The Accidental Pioneer
In 1890 the US Census
Bureau declared the western frontier closed and three years later
Frederick Jackson Turner wrote an essay about the impact it would
have on the United States, which now had no more frontier to settle.
But, as with doors, when one frontier closed, others opened. Without
ever intending to do so, in 1952 Glenn would find himself on a new
frontier--the world of computers. How he became a computer programmer
could be a cautionary tale to those who advise the young to settle on
a specific career goal early in life and stick with it.
Glenn was always a good
student and knew that he wanted to go to college. Stories about
scientists like the Curies were popular in the late 1930’s and
helped inspire him to dream of studying science--maybe becoming a
physicist like Pierre and Marie Curie. His goal became ever firmer as
he advanced through the high school grades. He made sure he took a
half-year of typing because he expected that would be of value in
writing college papers. Little did he know where that short typing
course would lead!
In May, 1945 when Glenn
graduated from Washington Union High School in the San Francisco Bay
Area, there was a very large obstacle between him and a college
education--called World War II. The only choices open to young male
graduates were: be drafted into the Army, or enlist in one of the
services that might offer skills training as well as learning to be a
fighting man. Glenn and three other high school buddies chose Door
Number Two and together, enlisted in the US Navy. They were told to
report for induction a few months later.
By the time Glenn was
sworn into the Navy in September, atomic bombs had been dropped on
Japanese cities, and the shooting part of World War II was over.
But, significantly for Glenn, World War II was not officially
over until many months later--which meant that his military service
would qualify him as a veteran of World War II.
During basic training in
San Diego, the new recruits took a variety of aptitude tests so the
Navy would know what training schools would be the best “fit.”
Glenn did very well on the “EDDY” test for electronics school.
There was a specific requirement if a sailor went to this
training--they had to agree to stay in the service for two years.
That fit Glenn’s plans perfectly since the Government had announced
that generous educational benefits would be available to all World
War II veterans who had served at least two years. It was obvious to
Glenn that his parents would not be able to fund his college
education, but probably Uncle Sam would.
So there he was, all set
to march straight toward his goal--a college degree in physics and a
career in some related field. Then, a big bump in the road
appeared--instead of heading for Electronics School, the Navy said,
“hmm, your records show that you have typing skills…..and we need
men to run key punch card machines at Treasure Island, in San
Francisco Bay.” Being based only 20 miles from home sounded better
than some distant school assignment so Glenn accepted the Navy’s
offer to base him at Treasure Island. More surprises were in store
for the young sailor--after two weeks at Treasure Island, the Navy
said “We’re sending you off to our Pacific command headquarters
in Hawaii. They are in dire need of key punch operators, so we are
going to fly you over there.” Aloha Mom and Dad!
Glenn’s introduction to Hawaii was not the typical tourist view of surfers at Waikiki. His plane arrived in Honolulu at 1 a.m. and five hours later, one of the biggest tidal waves to ever hit the islands rolled in. To a Californian, used to earthquakes, Glenn just figured this was life as usual in Hawaii!
Glenn’s new assignment
was at Pearl Harbor, in the department where all Pacific Navy
personnel records were being transferred to punch cards. He stayed a
Key Punch Operator Trainee--for about a week. Then they bumped him up
to operating and maintaining the machines which processed and “read”
the data stored on each card. The IBM company had refined the concept
of punch cards in the 1930’s and by 1945 they were the main device
available to store and process large quantities of data. Still used
today by states, such as Florida, for voting ballots, it was the
infamous “chad” from punched cards that affected the outcome of
the 2000 presidential election.
Glenn’s new assignment
involved the various machines that handled the punch cards. First,
key punch operators used a typewriter keyboard attached to a punching
device that cut out the little rectangular holes in a sequence that
could be read as numbers by other “IBM machines” as they were
known. The punched cards were sorted in one machine, then they went
to a “collator” and finally, stacks of the cards were fed into an
“interpreter machine” which printed a readable strip on each
card, corresponding to the punches. Finally, the punched and printed
cards ran through a “tabulator” which read the cards and printed
out reports. Basically, this last machine was a big calculator,
governed by wiring boards. This was Glenn’s forte. He had to
insert the wires into the board so they were connected in the proper
order to do whatever was required, i.e., add up certain elements from
the punched cards.
