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Burroughs Corporation


Working for the Burroughs Corporation
Donald Knuth Scientist
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I got to Caltech as a student… a grad student in mathematics. Again I was scared stiff that I wouldn't be able to succeed, because the students at Caltech were really, really selective they… at Caltech, the undergrads… one out of three of them was first in their high school class, and the other two out of three were very near the top. And so it was awesome, the… the people there… but they only admitted 200 students a year into Caltech as undergrads. Graduate students, we had 12 of us in our… in the math program, and they were excellent as well. It wasn't like at Case where anybody could get into the Graduate School at the time. So… so I knew I had my work cut out for me, and I… again I went back into a mode where I did more than I needed to for my classes.  But I also liked the people at Burroughs, so I took… and… and so I took a consulting job at Burroughs, working with their software group, which… which I had great admiration for. Their software group had, for another computer – the Burroughs 220 – had written one of the best pieces of software ever – an ALGOL compiler for the 220 – and I got… and I got to know the people who did that, and… and learned a lot from them. So I enjoyed joining their group, but I wasn't… but according to the rules, I couldn't have my Fellowship… I couldn't have a Fellowship from the National Science Foundation or from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, I couldn't have those… that financial support and… and not be a full time student. Having, you know, it was a no-no to also be a consultant, also be working… working outside Caltech. Wow, your education couldn't possibly be any good that way. So… so I… I renounced those Fellowships, and I did become a consultant, and I would spend time over at Burroughs several days a week, and for the next 6 or 7… 7 or 8 years, all… all the while I was down there in Pasadena.

The people at Burroughs were splendid to work with. I was in a… a group called Product Planning, which designed… had designed, or was in the… early on was… was in the process of designing a completely new kind of computer, one that would do in… in hardware what… what we had been doing in software before. That kind of computer is… is not in… it's been realized later that it doesn't really provide a real good cost benefit trade off – it's better to build cheap hardware and good… and then make software than to build expensive hardware, but at that time it was… it was, you know, it was… it was not at all clear what… what the future would say about that issue. And so we had the most complicated machine ever… ever built – the Burroughs 5000, then the 5500, 6500, that came out later. And the Product Planning group where… where I was consulting was the group in charge of specifying the machine. Another group, the Engineers, had to build the machine. It was completely different than any machine done before. And my role as a consultant was to talk to the engineers who were building it and make sure that they understood what the designers on the other floor knew. And so I got, really, to talk to almost everybody in the company, and my role was… was more of a communications role than anything else. These… these people, if they went through channels, they would have to go several levels up the hierarchy, and down again, and they… they couldn't talk to each other, but they could talk to me, and then I could talk to the people in the other group, and so I… and so I… I could provide a valuable service to Burroughs, and they… they would pay me, I think, you know… I think I was getting $5 an hour, or $7 an hour – considered high at the time – but it had no medical benefits or anything associated with it, so from their point of view they were getting… they were getting a good deal too.

And… and one of my roles was to check out the designs of the engineers, and see if there were any mistakes in them before they… before they would… before they would build the machine. They… they would first take their designs and put them through a computer program to see if they would simulate, and… and apparently work correctly, but then, after they thought it was working correctly, then they would show it to me, and I still found several hundred errors in the design that… that I was able to catch… well, you know, in very weird cases that could come up, but hadn't arisen during the simulations, so that the… the expensive corrections to the hardware weren't necessary. You know, really my role in that time… well, then communication and… and trying to find errors… trying to… you know, if… if I could look at somebody else's program, or design, and couldn't find any mistakes in it, it was a rare event, and I would feel bad. I mean finding errors was my… was the big treat for me in those… in those days, so far as my… my work in computers was concerned.

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: Caltech, Case Institute of Technology, Burroughs Corporation, National Science Foundation, Woodrow Wilson Foundation, Pasadena, Burroughs 5000, Burroughs 5500, Burroughs 6500

Duration: 5 minutes, 27 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2006

Date story went live: 24 January 2008