The Day the World Changed

I’ll never forget that rainy fall evening.

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In retrospect, taking a beautiful woman to a study session for date night was not my most romantic idea. It was, however, a decision that changed my world.

It was a rainy fall evening in the 70s, and Betsy sat at the professor’s desk of an empty classroom doing whatever it is that history majors do. I was seated at a desk about to write my first program.

Betsy and I were down the hall from the keypunch room on the ground floor of the University of Georgia’s Boyd Graduate Studies Building. Just off the building’s brick lobby were two doors. One was a mystery and required a keycard to enter. The other led to a bright room lined with IBM 029 keypunch machines.

I’d peeked into the keypunch room and watched all the students clacking away at the desk-sized machines loaded with decks of cards. I’d not yet sat in front of one, though.

I understood the concept well enough. First, scratch a program out on paper. Then use the massive machines to punch tiny, rectangular holes in dollar-sized cards. Bind the deck with one of the many rubber bands that seemed to be breeding and multiplying all around the room, and deposit the bundle at the window in the corner.

Through the window, I could see more sliding windows that seemed to be connected to the mysterious locked room next door. I could hear a rush of air. Unlike on television, computers were loud in the 70s. It was clear that in that adjacent room was the computer used to run the programs.

After the program ran some kind of mystical technological ceremony, or so I assumed, the deck would reappear in the keypunch room along with a thin stack of folded paper with green bars and sprocket holes dotting the edges.

The paper was an inconvenient 14 inches wide that fit 132 characters on each line. Everything was uppercase and had a textured look, almost like fabric. Each letter and number danced on the line, not quite even. It was a subtle effect that melted away as you focused more on what was written rather than how it appeared on the page.

But I didn’t know about the wobbly text yet because I’d only looked into the room. Right now, I was at a desk in an empty classroom contemplating the first assignment for my Intro to Statistics class: write a program that would continue to add a sequence of five-digit numbers until the total was 99999. Printing that total was kind of the “Hello, world!” of its day.

I scribbled down a half-dozen lines of FORTRAN and headed to the keypunch room. A few machines were open, so I sat down at one for the first time.

It was obvious where to put the blank cards. There was a hopper up top, and a receiving hopper on the left would catch them once punched. I pushed back a plate and dropped my cards in.

I knew the machine should start a noisy whirr at this point. I pressed a key. Nothing happened. I examined the six toggle switches along the top of the keyboard. They looked promising. All but one said “on,” and that one was labeled “done,” tantalizingly close to “on.” Unfortunately, none of them turned on the machine.

Not wanting to look ignorant at an institute of higher learning might seem incongruous, but I’m pretty sure it’s a common phenomenon. As a prideful 20-year-old, I was no different. I didn’t know how to turn the blasted machine on.

I acted like I was finished with my task and grabbed the card deck from the hopper. I gathered my papers and moved toward the window in the corner, buying time by examining a plaque that listed the names of each year’s winner of the department’s annual programming contest.

I was waiting for an experienced student to arrive, a member of the guild who could divine the mystery of keypunching, a person who’d been to the initiation ritual and learned the secret handshake used to turn the ding-dang machines on. I bet they met at midnight in the dead of winter by the riverside to dispense this most essential of all keypunch knowledge, and I’d not been invited.

Soon, a tall woman wearing bell bottoms glided into the room and settled gracefully at the machine I’d abandoned. She was so efficient that I almost missed it: after she deposited fresh cards into the hopper, she slid her hand under the white Formica table that jutted out from the machine and flipped a big switch.

Suddenly, all the bright red switches jumped out at me. They were under every single machine table top! How could I not notice something so glaringly obvious? Later, the same switches would be used on the sides of the IBM PC, giving its name to the acronym “BRS reset”: Big Red Switch.

I happily sat down at another machine, as if I’d led the secret ceremony of the keypunch myself.

My program was short. It involved a job card that said something like “JOB,STA221,1127,” a cryptic card labeled FTN, and finally my FORTRAN cards.

I long ago lost the program, but I do remember saving the listing for quite a while. I have an idea of what it looked like. Control cards and all, it was something like:

10 	READ(5, 100) NUMBER 
100 	FORMAT(5I) 
	IF (NUMBER .EQ. 99999) STOP 
	GOTO 10 

I had to type the first lines in just this format. The first five columns were label numbers. Anything in column six meant the line was a continuation of the previous line. The FORTRAN statement started on column seven. We justified each statement to the left, unlike today. Now indents show the code’s control flow.

Once I finished punching and checking my small deck, I added it to the cards already in a box on the table outside the window and headed back down the hall to Betsy. She was engrossed in a text about Richard Russell, Jr., the longtime US senator from Georgia who began serving in 1933 and died in office almost forty years later in 1971. Betsy would eventually write her senior thesis on Russell.

I settled back at my desk to work on calculus homework. After some time passed, I checked the keypunch room and discovered the staff had done a run of jobs. My listings and card deck were on the table with a half dozen others.

I slowly walked back to the classroom, looking at the green bar and trying to figure out what “SYNTAX ERROR STMT 3” meant. Before I made it back to Betsy, I saw it. I typed “,EQ.” not “.EQ.” I headed back to the keypunch, and a few moments later the corrected deck was back in the box waiting for the next job run.

After a few max/min problems, I went back to pick up my listings and deck again. This time as I walked back to the empty classroom where Betsy sat, I stared at the numbers. They displayed the total I’d calculated and expected to see. My program worked.

As if by magic, my scribbles on a piece of paper had become a working, operating thing. It was as if I’d drawn a machine on my drafting table and then just lifted fully functional parts off the paper. A drawing of gears transformed into real metal, shiny and gleaming, without the hard, tedious work of turning a chunk of metal into a high precision finished part.

I’d sketched out plans and parts for things I wanted to make all my life: gas engines, go-karts, airlines, anything that popped in my head. I studied every mechanical drawing I could find in my grammar-school library. And in middle school. And again in high school, where I was able to enroll in my first drafting class. A friend and I teamed up and produced double what any other pair accomplished that year. I loved the mental exercise and resulting joy of creating on paper.

As I looked at my deck of punched cards, the feeling I had was different than the drafting I’d done before. That design effort, albeit not graphical, was followed by the design’s genuine operation. Granted that operation was somewhat remote, accomplished secretly behind a locked door by some unknown work-study student. But it operated nonetheless.

Later, I was able to interact with my designs directly using a simple line to compile and a simple line to run. But even though running the job was delayed, and the execution was remote, programming became a magical and immediately habit-forming thing.

After a few years of studying in empty classrooms with Betsy, I found myself in charge of running the mysterious room. It was there I became close friends with my first machine, the Cyber 18/20. If you visit my offices at SouthSuite, on the wall as you walk in, there is an 18“ by 12” framed board with about 100 integrated circuits. It’s one of the processor boards from my old pal. When the department decommissioned it years after I had left, they were kind enough to send me one of several dozen modules.

I will never forget the Cyber 18/20, nor I imagine will any others who learned from her. And I’ll never forget that rainy fall evening in the 70s when, for me at least, the world changed.

About the Author

Brantley CoileInventor, coder, and entrepreneur, Brantley Coile invented Stateful packet inspection, network address translation, and Web load balancing used in the Cisco LocalDirector. He went on to create the Coraid line of storage appliances, a product he continues to improve today.

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