"Computer On Fire" - An Ordinary Family's Oral History of Technology

IBM 705.jpg

The IBM 705 Data Processing System, introduced in 1954.

The 705 would rarely run more than 3 or 4 hours without a major breakdown. It was not unusual to encounter a 705 that was ablaze." This should give all of us pause the next time our PC crashes!

What is your family's history? Have you ever reflected on what their lives was like, when life was seemingly simpler? What if we could take a snapshot of our lives, our families, just one, every ten years? What was your family doing 100 years ago?

Let me share some "snapshots" of our ordinary family {a personal and idiosyncratic point of view}, beginning with my great grandfather a century ago, through the lens of technology, with all of its fits and starts - for every success, there are many failures. Like most of us over the past century, my family has been affected by science and technology in some way, regardless of any formal education.

1910 - My great grandfather was earning a living as a lumberjack, sometimes delving into the "moonshine" whiskey business, in the mountains of North Carolina -he crafted a still using copper sheeting. Distillation, after all, is a classical tool of Chemists. They had no electricity, no phones and no paved roads, but they did own one of the first Dodge automobiles.

1920 - My father's family moved to Choctaw, Oklahoma where there was news of job opportunities in the oil fields. This was home to the Choctaw Indians, famously known as the "Code Talkers" - some of whom served in the US Army during World War I, and used their native language for secret communication between American soldiers. My grandfather also repaired automobiles during this time, including two vehicles for an American Indian, who had acquired them using "oil money". The owner gave one of the vehicles, an Oakland, as payment. This vehicle had no heater - one winter, my grandfather jerry-rigged his own, using the "whiskey still" copper sheeting. He folded the copper over the exhaust manifold of the vehicle's motor and then somehow formed ducting to the inside, keeping the passengers warm.

1930 - My father began to explore his world as a young child near Mill Spring, NC. Their large family, ultimately with ten children, lived in a two-bedroom home that my grandfather built from lumber sawed from trees that he cut in a nearby forest. My grandmother cooked, chopped wood for the wood burning stove, carried water from a nearby spring and tended their garden for fresh vegetables. There was little technology, but a lot of hard work and ingenuity was critical to keep the family fed.

1940 - When my father was 16, he joined his older brother at the Brunswick shipyards in GA and learned arc welding, an important skill in ship building. He learned how to weld eyehooks onto pre-fabricated steel sections of ships which were used to hook the cable from the gantry that lifted the sections to be fitted onto the ship. Later, he served on the USS Solomons (CVE-67), an escort carrier, and was one of the crew who sunk a German supply submarine off the west coast of Africa. During this time, he trained to become an electrician.

1950 - My father was staying at a YMCA near Times Square in New York City, looking for a job as an electrician. His training as an electrician proved to be useful as, according to my father, "IBM was looking for engineers to work who could work independently on their electro-mechanical accounting machines" - he was hired as a Customer Engineer in 1952, the beginning of a 40 year career.

1960 - My father was working on an IBM Model 705, the first commercial computer with core memory; it contained thousands of vacuum tubes; this was before transistors became commonplace. He said, "The 705 would rarely run more than 3 or 4 hours without a major breakdown. It was not unusual to encounter a 705 that was ablaze." This should give all of us pause the next time our PC crashes!


Photo source.

1970 - Our family spent the summer in San Jose, CA so that my father could work with design engineers to build IBM's first attempt at online mass archival storage systems using photochips, etching the data with an electron beam. The systems were used at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and at the University of California. These systems did not perform as well as expected, and the project was shut down.

1980 - As a college student, I was exploring science and technology myself, taking my first Computer Science course, Fortran 77 - some of you may remember those pesky punch cards. I waited for hours, simply to submit a program to the queue, only to discover hours later that a typo crashed the program!

1990 - As a scientific researcher in the pharmaceutical industry, I was exploring every technology I could find to help discover the next prescription medicine. The Silicon Graphics workstation computer enthralled me - it revealed information in 3D that was not possible before, and helped "model" new drugs.

2000 - The information technology explosion was well under way after the launch of Google - it completely transformed how we obtain, learn and process new information. The world that my own young children were just beginning to explore became increasingly complex, with 24 hour news cycles and instant gratification.

2010 - With the explosion of online social networking and blogs as influencers in the media, I am beguiled by the power and flexibility of the feral beast that never sleeps {to borrow a phrase from "The Daily Beast" founder Tina Brown} of online news sites. Mobile devices such as the iPhone and Blackberry have become de facto appendages of my family, friends, colleagues and students.

2020 - Can't wait to see what's next!

Co-written with my father Carl L. Toney (Marietta, GA).

My father's giving spirit was recently honored by recognition as The Huffington Post's Greatest Person of the Day! See the article here, "HuffPost's Greatest Person Of The Day: Carl Toney, Proof That Anyone Can Be A Hometown Hero."

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Dad was drafted in the early 1950s and served as an Army radio operator in occupied Japan. After his service, he got an EET on the GI Bill and went to work for Delco Electronics as an electrical engineer. In 1962, GM purchased the first IBM 360s, and asked for volunteers to learn programming. So, Dad became one of the first generation of professional computer programmers, writing assembler code for accounting software. He was good enough that, throughout the 60s, GM "loaned" him to NASA to clean up and optimize telemetry software for the Gemini and Apollo missions, which is pretty cool.

Of course, I was a rebel. I was going to be a writer and a musician. Eventually, writing started to pay off, but not in the direction I thought it would. Today, I write documentation and instructional materials for engineering software, including a Fortran-based FE solver that was originally developed for -- wait for it -- NASA in the 1960s.

Iâm not sure how or if there is any connection between the Choctaw and Navajo tribes, but there is a PBS documentary, âTrue Whispers: The Story of the Navajo Code Talkersâ currently on Hulu, that puts their service during WWII in the pacific. But family histories arenât necessarily the place for the overly pedantic. I have listened to my father tell of his grandfather leaving the house with 10 shotgun shells and returning home with 15 geese with the rationalization that the flocks were thicker back then. They can be fun though.

One of my computer science professors back around 1980 said that we were still at the dawn of the computer revolution. Thirty years on, and I still think that's true. We're only beginning to have our lives changed by bits and bytes.

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