Many years ago when I was working at Sikorsky Aircraft, one of the engineers in my department made a startling offer: “How would you like to see the computer?” Sure, I said, vaguely wondering, “What’s a computer?”
The following evening, along with a couple of members of our department, we drove to Yale University in New Haven where we had reserved some time around 2 a.m. on the computer. We would be allowed to use it for a precise number of minutes; using meant feeding it a bunch of pre-punched cards in order to obtain some valuable data that would be used in our flight research department back in Stratford.
The computer was housed in a special room, which it filled. We looked at it through glass like it was the crown jewels. I walked around in awe as the thing beeped, chortled, hummed and flashed its many colored lights. People spoke in hushed tones. Being that this was taking place in November, the boisterous men (and there were only men) who managed the beast had programmed it to end each computation with the message, “Beat Harvard.” How could they do that, I wondered.
Back at the office I carefully hand-lettered in black ink the results of the exercise onto long sheets of semi-transparent paper, plotted a graph with the values and drew in the curves. If I needed to recalculate any of the numbers, I used a slide rule. (Who can tell me what a slide rule is?) Sometimes long columns of numbers had to be put through a common equation and for that, if I was lucky, I got to use a calculator.
A calculator was a big heavy machine, larger than a typewriter, that let you punch in huge amounts of numbers after which you would pull a big lever to obtain the answer you were looking for. It only did addition and subtraction and was so loud you could not converse near it when it was working. It was far too heavy for me to lift.
Another task I performed was to project a microfilm which was focused on a bunch of gauges and write down the reading for every gauge in every single frame. Those results were also hand lettered onto the long sheets of paper.
Flash forward 45 years.
I understand that these days the work that involved four days of careful data collection and reduction by two engineering aides such as myself, is accomplished in seconds. Most everybody has a computer in their home and a few more at work, and they give away calculators the size of playing cards that do way more than those behemoths we dealt had with.
This past week as my own computer was stalling, freezing up, skipping over or just plain not reacting to my commands followed by pleas and begging, I thought back on the good old days before they took over. It all seemed so simple. Not much ever broke down and nobody suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome.
Ah, but could we communicate friends and family around the world, look up the weather forecast, diagnose our own illness, wish a far-off sibling Happy Birthday, and find 23 recipes for boneless chicken breasts, all within a few minutes? Could we take college courses, book a seat on an airline, and shop for a new bathing suit without ever leaving our cozy abodes?
I often wonder what it’s like back at Sikorsky now that technology is rampant. Some machine is probably installed right where my desk was and it performs efficiently without ever taking a break. The clatter of the calculators is gone, probably replaced by the occasional soft-spoken beep from the computers.
The chatter of the engineering aides is no longer either, I suppose, probably replaced by a bunch of silent hard drives.