Part 1 of my telling of Jerry Weinberg’s story was First Interactions: The Beginning of an Influential Career, where he had started his college studies in September of 1950. But let’s go back to the summer of 1950, when Jerry had no plans to attend college at all.
Jerry had graduated from Omaha Central High School, and he felt disgusted with school. He found many of the subjects in high school to be trivial, so he had skipped most of those classes and still got good grades. He did enjoy a few classes, however, especially auto shop. He told me “I just loved cars, driving them, working on them, even washing them—plus doing body work and painting in my father’s shop. I never really had any other career idea than working with cars in some way.” Though he was fascinated with computers, there were so few jobs available to work with them at the time (and none that he was aware of) that he didn’t even consider a computer job a viable option.
After graduating from Central High, Jerry applied for a job as a mechanic. The owner of the garage offering the mechanic job, however, wouldn’t let him start until after the next school term started. He suspected that Jerry was just looking for a summer job, but he really wanted a long-term employee. Jerry decided to wait out the summer so he could get that job, and in the interim, he worked as a summer camp counselor for a camp sponsored by the Omaha Jewish Community Center. At the camp, another counselor encouraged him to go to college so he could meet young women. Jerry had a keen interest in women, and hadn’t before considered this particular benefit of the college experience. So he determined to go to college instead of taking the mechanic job.
A few days before classes started in the Fall, Jerry showed up at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln to register. The counselors were not happy that he hadn’t registered in advance, but because he had graduated from a Nebraska high school, state law required that they admit him. The counselors were even less happy to find that they had to give him a scholarship because he had graduated in the top ten percent of his class. So he began his studies.
While at the university, Jerry got a job in the Physics department—the job title was “computer.” It turned out that Jerry would be a computer years before he programmed one. He used a Friden electromechanical calculator along with pencil, paper, and eraser to invert 10 by 10 matrices for faculty members. Just as a computing device doesn’t know the ultimate reason it does its work, he doesn’t recall ever knowing why they wanted the inverted matrices. Jerry told me about what he learned from this job:
I recall that it took me upwards of an hour to invert a 10 × 10, and of course the inversion time tends to grow as the square of the size. Going to 11 × 11 would have raised my computation time by over 20%, and increased my chance of making an error somewhere along the line. That was the first time I became aware of non-linear computation times and also the significance of error. It was a good start to my career: my understanding of these factors, which many programmers today don’t seem to appreciate.
He also offered his services as a tutor for any subject, primarily for failing athletes, and he worked grading English papers. He was a Physics teaching assistant and was told he was the first undergrad to get that job, at the ripe old age of 17.
Jerry was out sick with Crohn’s disease for most of his second year. He went home to Omaha to recover. While there, he took a few courses at the University of Omaha (now known as the University of Nebraska Omaha), including Mathematics of Finance. He thought that computers would be used in course, but he had no such luck. There was most likely no computer on campus at all.
When the course progressed to more advanced subjects like probability, statistics, and risk, Jerry found out he knew more about them that the professor did, so helped teach the class. This impressed the instructor, who was an associate of Warren Buffet. The professor recommended that Jerry meet Buffet because he was seeking bright math students to work with. Jerry wasn’t able to arrange a meeting, however, because he had to return to the hospital for surgery.
During his stay in Omaha, Jerry did manage to meet with the chief actuary at Mutual of Omaha. Jerry was impressed with the luxurious office, but not impressed with the actuary job itself.
He returned to the University of Nebraska and completed his Bachelor of Science degree, magna cum laude and with honors, for four majors: Physics, Math, Philosophy, and English. He then moved to California to study Physics at the University of California, Berkeley. A year later, he had passed his comprehensive exam, finished his thesis experiments, and was on track to earn a PhD in record time. He had a few months of work left to finish writing up his thesis when he found the opportunity he had been looking for since he was 11 years old.
Jerry was out of cash, and supporting a wife and a child, with the second child on the way. He read an ad in Physics Today from IBM looking for applied science representatives. It didn’t say that the job involved computers, though there was a picture of a roomful of data processing equipment. It’s not the first computer-related job ad that Physics Today ran, but it was the first that he noticed. He had no doubt that this was what he wanted to pursue. He wrote to IBM to apply, interviewed in Oakland, and was offered a job on the spot. He also interviewed at Boeing and got an offer for more than twice what IBM offered, but the job did not involve computers.
Accepting either job would mean not finishing his PhD. Jerry says “The degrees were irrelevant to me, but came along as a side effect of my hanging around. My advisor actually cried when I told him I was leaving.” He received a Master’s degree in Physics from UC Berkeley as a consolation prize. Jerry was hired for his dream job as an applied science representative at IBM on June 1, 1956.
I’m sure that Jerry would have found a way to play with computers before long, even if it weren’t for that wary garage owner, the fortuitous advice from his fellow camp counselor, or the worry about paying his family’s expenses. But I was fascinated to see the path that he took to realize his dream.
An excerpt from the ad in Physics Today, which ran in the January 1956 and March 1956 issues. You can see a full scan of a very similar ad from the February 1956 issue of Scientific American.
Can you help to provide additional details from your own knowledge of this era or from your interactions with Jerry? Please comment here or contact me on Twitter.
The next installment in this series is Jerry’s Story: Jerry, the Real Programmer.