Memories of a Programmer – Helen Young
I wrote my first computer program in December 1963, when I was a student at Royal Holloway College, University of London. I was studying Mathematics, and we were invited to go on a three day course in Central London, organised by the University. We had barely heard the word ‘Computer’ in those days, and had little idea what to expect. Three of us went along to listen to someone trying to explain what a program was, and then tried to write a simple program. These were to be run, I seem to remember, on the Mercury computer at the University. The language was I think Mercury autocode, and the programs were on punched tape. Needless to say we made mistakes, and found out the next day (the programs were taken away to be run overnight) that they didn’t work!
By the time I was in my final term at the College I had no idea what I wanted to do, apart from not wanting to be a school teacher. I had an interview with the University careers advisor, who suggested one or two options for mathematicians, one of which was the Scientific Civil Service and another was this new industry of Computer Programming. I remember his comments to the effect that as a woman I would have difficulty getting promotion to a high level at the SCS, but there was little or no discrimination against women in the computer industry. I applied for both, and had an interview with the SCS and then a day of aptitude tests and interviews with ICT (International Computers and Tabulators). The difference was striking – the SCS was very formal, while all the people I met during my day with ICT couldn’t have been more friendly. I was offered a place with both organisations, but chose to go to work for ICT.
I started as a trainee programmer in August 1965. The company ran training courses at Cookham in Berkshire and also at Bradenham in Buckinghamshire. There were 20 to 30 on our course at Cookham, which lasted for 4 weeks. We all lived in, with full board and lodging paid for – accommodation and classes were in a large mansion and its annexes in the grounds. The Company was very generous to us, we got paid at the end of the 4 weeks, and even got our fares home at weekends.
As far as I can remember, most of the people on the course had a degree, but in a variety of subjects. We learned the PLAN programming language for the ICT 1900 Series of computers. We learned from a series of programmed learning ‘little grey books’, one each week. We had tests at the end of each week, but I don’t remember anyone failing. The books and the teachers were very good. They trained a large number of programmers in a short time, as a fresh course started immediately one finished. One aspect that I remember clearly was being told a number of times that as programmers we did not need to know anything about the hardware – we should leave that to the engineers (I still do!).
The next three weeks were spent in the company’s offices at Garratt Lane, Wandsworth, learning a little about the practical side of running programs. The company’s main competitor at the time was IBM, and I remember one of out tutors always referring to them as ‘the typewriter people’. At the end of the three weeks we were told which department we were being sent to – all of these were in the offices at Putney, on the north side of the river. I was to be in Scientific Compilers, and my first job (with another girl) was to write an Assembler and Interpreter for the City & Guilds mnemonic code. This took us about 6 months.
At the time I started working in Putney, I heard of a part-time course at Birkbeck College, London University, for a Diploma in Computer Science. I applied and was accepted onto the course, which was soon upgraded to an MSc. It took place on one evening a week in the first year, then two per week in the second year. The course covered various topics in computing and numerical methods, and we learned Algol 60 which was to be of use to me in the future. Algol 60 was a very logical language, defined in a small booklet – ‘The Revised Report on Algol 60’ – which included everything except the Input/Output commands which were machine dependant. After the lectures we usually spent some time at the university’s computer centre which was situated in Gordon Square - the programs we wrote were run on the Atlas computer.
Programming at ICL
The company soon changed its name to ICL. The computers that we used were situated in the building across the road. Each one consisted of several grey cabinets, with a paper tape reader and line printer, some had magnetic tape machines as well. The smallest was the 1901 with 4K of memory, I think the largest was the 1905 with 32K. We had to punch our programs onto paper tape (8-track, even parity) – it was always a good idea to leave an inch or so of blank tape between each line of the program so that alterations or additions could be spliced in afterwards! The programs were sent across the road, then would appear later with a line printer listing showing any results and/or error messages.
The second project that I worked on was called ‘Mini FORTRAN’ – to enable FORTRAN programs to be run on the 4K 1901 computers that had been installed in Technical Colleges at the time. Three of us worked on the project. In order for it to fit in the machine, the compiler consisted of about 30 overlays, so the code got shunted around the memory many times – it must have taken ages! There was another group working on ‘Mini Algol’ at the same time.
In 1967 the company decided to re-locate to Reading, with my section going to Bracknell. I wanted to stay in London, so found another job at Chelsea College, situated just off the Kings Road. It was a former College of Advanced Technology, which had become one of the smaller colleges of London University. It later merged with St Georges Medical School. They had an Elliott 803, and then a 503, on both of which we ran Algol 60 programs from paper tape. Later Algol 68 came along - much more complex than Algol 60.
As the demand grew for people to write their own programs, I got involved with teaching, firstly Algol 60. Later we got a terminal to the University of London Computer Centre in Guilford Street, which consisted of a card reader and line printer. This would run BASIC programs, so I started teaching BASIC to the students. It was a slow process. First the cards had to be punched by the student, or he would have to write up his program on coding sheets and wait for the punch card machine operator to do it. This would then be run via the terminal, and eventually the results would appear on the line printer. If there were any errors (there usually were!) the offending cards would have to be re-done and the program submitted again. It was a slow process. This was how things stood in 1976, when I left to start a family, and we moved to Nottingham.
6 years later…
I returned to work in 1982, as a part-time lecturer at Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham (later to be Nottingham Trent University). My job description was to teach ‘Introductory computing and BASIC’, exactly what I had been doing 6 years previously. The big difference was that now I taught in a room where each student sat in front of a Commodore PET. They each typed in their program, ran it, corrected any errors, and then ran it again. In no time at all it was working. They could achieve in half an hour what had taken a week to do previously. How times had changed!
I taught on several different courses over the next few years, the programming languages varied – after BASIC came Pascal (similar to Algol in its structure) and Visual BASIC . Then the demand turned to IT, and not so many years ago we had to teach the students how to use email and the Internet, as very few had home computers…. I suppose some people learn programming these days, or is it now a lost art?