The Douglas Aircraft Company kept fairly current and sometimes “cutting edge” with regard to the use of computers. In fact, it had a computer division for a while. In 1948, it spun off the RAND Corporation, which made major contributions to computer design and artificial intelligence.
At the Douglas El Segundo plant, in the days of the ENIAC and MANIAC, we had an analog computer, which was rather massive, and was programmed by plugging in masses of jumper cables on the front panel. I never had the incentive to learn to use it, but we were told that “digital computers are what engineers design for other people; analog computers are what they design for themselves.”
After we were merged with the Long Beach plant in 1963, I began hearing about IBM 360 and IBM 370 mainframe computers. I marveled at the air-conditioned room which was constructed for one of these. Apparently, these computers handled everything from payroll records to engineering problems. Analog computers were essentially history.
I had used nothing more sophisticated than a mechanical calculator (add / subtract). In the fall of 1971, the first pocket calculator appeared on the market. This Craig calculator could add, subtract, multiply and divide, and at $100, it was considered a marvel for its time.
We got one for my son Keith in high school, but I didn’t get one for myself. Much more sophisticated versions by companies like Hewlett-Packard and Texas Instruments began appearing. I eventually bought a Texas Instruments TI-50 calculator and retired my slide rule. That increased the accuracy of my calculations from two significant figures to eight. I don’t think I ever used eight.
The obsolescence of the slide rule resulted in a broken window in my house. When my son’s high school stopped teaching the use of the slide rule, they auctioned off the six-foot slide rule used for class instruction. Keith wanted it for a wall decoration, and he submitted the winning bid in a sealed-bid auction. When he brought it home, he managed to stick it through the window of my front door.
At Douglas Aircraft we had an electrical engineer named Bill Price who built a computer from a kit, in the mid–to-late 1970s . I had built Heathkit items, such as a 25 inch color television, which required a lot of soldering of components to circuit boards. Bill, a survivor of the Bataan death march, told me “Norm, you ought to get into these computers.” “What are they good for?” I asked. “Well, you can balance your check book, you can file your recipes . . . “ I told him that a pencil and paper would do the job.
When I saw the complexity of, for example, an input/output circuit board he had soldered, I decided that was more than I wanted to tackle. Also, all your input commands had to be coded into computer language, which was another major deterrent.
The big computers were generally programmed in FORTRAN, a computer language which is still in use, and the Douglas Aircraft company offered a quick course in Fortran, one evening a week for six weeks. This was an introductory course, and a second six weeks was recommended but due to our workload at the time I didn’t take it.
My son Keith was in high school, and he had a teacher who was enthusiastic about computers. He organized a “computer club” for enthusiastic students. They also had a series of Fortran lessons. Then one evening, he took the computer club to nearby TRW, where they attended a “finishing” lecture on Fortran. Keith thereafter announced “I know all about Fortran”. He learned as much or more about Fortran as I did, and went on in college to learn several other computer languages.
I did successfully carry out some fairly involved Fortran calculations. For these, the input to the computer was on punched cards (IBM Cards) and I quickly learned that no errors on the punched cards were tolerated. Even an omitted period would invalidate the whole thing. I had several “decks” of cards for various programs, which I would modify and reuse until the day when punched-card inputs were no longer accepted.
Desk-top computers began to appear around 1980, and I began to see my cohorts carrying a book entitled “DOS”. They were taking courses to familiarize themselves with the new desktops and their Disk Operating Systems. I reasoned that since I would retire in a short time I shouldn’t take a costly computer course, then promptly leave the company. I still didn’t see a great deal of usefulness for the desktops. However, a few developments changed my mind. Steve Jobs, shortly followed by Bill Gates, introduced the “GUI” or Graphical User Interface, the computer mouse was introduced, computer languages became more friendly, I decided to work a bit longer before retirement, and the computer spreadsheet was introduced.
This latter event was the answer to “what can you do with it?” Lotus 1-2-3 was the spreadsheet program I learned to use. Each “cell” (intersection of a row and a column) could hold a sophisticated mathematical formula, a logic element or input data. This permitted pretty sophisticated analyses of complex mechanical systems, efforts which would be completely impractical using pencil, paper, and slide rules. Incidentally, at a Cupertino party, I was introduced to Doug Engelbart, the man who is credited with inventing the computer mouse.
It became possible to analyze alternate ways of solving a problem so the best way could be chosen. Time constraints often didn’t allow such luxuries using manual analysis.
One would expect that the design of an airplane would be speeded up using these tools. That doesn’t seem to b e true. When we were given “authority to proceed” with the DC-10 (1968), we were told, “first flight is in two years.” We held pretty close to that schedule. Contrast that with the Boeing 787, which took around 7 years to reach flight status. But I guess you can argue, “how much longer would it have taken without computer-aided design?”
Bill Price’s homemade computer was probably a 4-bit design, meaning its registers and computing operations could handle 4 binary bits (ones and zeros) at a time. There was talk about new “*8-bit” computers”, then 16-bit. The first computer assigned to me at McDonnell-Douglas Aircraft Company was an IBM XT, a 16-bit machine, which accepted floppy disks for external memory.
IBM is said to have limited the capability of personal computers to protect sales of its highly profitable mainframes. If true, this probably opened a window for competing companies to take market share. I won’t try to review subsequent computer developments. I’ll just say that my current home computer, a MacPro, has many times the speed and memory capacity of the desktops I had at work. Actually, with the latest software, I have 64-bit computing, matching the IBM mainframes of a few years ago. That capability is mostly wasted for the kinds of things I do with a home computer, but it is helpful when I’m doing digital photography and movies.
The advent of e-mail and search engines (Google) made the home computer into a truly useful gadget. Regrettably, e-mail is apparently contributing to the demise of the U S Postal Service, or at least a major restructuring of it. And it’s hard to justify owning an encyclopedia now. So far, I have resisted getting an iPhone or iPad. But if the cost/benefit ratio is favorable enough, who knows what might happen?