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Biographies: Obituary -- Expert Witness to the Industry's Youth -- Memoirs of Frederic G. Withington

IP.com Disclosure Number: IPCOM000129871D
Original Publication Date: 1995-Apr-30
Included in the Prior Art Database: 2005-Oct-07
Document File: 9 page(s) / 39K

Publishing Venue

Software Patent Institute

Related People

Frederic G. Withington: AUTHOR [+2]

Abstract

Like most early computer people, I stumbled into the field by accident. Graduating from Williams College in 1952 with a degree in physics, I faced immediate military service (Korean War) and entered the Navy via Officer Candidate School. The Navy assigned me to the National Security Agency; the NSA people, aware of the physics degree, decided that I should be a computer programmer (a what?). Join the Navy and learn a trade!

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Copyright ©; 1995 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Biographies: Obituary -- Expert Witness to the Industry's Youth -- Memoirs of Frederic G. Withington

Frederic G. Withington

Like most early computer people, I stumbled into the field by accident. Graduating from Williams College in 1952 with a degree in physics, I faced immediate military service (Korean War) and entered the Navy via Officer Candidate School. The Navy assigned me to the National Security Agency; the NSA people, aware of the physics degree, decided that I should be a computer programmer (a what?). Join the Navy and learn a trade!

National Security Agency.

In 1953 NSA obtained two of the earliest commercial large-scale scientific computers, an IBM 701 and an ERA 1103. A dozen or so bright young people were assigned to program for each, solving cryptanalytic problems which involve data processing with arithmetic operations. A friendly competition developed; the machines were about equally powerful. I was a member of the 1103 group, and toward the end of my three-year service was in charge of it. Thomas B. Steel Ir., a lieutenant junior grade like me, was in charge of the 701 group. He became a distinguished computer scientist and contributor to standards development.

Programming the 1103 was like programming a 20-ton microprocessor. We programmed in binary; assemblers and compilers had not been invented yet. The machine was dedicated to one program at a time; there were no operating systems, input-output control routines, or aids for programmers. One programmer at a time would sit at the vast console and step the machine through his or her program looking for bugs -- in effect, the machine was a monstrous personal computer. And bugs were sometimes elusive. The high-speed storage consisted of 36 CRTs, Williams Tubes, each tube storing one bit position of all of the 1,024 36-bit words. If the deflection voltage in one of the tubes wandered slightly, a single bit in all the words would be changed randomly.

Manufacturer support consisted of mimeographed copies of the command list, so we had to invent all programming concepts ourselves. We learned, though, and developed concepts such as reusable service routines for input-output and data conversion. Noting that we did a lot of in- storage sorting of alphanumeric code groups, I worked in my spare time on a sort generator (enter parameters, and a sort routine is generated to plug into your program). In 1955 this might have been the first sort generator, but it doesn't count because it was never finished.

Electrodata Corp.

My tour of duty ended in late 1955, and I decided to exploit my computer experience by joining a computer manufacturer. I chose the Electrodata Corp., a fast-growing new computer maker located in Pasadena. It made Datatron computers, vacuum tube machines with magnetic dru...