Computers and Machines

Computers are ideal machines for printing and spewing out paychecks, for example. But the computing part only consists of hours times wages minus FICA which hardly requires anything more complicated than a pocket calculator.

But computers are big, fast, and easily outrun a dozen accountants. So they are popular, and IBM is rich.


While I was on staff in the Chemistry Department at Georga Tech I tried to gain access to the university's computer. The machine was in its own building, surrounded by air conditioning to keep it from overheating, then surrounded by technicians to keep it running, then surrounded by bureaucrats to keep riff-raff like me from getting anywhere near it.

But I prevailed. A friend agreed to walk me through the process as I created my first computer program. We picked a simple equation to solve as an example.

A punch-card operator translated my program to a series of IBM punch cards, forming my "deck." After checking each card against my program, we added my deck to the line and waited. Finally, my program ran, and we eagerly read the computer output:

     "Error 227.6"


     "No problem, you just had something-comma in your program instead of comma-something. We'll cut a new deck and try again."

     Time passes ... "Error 3389"

     Time passes... "Error 8822.4"

     Time passes... Fuggit!

I made an important discovery that day: computers are not fun even though we had faithfully followed the two essential rules.

Rule number one.

Remove the rubber band around your deck before placing it in the computer sorter. Else it becomes a computer shredder. If so, they give your deck back in a paper bag and tell you to go away.

Rule number two.

Don't have program loops, where the computer endlessly repeats the same instruction. This has the same effect as a fully loaded semi at full throttle on glare ice. Again you are escorted to the door.

What I was experiencing was industrial computing. The fun part is using a personal computer as a creative tool or instrument.

Quite a few years passed before I was to return to the business machines people and begin an entirely different relationship with the company. In the meantime, my typing software had become the leading educational product in the personal computing market.

IBM was preparing to introduce its personal computer and realized success would depend on executives and small businesses, many of whom could not type. IBM hoped they would prevail in the personal computing market, but they needed to solve the typing problem first.

My already successful Microsoft Typing Tutor ran perfectly well on the new IBM PC. All we had to do to create a viable product was to change the name and packaging, and the IBM Typing Tutor was born. I asked for recognition as the author of the program.

At first, IBM refused, treating the software as just another component, like the keyboard or the disk drive. The precedent Bill Gates had started by recognizing program authors was upheld. I was recognized as the author and retained all design rights to the product.

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