MY SON IS IN TYPEWRITERS

Image courtesy of Computer History Museum

It was hard to explain to my parents that I had decided to drop out of Medical School. It was even harder to explain to them that I had decided to do something with “Computers”. This was 1965 and Computers were large lumbering machines that would take up a whole floor of air-conditioned splendour, and were little known outside universities and the largest of companies. Whilst I was studying, I had managed to get a job as a computer operator at a major Australian insurance company, mainly for the 3 months of the University Holidays. It was an exciting time …. I worked an 8 hour shift, studied an 8 hour shift, and slept an 8 hour shift. The job mainly entailed occasionally changing magnetic tapes and feeding thousands of punched cards into a reader, but despite this lo-tech role I felt like a true pioneer.

I decided that the best way to explain what I was doing was to take my parents in to see this marvel (an IBM 1410 with 4 magnetic tape drives and an early disk drive about 2 metres high with large platters and a single read-write head that shuttled its way in all directions. It had such violent movements that it had to be bolted to the floor in case the gyrations moved it out of the holy sanctum and down the corridor to the escape stair-well.

The visit seemed to go well. There were lots of flashing lights, and a team of “High-Priests” running around in white coats doing incredibly important things, and I talked to my parents about how I was starting out at the earliest stage in a career that would be part of changing the world as we knew it. I even spent some time with them at a teletype where I showed them the power of this “beast” by doing increasingly more complex arithmetic. After a cup of tea, probably the highlight of their visit (and possibly the only part that they actually understood) they left for home, leaving me feeling that, at the least, they now understood how important I was going to be in this new world.

Some weeks later I was in my bedroom, which was just off the living room at home, when I overheard my mother chatting with a friend.

“So what is Leslie doing these days?” she asked.
“Well he has a whole new career in Typewriters” replied my Mother who had obviously only remembered the teletype.
“What does he do with them… sell them or repair them?” asked the friend.
“This is not your normal typewriter” replied my mother. “This typewriter takes up a giant room, and if you say to the typewriter what is 1+1, it immediately says 2”.
My mother’s friend thought about this revelation for a while and then said “I don’t actually need a typewriter to tell me that 1+1 is 2”.

I never did manage to explain to my parents what it was that I actually did, and after more than 40 years in the IT Industry, when the power of the Blackberry in my pocket is greater than all the technology that was in that entire room that day in 1965, I doubt that I could do it any more easily today than I could have 45 years ago. I have however over my entire career, kept in the back of my mind that whatever the latest “typewriter” I was worshipping at the time, my mother and her friends could actually live valid and worthwhile lives without ever needing a machine to tell them that 1+1 = 2.

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4 Responses to MY SON IS IN TYPEWRITERS

  1. Dominic Wakefield says:

    Brilliant – love this one and I am sure that all us ‘old farts’ have a similar story about the days of the early computers. I certainly do have those memories but they mostly expose my lack of knowledge – then and now – so I don’t talk about them!

  2. Maureen O'Shea says:

    Les, that is hilarious!! Oh how funny!

    Reminds me of my job immediately prior to DEC when I was doing data entry to run stats on some auditing research (via teleprinter on a PDP11) and my boss (a university professor who knew no more about computers than your parents) told everyone I was a computer “operator”, which used to amuse me no end, given that the operator was at the other end of the building completing entirely different tasks to my own.

    If I ever have the opportunity to introduce you to friends I’ll tell them you used to be in typewriters!
    best, Maureen

    • leshayman says:

      Hey, what’s in a title these days ….

      The few lift operators that are still around are called “Vertical Displacement Engineers”, and in 1965 I am not sure that “Computer Operator” had more cachet than “Typewriter salesman”. Thank goodness that I was quickly elevated to the lofty status of “Computer Programmer” which, at least to most people, was a totally unknown title and role.
      Les

  3. nickie hamilton says:

    I remember when Sam and I slept behind the monster when Mummy worked in Brisbane. No wonder I can sleep through a train wreck!! and no further wonder I can’t do without a quilt!!

    Nickie

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