My friend Jerry Weinberg was present at the dawn of the age of computers. He can describe first-hand what that was like, but much of his story has never been told. I have started to collect Jerry’s stories. Here is a small sampling, which I prompted by asking him “What were your first interactions with a computing device?”
The first thing that Jerry used that we could call a computing device is a slide rule that his father, Harry, gave him when he was about 7 years old. Harry worked for more than 20 years helping to improve processes at Sears, Roebuck & Co. He bought slide rules in quantity to give to the young ladies who computed customer bills. They used slide rules to check their multiplication, for example, when multiplying price times quantity. This practice caught an enormous number of errors before the bills were sent to customers.
Jerry had a more interesting use for his slide rule, though. He was a sports fan, so he used the slide rule to compute baseball batting averages. Jerry says “It’s the easiest thing in the world. A 7-year old could do it.” He still has that slide rule.
He has a “UNIQUE” brand slide rule, made in England. Jerry describes it as small and cheap, with a table of “Trigonometric Ratios” on the back, which he didn’t understand how to use when he started using the slide rule. Later, though, he remembers using tables of sines, cosines, and logarithms, which could also be considered computing devices of a sort. He used the tables in math classes and also for experimenting with numbers for fun.
Jerry remembers his first introduction to the concept of computers being a Time magazine article. This may have been “Science: A Machine that Thinks,” in the July 23, 1945 issue, when he was 11 years old. That article discusses Dr. Vannevar Bush’s “memex,” a conceptual idea of a machine that stores facts for easy recall, which the Time article refers to as a “brain robot.”
The first book that Jerry read about computers was Giant Brains, or Machines That Think, by Edmund C. Berkeley, published in 1949. This book had a strong influence on Jerry, and he considers Berkeley one of his heroes. Much later, he met Berkeley and had long conversations with him, and he was delighted to know that Jerry had been inspired by his book.
Jerry may also have seen “Science: The Thinking Machine,” the landmark Time cover story on January 23, 1950, when he was 16 years old. The cover artist for that issue, as it was for many issues of Time, was Boris Artzybasheff, which is a detail that Jerry still recalls. The article discussed the Harvard Mark I named “Bessie” (which coincidentally is also Jerry’s mother’s name). This was an electromechanical computer that had been in operation since 1944. The article also discussed the Harvard Mark III, a hybrid electronic/electromechanical computer produced in 1950 and it went into detail comparing computers to the human brain.
Jerry was an avid reader. He explained just how avid: “I usually had breakfast alone, with cereal, so there was the box to read. I’m not saying it was my preferred reading, but just that I read everything that appeared in front of me. Like the see-food diet: I see food, I eat it. So, I see print, I read it.” He probably heard about computers from other sources during his youth. He remembers sitting at his father’s feet as his father read the newspaper and offered his commentary on a wide array of topics.
Jerry had been labeled as a “brainy” kid, and he yearned to learn more about brains, especially these “giant brains.” Early on knew he wanted his life’s work to be with computers. He didn’t yet know anyone who had ever seen a computer, let alone used one. He watched and waited for signs of a computer, but went all through high school without seeing one, with perhaps one exception. He had a summer night job in a large bakery computing recipe requirements for the following day’s orders. He used a Monroe adding machine.
When he entered college at age 16, Jerry told his counselors that he wanted to work with computers, but none of them knew anything about computers except that they had something to do with electrical engineering and physics. They decided he should major in physics because he was good at math, which they thought would be wasted in electrical engineering.
One day, Jerry saw a notice for a brief “computing course” using Monroe adding machines, given by the Monroe company. He already knew most of the material better than the instructor. He passed, earning a certificate that he’s lost somewhere along the way. It’s the only computing course he ever took, and the only “degree” in computing that he ever earned.
If you’re interested in hearing more of Jerry’s story, please let me know. He has much to tell. Note that many of the words above are his, and I decided to tell the story in third-person. Consider it a collaboration.
The next installment in this series is Jerry’s Story: An aspiring auto mechanic changes course. Also, here is the home page for Jerry’s Story.