- Remembering the Digital Computer Association
Arguably the modern computer era started in the late 1940s when Northrop pioneered the Card Programmed Calculator (CPC) and IBM turned it into a product.1 When IBM produced the 701,2 big aerospace (Douglas, Lockheed, and North American) each installed one or two, and the mainframe era was born.
There was a backlog of scientific and engineering calculations awaiting solution and too few programmers. Several 701 users, led by North American and Rand, got together and produced the Project for the Advancement of Coding Techniques (PACT), the first program to help develop programs (e.g. software).3 When I got to Los Angeles with the Computer Sciences Corporation in 1959, it was commonly thought that 10 percent of the computers in the world were in the Los Angeles area.
Most of the programmers were either naturals or self-taught; few were formal products of universities, colleges, or trade schools. They were about 80 percent male; in their late 20s or early 30s; and used to working hard, playing hard, and changing employers as contracts moved around. To keep up with the field (and job prospects), many of us attended the monthly meetings of the Digital Computer Association (DCA).
The DCA was informally organized, held monthly meetings, published a newsletter, and held an annual bash. A revolving committee of activists ran the organization and the president was selected annually by popular acclaim. Once selected, the incoming president had no recourse but to serve or move out of the Los Angeles area.
The monthly dinner meetings were always held at a bar. Notes, ideas, and resumes were exchanged before the meal, and a noteworthy speaker was invited to address the group over dessert. The DCA attendees were all "computer people," when computing was still a relatively new field. There were some diehards who attended every meeting as well as a cast of hundreds who came according to how exhausted they were and what the technical topic was. Coders aspiring to be programmers, programmers, managers, salesmen, and an occasional boss attended the meetings. We all drank a lot and enjoyed each other's company.
At one meeting, Lou Gatt, a senior programmer and early Fortran expert,4 had come back to Los Angeles from spending a year at Los Alamos, and we welcomed him like a hero. He had some early experience with Fortran I that we wished to hear, so he was our monthly speaker. We had a big turnout.
The restaurant where we met had an odd-shaped back room. There was an alcove that held a stage that was raised about 16 inches off the floor. The stage was too small for the alcove so there was a space all the way around between the stage and the wall. Since Los Alamos is 7,355-feet high, Lou maintained that since he was acclimated to that altitude he couldn't get drunk at sea level. Several of us undertook to test that theory, and Lou had several drinks before he got up to speak. During his speech, he got too close to the edge and fell in the crack between the stage and the wall. The audience was greatly amused at the abrupt disappearance of the speaker. It took several of us to extract poor old [End Page 83] [Begin Page 86] Lou since he was wedged in pretty tight. We adjourned the meeting and took Lou back to the bar.
At another DCA meeting, Bob Bemer of ASCII fame5 arrived with a goat's bag full of red wine. We didn't hear the speaker that night since we were mesmerized by Bob's ability to squeeze the goat bag with his arm like a bagpiper and squirt wine directly into his mouth without getting any on his face.
Another DCA meeting of note was held in a meeting room at the Schlitz brewery. The speaker was H.R.J. Grosh, computer raconteur. When he was invited, Herb was told to keep it light because the crowd would be in no shape for a serious talk. Despite the warning, Herb brought a serious talk. Several members of the...