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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 earlier.

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 that specialty.

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.

Glenn 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 world’s vocabulary.

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.

Glenn 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. 25, 2002

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Unless otherwise noted, text and photos are the property of Glenn and Barbara Halliday, 2012