My First Computers

I encountered (actually created) my first functional computer as a graduate student (in mining geology) back in the early 1960s. It was strictly analog rather than digital, and it was powered by muscles and knitting needles rather than electricity. It involved a series of holes punched at regular intervals around the perimeter of a “deck” of file cards, with the position of each hole corresponding to a particular physical attribute of geological features called pegmatites. Where that attribute existed, a cut was made (by hand, with scissors) to turn the original punched hole into a v-shaped notch. To search the “deck” for the presence or absence of a given attribute, a knitting needle would be inserted through the deck in the position corresponding to the sought-after attribute. The knitting needle would then be raised, lifting all cards of the deck where that specific attribute’s punched hole remained intact, and leaving behind those file cards where that attribute’s punched hole had been modified into an open notch.

If that sounds tedious, it was, and it became a real challenge when there was a need to sort the deck with multiple parameters in mind – e.g., where attributes “A” and “C” were present, but “B” and “D” were not.

A few years later, about the time when I began my first (part-time summer) job in a museum I acquired my first “real” (i.e., electric and digital) computer — a Radio Shack TRS80 (now affectionately known to computer antiquarians as a “Trash 80.” It connected to a TV set as a monitor, and it could record data on (and retrieve data from) a standard audio tape cassette. Its capabilities were limited to say the least, but it certainly convinced me that a more powerful computer (nowhere near affordable at that point in time) could be of great value in keeping track of “stuff,” whether pegmatite attributes or museum collection objects of any sort.

Once back at work in another museum (after a two-year stint as a military officer) I did my best to persuade the director to computerize the institution’s collection records. My efforts met with no apparent success until, one day in the mid-1980s, I returned from a lunch break to find a stack of packing boxes in my office. It was the computer that I had been lobbying for. All I had to do was figure out how to unpack the boxes, hook things together, turn them on, install something called the DOS Operating System, and make it do useful things. There would be no budget for any training or for any outside programming assistance or software pre-configured for museum purposes. I would sink or swim on my own – perhaps as punishment for having been a nag.

The resulting trial and (mostly) error process was a gruesomely inefficient use of my time, but it turned out to be an extraordinary learning experience. It put me in a position where I could, and soon did, leave that museum and embark upon consulting and contracting work across the country and around the world as a Johnny Appleseed of computerized collection management.