hello fortran, my old friend

In my high school, we had a computer. That doesn’t sound that impressive now, but it was a big deal at the time. Many high schools offered computer programming classes, but very few had an actual computer.

We did. It was about the size of three washing machines, as I recall, and it ran on punch cards. It looked sort of like this. The machines we used to actually create the punch cards were separate. We had a few of those.

The favorite activities among the computer geeks in my school were 1) trying to program the computer to play chess, and 2) crashing the computer.

When the computer crashed (either on its own or with assistance), a phone call was made to the company (I don’t remember who the manufacturer was), and the next day a rather disgruntled man came with a big briefcase full of punch cards. He fed these cards through the machine to get it going again.

So, the next time you have to upend your laptop to pop out the battery and restart it, don’t feel so bad.

We were writing our programs in FORTRAN. Later, in college, we got into COBOL and SNOBOL, but in high school it was FORTRAN. That was back when each line of code in a computer program had a number, and those lines of code were executed in order, starting with #1 (though, for example, if you were on line 254 and you wanted to go back to something you did on line 75 again, you could do that with some sort of “GO TO LINE 75” statement). This meant that you always had to leave extra lines when coding, in case you wanted to go back and add things later (otherwise you would have to renumber everything after the new lines, including all of those GO TO statements, which would probably be a lot of new punch cards to create).

I remember (correctly or not) that FORTRAN was mostly for working with numbers, and we didn’t get into anything with string variables (variables that hold text), but maybe the teachers were just nervous about exactly what text we would be putting into those variables if we learned about them.

Of course, if I had been able to figure out how to put text into variables, I might have been on my way to figuring out how to use that machine to write stories. Maybe even stories about Jan Sleet (who did exist at that time, as did starling).

It’s probably a good thing I didn’t, of course, because where would I find a punch-card reader these days?

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