The day we saw the dinosaur (an Ada Lovelace Day story)

To­day, March 24th is Ada Lovelace day, a day of blog­ging to cel­e­brate the achieve­ments of wom­en in tech­nol­o­gy and sci­ence.. I am tak­ing the lib­er­ty to tag this as python so it ap­pears in the right plan­et­s, but that’s just to pro­mote Ada Lovelace day. Sor­ry ‘bout that.

I will write about the on­ly per­son who ev­er taught me pro­gram­ming, Clau­di­a. I was young, so the earth was still luke­war­m, the day we saw the di­nosaur.

I was just a green sopho­more in the School of Chem­i­cal En­gi­neer­ing where, para­dox­i­cal­ly I would nev­er take a chem­istry class, be­ing an ap­plied math stu­dent and all that, and at the time “per­son­al com­put­er­s” were a nov­el­ty, a toy of the up­per mid­dle class.

We had spent the first two months of the se­mes­ter learn­ing how to pro­gram the ob­vi­ous way: writ­ing as­sem­bler for a fic­tion­al ma­chine on pa­per by hand, when Clau­dia broke the news, we were go­ing to see a re­al com­put­er.

No, not a PC, not even an XT, but a re­al com­put­er, the one re­al com­put­er in all the uni­ver­si­ty, and you could hear the type switch­ing to bold as she spoke about it. Sad­ly it was not as re­al as the one at the re­search fa­cil­i­ty (A Mini­VAX!) but it was a re­al enough PDP.

We would not be al­lowed to ac­tu­al­ly use it un­til the fol­low­ing year, but … well, it was still some­thing spe­cial.

I had been pro­gram­ming for years, even for a year be­fore I saw my first (se­rio­su­ly not re­al) com­put­er, I had fol­lowed BA­SIC pro­grams in my head for days, imag­in­ing the space in­vaders float on the screen of my mind, and stepped in­to writ­ing ma­chine code in­side REM state­ments in my Timex Sin­clair 1000 on­to the lux­u­ry of a C64, but nev­er noone had taught me any­thing.

Our small class (maybe 10 stu­dents) spent end­less hours do­ing things like tra­verse a ma­trix, first by rows, thn by column­s, then in a spi­ral from the top-left, writ­ing pro­grams that fol­lowed our end­less source of al­go­rithm­s, the nu­mer­i­cal so­lu­tions guide.

First as­sem­bler, then For­tran, we learned.

She was my Mr. Miyag­i, I was a het­ero­sex­u­al Ralph Mac­chio, and I fig­ured out the most im­por­tant thing about pro­gram­ming: I was aw­ful at it.

Over the next 20 years that sit­u­a­tion has been slow­ly im­prov­ing, but I nev­er again had some­one teach me pro­gram­ming. Clau­dia had al­ready taught me ev­ery­thing I need­ed to know, that code can al­ways im­prove, that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

That the di­nosaur was re­al and that some day soon my com­put­er would be faster and nicer than the di­nosaur was then, and that pro­gram­ming was cool, and that if I could find a way to draw a poly­no­mi­al graph hor­i­zon­tal­ly on a print­er with­out ev­er hav­ing the whole graph in mem­o­ry (it did­n’t fit), those fu­ture com­put­ers would do awe­some things, and that I was one of the many who would help bring that to re­al­i­ty.

That talk­ing about code was fun in it­self, that you could make a mod­est liv­ing and be hap­py about it, that you could in any case make jig­saw puz­zles in your spare time and keep on teach­ing or what­ev­er.

And lat­er the di­nosaur’s bones were scav­enged in­to a line of racks hold­ing router­s, and its glass ter­mi­nals are de­stroyed, and the gold in its teeth was stolen and the rare bus ca­bles sol­d, and its cir­cuits scrapped, but I saw the di­nosaur alive, and Clau­dia taught me how to make it jump, and for that, I will al­ways be grate­ful.

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