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Learning how to program on the IBM 650 (Part 1)

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How did I get into computers? I had a… I had a scholarship to Case, but it… it was… it didn't cover my whole tuition; it just covered part of the tuition, and so I took a part time job. My parents had no money, and I took a part time job working in the Statistics Department. Taking… and one of the things that I would do, would… would run a card sorter, an IBM card sorting machine, which was kind of a fascinating thing. You put the… take these punched cards, and you put them in the thing, and it distributes into different pockets, and then you pull them out in certain orders, and afterwards look at the… at the results, you draw graphs. And so I was drawing graphs for the Statistics Department.

I guess I should say something more about graphs, while it… while it flashes into my mind. In high school, I had taken time, one summer, working with… I was fascinated by this idea of graphs in mathematics, where you… where you have, you know, as a function… as variable x varies, you have y as a function of x, then you draw the position that's y units above the axis, and it… and it makes a picture. And since I like visual things, I… I was fascinated by the idea that I… I might be able to take… start with the picture that I wanted to do, and find the equation that would… when you graph the equation, you would get that picture. And so I played around with… with graphs. I spent one summer… one summer in high school. I had drawn hundreds and hundreds of graphs, where I would take… where I would take an equation like the square root of x3 + 5x, minus something else, and I would… and I would, and then I would draw the graph. And I… and I had… and my dad had a little calculating machine, which was a… where I… which could calculate square roots. It actually would print it out. He was an accountant, so it would also print it out on tape, that I… that I could run this machine and it would do the multiplying and stuff for me, and then I would have this function of… and then I would say… instead of x3 + 5x, I would maybe change it to x3 + 4x, and draw that graph too, until I would learn how different graphs looked. I didn't have calculus, I didn't know calculus in high school, but I did know how to… how to graph an equation, and that fascinated me, so I had… I had played… I worked so hard on this, in fact, on this orange graph paper that I had, I started to get headaches, it was not easy on the eyes, and I… I think I… I started wearing heavier glasses at this time, because I worked on the graphs.  But this had given me some experience with… with graphs, and I liked… I liked that kind of mathematics, even when I was in high school.
 
So now, I got my first, I got my first part time job at Case; I'm supposed to draw graphs for the statisticians. So that's fine, and downstairs from the sorting machine was a new computer, an electronic brain, as they called it, in those days, and it was the… it was the first… it was called the IBM Model 650. This was the, historically, the first computer that was mass produced; there… there were more than 1000 of them. Well before that, computers had… no computer had been made more than a few dozen at… at the most. And… and this computer arrived, about midway in my freshman year at Case, and it was sitting in a… in a room downstairs from the statistics laboratory, where I was working. So I could peer through the window at this computer, and with its flashing lights it looked rather exciting. And one day a guy saw me looking through the window, and… and he said… he invited me to come in, and he explained to me how the machine worked.  And so it was quite fascinating to me that… that it could… could do things much different than this… this mechanical calculating machine that my dad had shown me. So I… I took a look at… at the operating manuals for the machine, and pretty soon I… he allowed me to… to punch cards that would go into that machine, as what… you know, I knew how to run a sorter, but now I could actually punch a card that would… that would make a computer program. And I… and so I began to... to learn something about the inside of this machine.

Born in 1938, American computing pioneer Donald Knuth is known for his greatly influential multi-volume work, 'The Art of Computer Programming', his novel 'Surreal Numbers', his invention of TeX and METAFONT electronic publishing tools and his quirky sense of humor.

Listeners: Dikran Karagueuzian

Trained as a journalist, Dikran Karagueuzian is the director of CSLI Publications, publisher of seven books by Donald Knuth. He has known Knuth since the late seventies when Knuth was developing TeX and Metafont, the typesetting and type designing computer programs, respectively.

Tags: Case Institute of Technology, IBM, IBM Model 650

Duration: 5 minutes, 14 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2006

Date story went live: 24 January 2008