With his new job came a
new grade and title: Petty Officer Specialist Third Class--equivalent
to a Sergeant in the Army. Running the machines and wiring the boards
were Glenn’s main jobs. He was at Pearl Harbor from April 1, 1946
to early November of 1947. Enough time to qualify for the GI
Bill--which would be significant for the rest of his life. They may
have flown Glenn over to Hawaii, but they sent him home on a very
SLOW troop transport ship. At least it was time enough aboard a ship
so that he could always claim that yes, while in the Navy he DID
spend some time at sea!
After discharge from the
Navy, Glenn returned to his home in Irvington, where he worked at a
Standard Oil service station for a few months, then in spring, 1948,
he went to work in Sacramento at the Dept. of Motor Vehicles, doing
much the same work as at Pearl Harbor. The California DMV was
converting their records to punched cards.
Glenn had already been
accepted at Willamette University, in Salem, Oregon and these jobs
were just to fill in the time until his admission in the fall of
1948. Much as it is today, the price of tuition at Willamette was
about the “price of a Chevy with everything on it.” Way
out of Glenn’s reach without that GI Bill. With it, all his
tuition, room and board, and books plus a nice monthly stipend were
paid by the US Government--his two years in the Navy were handsomely
rewarded. And he was once again embarked on the path that would take
him to the Physics degree he had set his sights on many years
By his Sophomore year at
Willamette Glenn could see the limitations of a small university in
his chosen field. He knew that the University of California at
Berkeley had more Nobel Prize-winning physicists on its faculty than
almost any other school. After the development of the atom bomb,
nuclear physics was a popular field and Glenn decided to head for
In the fall of 1950 he transferred to Berkeley, and in June 1952 Glenn graduated with a degree in Physics. His life plan was right on course! He was hired by the Lawrence Livermore Radiation Laboratory as a laboratory technician, and fully expected to be involved in the major project underway at the Lab at that time--development of the hydrogen bomb under Dr. Edward Teller. But another “detour” was about to change his career forever.
Just as Glenn hired on at the Lab, it was in the process of buying a new machine--something called a “computer.” This was UNIVAC 1, made by the Remington Corporation, based in Philadelphia. The Lab would need “programmers” for their “computer” and drew them from their existing employees while also recruiting people from other disciplines, such as mathematicians, whom they thought would make good programmers. Interestingly, as they recruited for this previously unknown profession, they did not discriminate against women. From the very start of this new frontier, women were well-represented and earned equal salaries for their efforts.
and the console of UNIVAC I for which he designed programs.
[Glenn wants it known he did NOT operate the computer--he wrote programs for it!]
1956, Los Angeles
Glenn was chosen primarily
because of his background working with those IBM punch-card machines
in the Navy and at the Calif. DMV. There was a lot of carryover from
the card machines to this new device, known as a computer. All the
recruits from the Lab were sent to Philadelphia for 2 months’
training in “programming.” Another new word had just entered the
Back in Livermore, California Glenn and his cohorts set about to give this new computer its instructions. That first computer used vacuum tubes to power its calculations and the heat generated from the hundreds of tubes in the UNIVAC I machine required an air conditioned environment. Besides programmers the computer required operators who manned the huge console that directed its operations; and engineers to keep all those vacuum tubes and other fragile “innards” up and running. New occupations and new titles were being invented almost as fast as improvements to that first computer were occurring.
discovered that he enjoyed every aspect of programming for these new
“calculating machines” and he spent the rest of his working years
involved with these “computers” as they grew ever more powerful
in computing ability and smaller in size.
He saw his new profession grow into a full-fledged specialty, with advanced degrees offered at many universities. No longer did two months' training turn one into a computer programmer! During his career, much of it spent at the company that developed UNIVAC I, Glenn advanced from programmer to systems analyst, and then to software designer, developing software for the latest model of computers while they were still on the drawing board. And he has seen the computer reach into every aspect of modern life. No, Glenn did not do what he thought he wanted to do “when he grew up,“ but because of that fateful typing course in high school, he truly did find a new frontier and grew with it during the years that followed.
Barbara Halliday, Sept.
Unless otherwise noted, text and photos are the property of Glenn and Barbara Halliday, © 2012