Adam Zachary Wasserman

@adam.wasserman

Hidden Figurers

The story of the first programmers will remain forever untold

The man in the back without a jacket is Mel Kaye, about whom Ed Nather wrote his timeless classic of programmer lore, TheStory of Mel.

The year is 1960 and although a wealth of information exists about the hardware he programmed on, nothing remains of his programming other than Ed Nather’s delightful tale.

Hackers and hobbyists

For the first twenty years of programming history, most programmers in the field, the ones writing the programs that got used in real life, were self-taught. There were no schools for programmers, no formal practices, nobody of knowledge, no discipline to speak of. Programmers either learned from a mentor or pursued their own individual instincts and intuitions.

The profession of electrical engineering was well organized, well documented, and acknowledged as being very significant. Computer hardware design was a recognized science and a respectable career for electrical engineers.

Meanwhile programming was a sideline that people with real careers (such as math or physics) engaged in out of personal interest. This eventually changed with the emergence of the discipline of computer science, which was focused on programming and software as the engine of innovation. Software would eventually become more important than hardware, but during these first critical years of computing history, only hardware engineering was respected, and history reflects this.

Lest the reader think that I am overstating the case of how little people thought of pro­gram­ming in those days, allow me to provide the following anecdote¹: when Edsger Dijkstra married Maria C. Debets in 1957, he was required as a part of the marriage rites to state his profession. His declaration that he was a programmer was not accepted by the authorities, because there was no such profession at that time in The Netherlands.

The typical programmer was self-taught and highly internally motivated. Apart from a small number of young prodigies, a programmer was more likely than not already highly educated, often with a Masters or PhD which was how they came to be anywhere near a computer to begin with. They tended to be a verysmart bunch.

There were no schools or courses for programmers, and when computers cost millions of dollars there were no casual programmers. They were some of the brightest lights of humanity simply by virtue of how difficult it was to become a programmer at that time.

Yet the fruit of those minds is gone forever, they labored in obscurity.

For every Hopper or Dijkstra or Knuth or Wirth that we know a little about, there were a thousand Mel Kayes, creating works of pure genius, of elegance and rare beauty. All these works have been lost forever as the magnetic tapes and punch cards that preserved the deepest thoughts of this hidden generation became obsolete and were binned, unceremoniously and out of sight.

More by Adam Zachary Wasserman

Topics of interest

More Related Stories