Life Inside A Computer


If ever in my life I felt like I had stumbled into a time warp and come out on Alpha Centauri it was the day I found myself bumbling down a long, dim corridor walled on both sides by 8-foot-high banks of radio tubes. With the sting of ozone filling my nostrils, and the red glow of radio tubes warming my face in an ice-cold building, I followed the Air Force major who had lured me into the four-story, tomblike building, suddenly aware that was I not only closer than I liked to one of IBM’s hulking monsters, but I was actually walking around inside one.

I tell you, Johnny. I felt like a roach in a radio set.

The major took me into the “blue room” and when my eyes accustomed themselves to the dense blue gloom I saw a row of Air Force officers peering intently at screens. Every once in a while one of them pointed a wide-muzzled gun at a blip on a screen. 

“If the IFF hadn’t identified that plane properly,” the major told me, looking very serious, “we’d have scrambled fighters to intercept him.” Then he frowned thoughtfully and said a few words that sent chills up my spine, “You’re a bright guy, Garrett, and you’ve got a top secret clearance too, haven’t you?”

I knew just what he was thinking. I happened to know that his outfit needed a training NCO. “Yes, sir,” I said.

Then came the 25-cent guided tour that’s always reserved for a prospective victim. They dragged me all over the place with a big finale in a control room with enough switches to turn on every light bulb in America. “Look, Garrett!” a chief master sergeant with far too many teeth said. “I can even make it play a tune!”

“Daisy! Daisy! Give me your answer true,” the machine droned nasally. “I’m half crazy, all for the love of you.”

When that was done he said, “And watch this!”

Ratta-tatta-tatta. Ratta-tatta-tatta. Ratta-tatta-tatta. An unhappy looking device machine-gunned paper that crept out of its metallic belly. Then it coughed and the chief deftly caught six feet of lined paper with an image of Santa Claus drawn with Xs.

I praised one and all, including the machine, went back to my Training Command detachment, picked up the phone, got hold of a buddy at ATC headquarters, and talked my way into an assignment in England.

Civilian life was no problem. I had only one run-in with IBM, and that was during my master’s degree program. They stuck my whole class in a dimmed room filled with terminals, hooked us up to a mainframe in Houston, and had each of us input data so the machine could show us something of vast importance — our biorhythms.

Years later, teaching science at Carson Junior High in Mesa, I traded the 45-mile daily drive from Phoenix with a friend. We each taught summer school my first year, again trading drives. It was great. I taught a nice class of kids each morning and only had to drive every other week. 

The next year, though, my buddy had two classes to teach, a secondary class in the morning and an adult class in the afternoon. I would have to make the drive each way every day. On top of that, I needed to take a three-semester hour course to get a $1,800 raise and I could not find one I could attend.

“Take my three-hour programming course,” my buddy told me. Just shows you what a guy will do for a buck. I did it. 

On the very first day I discovered that telling a computer what to do is not related to math; it’s a language skill. In six months I was writing programs. In a year I owned four computers and was the computer teacher at our school.

Tell me something, Johnny? How come nobody ever told me you could make the dumb things do what you want them to do? Once you know that, you’re the master and the machine is your slave.

You know what? Without a human to tell it what to do, a computer is just a big dumb box. We’re all smarter than that.

Well, now, there are some politicians ...


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