On Coding I

If you’ve been following along for a while, you’re well aware of my passion for coding.  I firmly believe that all students should learn basic programming in at least one language, if not more.  My hope is that by seeing how the computer may be used to create digital art, some readers will embark on a lifelong coding journey.

To help put this in perspective, I thought I’d share my personal coding journey.  I’d never thought about my programming experience in chronological order before, and realized that talking about my journey could help others on theirs.

My particular journey began during my senior year of high school.  Here was state-of-the-art technology at the time:

352px-TI-30_LED.png
Photo by D. Meyer, Wikipedia Commons.

This was new technology.  Complete with LED display.  I still remember a game I’d play.  It’s maybe not as amusing now as it was then…but take your TI-30, and multiply the numbers 96, 169, 13, and 337.  Then add 1.  Turn your calculator upside-down — and it spells “Shell Oil”!  This is the only one I can remember, but I’m sure I must’ve made up a few more.  (OK, I didn’t remember all the numbers, but I did remember the 96 and 169, and easily figured out the other two.)

You might be wondering — if the hand-held calculator didn’t come out until my senior year, what did we do before that?  Well, we learned trigonometry using tables of numbers.  If we needed a value which wasn’t in the tables, we figured it out using linear interpolation.  Same with logarithms, and any other numerical calculation.  Tables, pencil, paper.  Try to imagine it!

There wasn’t anything in the way of personal computers then, either.  That’s why I think novice programmers today have it so easy!  Download Python, and ask the internet how to do stuff.  No problem.

When I was a senior in high school, some of us took a bus to a local university to learn Fortran.  (Though not the most common computer language today, it is widely used in disciplines such as physics because of its speed in doing numerical calculations.)  There were no computers in high schools.

And get this.  We used punch cards.  Which looked like this:

Blue-punch-card-front-horiz.png
Photo by Gwern, Wikipedia Commons.

You needed one card for each line of code you wrote, which you created on a sort of typewriter.  Then you put your cards in a stack, and took them over to the card reader.  Your cards were read, your program was executed, and after a few moments, you got a printout of what you told the computer to do.

Now this line of code took about 10-15 seconds to type in Sage, and printed out the numbers from 1 to 10 on my screen:

for i in range(10):  print i+1

No getting on a bus, punching cards, etc.  It’s truly amazing how far technology has progressed since those years, and also very wonderful that learning basic programming is so easy now.

I remember really enjoying the way you had to think in order to write computer programs. So when I went to college, I took a programming course in PASCAL my very first semester. Carnegie Mellon was on the forefront of what is now called “computer science,” but at the time, it was not a well-established discipline.  In fact, when I was an undergraduate, you couldn’t be a computer science major — you had to be an applied math major in the computer science track!  Of course that’s all changed now.

Naturally I enjoyed this course, too.  Like Fortran, PASCAL is a procedural programming language — in other words, you’re essentially writing procedures and routines that execute statements in a particular order.  It was probably the most popular procedural language before C came along.  There are other types of computer languages as well, and we’ll get to them when they appear in the chronology.

I took two other computer courses which also used PASCAL, and liked them, too.  These courses were more intense and involved using a lot of data structures, such as arrays, linked lists, binary trees, etc.  But again, in the days before PCs.

So to do your assignment, you had to go to a computer lab.  Then sit down in front of one of these.

Heathkit_computer_H88.jpg
Photo by Arthur G Korwin Piotrwoski, in the Wikipedia Commons.

And no — there was no mouse, no touch-screen, no windows — just a keyboard you used to type lines of text on a TV-like screen.  And no — it’s not even a computer!  It’s a terminal.  What that means is that there was just one large computer, called the main frame, with many terminals linked to it.  When you wanted to run your program, you had to get in the queue — the main frame could only compile one program at a time.  Then the output would be printed to your screen.

I still remember my first (and last!) all-nighter finishing a programming assignment.  I put it off, and waited until the night before.  And so did a lot of other people.

What that meant was the queue was long.  So you had to wait — maybe 15 minutes or so — for your turn.  This was for just executing your program once.

If you made a spelling mistake — say typed “BEING” instead of “BEGIN,” which I do now and then when I’m typing fast — you waited 15 more minutes to try again.  A short program which might only 20 minutes to complete when the main frame wasn’t so busy took several hours….  I will say I never did that again!  I learned my lesson.

So know you see why I think it’s so easy to learn programming today!  And why all students should….

There’s lots more to the story, and I’ll come back to it now and again.  It’s been fun thinking about those days of emerging technology!

Published by

Vince Matsko

Mathematician, educator, consultant, artist, puzzle designer, programmer, blogger, etc., etc. @cre8math

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