The Computer Ticket

1401It’s hard to believe, but my father was a computer salesman in Glasgow, Scotland in the 1940s.  He worked for a company that sold mechanical computing machines the size of a refrigerator.  They were designed to compute an Aged Trial Balance and they were the very latest thing.  My father’s assistant was a sturdy young man who rolled the bulky machine about on a dolly.  I wonder what my father would have thought if I could go back in time and show him a super slim laptop loaded with an Aged Trial Balance program.1401

In the late 1950s we moved to the U.S. and my father became the director of a data processing center.  One Saturday morning he showed me their IBM mainframe.  A programmer proudly demonstrated the machine by feeding a set of punch cards into it. Moments later the machine belted out in a high-pitched whine the melody of “Mary Had A Little Lamb”.  My father seemed impressed, but not me.  “But Dad,” I said, “The machine doesn’t have a sense of rhythm.  It doesn’t know the difference between eighth notes and quarter notes!”

When I was 18 my father had this career advice for me:  “Computers — there’s the ticket!”  But getting into that field was about as appealing to me then as a double hernia.  I had more practical ideas, such as being a novelist or a jazz musician.

But I couldn’t get away from computers.  I kept bumping into them in books I.  In Vulcan’s Hammer by Philip K. Dick I read about a hyper-rational computer wreaking havoc on a totalitarian society.  In Colossus by D.F. Jones I read about American and Russian computer systems merging into super-consciousness and deciding to rule the world.  And then there was Fritz Leiber’s The Silver Eggheads in which computers churned out bestselling novels.   How humiliating for a would-be novelist!

The faster I tried to run away from computers, the more they seemed to catch up with me.  I finally landed at a software company, first as a technical writer and then as an EDI programmer.

I soon found out that programmers were actually much more interesting than computers.  I saw them blow up and walk out the door over a point of logic and react to criticism like a mother who had just been told that she had an ugly baby.  I saw them working 36 hours straight, absolutely ecstatic when they had a breakthrough, or banging their heads against their desks when they failed.  They were passionate, intense, and larger than life.  They were amazing.

Finally it dawned on me.  I would write a book about people like these.  Not the same people, but imaginary characters filled with intense passion and bubbling over with that odd mix of logic and irrationality.  I finished the book a while ago.  It’s called The Infinity Program and will be released by the Camel Press on April 1, 2014.  It’s about a systems programmer who meets his ultimate challenge when he encounters a sixty million year old alien information system.