreigner who just wanted to go back home. Starting journalism school that winter was my "escape key."