Government Work – Things Sure Have Come Along Way

When I was going to high school, a career in computer science wasn’t on the top of everyone’s list. At least not at my high school. One fellow was going off to West Point, another off to Stanford, and so forth. My own plan was to go to Syracuse University. I think the slacker generation started with mine as most of the student body ridiculed anyone with plans for their future.

But I digress. When I was a senior an opportunity presented itself. The Forrestal Reseach campus at Princeton, N.J. had an opening for an intern in the General Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, part of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). The internship included summer and winter breaks from college. I applied and was accepted. I knew Fortran which they were keen on back then.

Keywords: Fortran, vector graphics, raster graphics, modelling


My summer after graduating high school was spent in a black and glass office building on the Forrestal campus. The GFDL was tasked with using computers to model the earth’s atmospheres and oceans. Please remember this is my memory of it when I was 18 years old.

The GFDL used a ‘super computer’, a Texas Instruments ASC1000. I’ll never forget it. The memory banks filled a room with another glass-enclosed room being the operations center. The ASC1000 had 1 megabyte of water-cooled magnetic core memory! Can you believe that? 1 whole megabyte and it took up a room. I have a 10 gigabyte flash-memory stick in my desk drawer that’s the size of a pack of gum! 1000x the capacity of the ASC1000. Amazing.

I was awestruck of course. I was assigned to work in the vector graphics department where I was tutored by a kind man, Tom, and his biker assistant, Jimmy. The graphics machine was a Stromberg-Carlson 4020. The thing looked like it came from a WWII submarine. It was gray and at least 6 feet long. The images were projected up onto a screen using a single cathod-ray beam in a housing that was 4 feet tall. Above this was a film camera which recorded the images.

Basically, the process went like this: you wrote a Fortran program and keypunched it onto a deck of cards. This took many days to get right and was filled with vector graphic calculations. You handed the deck over to the operators of the ASC1000. The job ran and if successful, produced a magnetic tape. The tape was reel-to-reel and about 24 inches in diameter.

The tape was then brought to the SC4020. The instructions told the SC4020 to draw pictures on its tube which were recorded onto 35mm B&W fim.

The film was taken from the SC4020 and run through a developer (much like the machines at CVS) and a roll of negatives was produced. You then viewed the film either on a projector, or more likely, with a loop to look at it frame-by-frame. I probably have some of those at my Mom’s house.

I remember producing 3-D images of the earth (oceans removed) and of weather patterns. I remember how I wanted to blow them up and use them for art work.

But can you imagine this today? What I was doing in 1976 was positively archaic by today’s standards.

By the next summer some new technology had made its way to the ASC1000 – CRT terminals. I remember there being about 3 of these terminals, blue cases with white flickering letters on a black background. I was in Sci-Fi heaven. I could actually write programs and make corrections right there without touching a keypunch. I was one of the few avid users (‘never catch on” one of the scientists said).

The thing about the techology then was the programmer-operator relationship. You just didn’t sit down at a computer and write programs. You had to also go to the computer center and hand over your work to someone else. The computer operation scheduled the jobs. For an expensive machine like the ASC1000, the operators made sure it ran 20/7. Your job might not be run for several hours. There were bins for your printouts and you checked them periodically. Programs with infinite loops or that crashed the machine were a no-no to say the least.

The ASC1000 came with its own team of engineers from Austin that were on site to keep it running. I shared an office for a bit with one of those engineers who spent most of the time talking to his wife and calling her ‘punkin’.

The idea that people would have computers in their own homes, hundreds of times more powerful than the ASC1000 was really science fiction. Computers were expensive. Using them was difficult. Programming them was science. Perhaps all of these are still true, but they were not something for everyone. They were not ubiquitous.

I don’t know what happened to the GFDL lab. I worked two summers and two winter breaks. As the summer between my sophomore and junior year approached, I called and told them I would not be returning. I was staying at university and working there. It was also the last time I would live at home.

Tune in next time for a peak at the technology of Syracuse University, 1976-1984.