I Learned How To Program 50 Years Ago

I Learned How To Program 50 Years Ago
An HP-3000; similar to what I learned programming on in 1973 (remotely).

In the fall of the 1973-1974 school year, my public high school offered a class in computer programming. This class was rare for its time, as there were few computers in the world accessible for students, and most people had no idea what they could do other than seeing HAL in "2001: A Space Odyssey".

I am forever grateful to whoever convinced the local school board to invest an entire year in what must have seemed a pointless elective. We learned to code using a 110-baud teletype connected to a time-sharing system via a telephone coupler modem. Only six students took the class. Latin was also an elective, and the course was full (note I was also in that class as the teacher was excellent).

Since then, I have been a programmer but never used Latin again. The first thing we learned was "Roma Est In Italia," that's all I remember.

After that year (my family moved away, and I don't know if the class was ever offered again), I did not get to program on anything again until I bought an Apple ][+ after graduating from college with a chemistry degree.

Since then, I have been writing code almost every day. Despite having retired two years ago, the code I write daily targets my art practice and is often far more complex than anything I wrote during all those years of working. What I write today is much more specialized and focused, and there are no meetings or anything to get in the way!

Actual programming languages only go back to the early-to-mid fifties (I was born in the later fifties, so a little before me). Programming as a career option likely started soon after that, though, with very few computers, there were also very few programmers. When I began my career in 1981, programming was still a rare opportunity; many countries likely had no programmers at all. Most people I knew had zero idea how they worked or had any interaction with a computer. This began to change in the 1980s as more personal computers were sold.

Even today, most people know nothing about programming or how a computer functions internally. I am unsure how prevalent programming classes are in public high schools today. If I had been in some other school district that year I likely would have never had any idea I could spend my life writing code or realized how much I like it. I think teaching programming today is still essential in schools, if for no other reason than to let some students discover that they like it.

If you go back fifty years from when I took that class, there are no computers or programmers. The Turing Machine was still twelve years away. Sure, you could consider Babbage's Difference Engine a computer (and Ada Lovelace, the first programmer), but it was more a calculator than a general-purpose computer. Programming is still in its infancy in many ways, and who knows where it will be in fifty years; it's possible machines will replace human programmers by then. However, I am not sure that will happen given that most programming is written for people, and people are confusing to people, much less an AI. Perhaps it will find it easier to eliminate us instead.

I remember bringing home a 128K Macintosh from the office in 1985 (my startup had two Macs plus a Mac XL, i.e., Lisa) and showing it to my friends. Of course, most had no idea what to think of a mouse, bitmapped display, and things like cut-and-paste. A five-year-old child, however, figured out Macpaint quickly. Today I still meet people for whom even the basic use of a PC is beyond their ability.

If I could go back and tell myself back in 1973 where programming would go in the following fifty years, I would have found the time machine more believable than the future history of computers. Programming for a phone, yeah, right!

The programming world has changed enormously over that half-century, and I with it. I suspect changes over the next half-century will be equally unpredictable and never-ending. It's possible that there will be no programmers anymore by then, and everyone will eventually forget that we once existed.

I've never regretted being a programmer, and despite all the ups and downs, changes, layoffs, and occasional insanity, it was the best job I could have had.