A few weeks ago, I blogged about signing a pledge to blog about a woman in technology I admire on March 24, 2009, aka Ada Lovelace day. The subject I chose is certainly an unsung heroine, as I cannot remember her name. She was the administrator for the computer center at Davidson College where I went to university. This was long enough ago that computer centers were something new. The college had just bought a fancy new Pr1me minicomputer, and installed terminals in a dingy, windowless room in the basement.
I admire her (whatever her name was) because she gave the small group of students who were interested enough 24 hour access to the terminal room and all the technical documentation we could digest. She was one training course ahead of us, so she generously gave her time answering questions and then got out of our way and let us explore this fun new machine. I cannot remember her name, because I honestly haven’t thought of her in many years. But in many ways she was responsible for my career (such as it is).
According to Malcolm Gladwell, I was a little bit too young and didn’t spend nearly enough time on the computer to really be good at it. But those hours spent in the basement introduced me to computers as something fun and interesting. We learned all about the Pr1mos operating system (not that it helped my CV much; anyone remember that?) while figuring out how to send “letter bombs,” i.e. messages that used obscure control characters to freeze the recipient’s terminal after displaying an elaborate ASCII “bomb” (that was a great hit about 4:00 am the day that term papers were due). Or programming a phantom (think daemon under UNIX) to compute as many digits of Pi as possible, an idea ripped off of a Star Trek episode. After about two weeks, I got a message from the administrator saying they had killed the phantom, since it was eating into the processor power they needed to run payroll. I had neglected to save the output anywhere, so I never knew how far it got.
I am deeply appreciative that my first encounter with computers was not forbidding and scary, but fun and adventurous. It allowed me to see them as toys to play with rather than something fragile or intimidating. I’m glad that I can approach a keyboard and try things out, just to see what happens. Sometimes that goes wrong (like when I shut down a system I didn’t realize was multiuser to stop a program I couldn’t control), but not very wrong. I am sure that the woman with the fan would appreciate that too. She doesn’t look like she would be intimidated by a mere device. Thank you, Mrs. <whatever your name was> and thank you Ada for making me think of her.
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