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2009-03-24 - 17:41:00 - by AlisonW - Topic: Personal: Memories |

Some month's ago, Suw (Charman-Anderson) suggested that there should be a celebration today of admirable women in technology, and invited everyone to pledge to write a blog about someone they'd chosen, alongside celebrating the life of the world's first computer programmer Ada Lovelace (1815-1852).

Back, in the distant past of 1972, I was a schoolgirl in Hemel Hempstead, one of the over-spill 'new towns' around London built after the war. After I completed my GCE 'O'-levels I had to select the courses I would study during the final two years there in the sixth form. Initially I was only planning on taking two 'A'-levels (that being all which was required to get into university back then!) but in the end a third was added, and then I was told I "had too many free periods". I was given the option of either taking Human Biology 'O'-level, or taking the Computer Programming course. Well … as I'd not taken 'normal' Biology 'O'-level I quickly decided that I'd probably find difficulties in the more 'specialist' course (and, hey, it was something I would, ahem, "discover for myself" before too long!) so the programming course was the one I went for.

Now you need to remember how long ago this was. 1972 was still the era of 'Big Iron' – large mainframe computers – and the web was some twenty years in the future.


The teacher for this class was a young woman who had only recently joined the teaching profession and her 'qualifications' for teaching the course – the first year it had run at the school – were that she had spent that summer working for British Aerospace on computer programs designing the wings for Concorde!


Her class of eager young sixth-formers numbered around 15, and she started out by teaching us BASIC (the acronym stands for Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code. Each lesson covered one instruction of the language and each week we students would write out our code on sheets of paper pre-printed with line numbers and boxes; each character of our program being carefully written in the boxes. This was then sent off to Hatfield Polytechnic which owned a PDP-10 made by DEC (Digital Equipment Corp. The college staff would type in our code to produce a punched paper tape, and then process this to produce an output printout. The paper tape and output would then be returned to the school in time for the following week's lesson.


After a few weeks of this I found that computer programming was something that 'clicked' with me and I asked the teacher to let me borrow her manuals so that I could go faster – I was finding the 'one instruction per week' rate until that point far too slow. Thankfully, she did, and I raced on. I also got the agreement of the school that I could leave the premises every Friday morning (when everyone else was doing PE) and head into town to the F.E. College as, I had learnt, they had a teletype terminal connected by a phone line to the machine over in Hatfield. Quickly I had moved into the modern world of time-sharing, and later I started using my moped to go to the polytechnic most Saturday mornings to use the terminals just outside the machine room.

After another couple of weeks I ended up taking over the class. I'd already been helping my classmates and the teacher realised that she had fallen behind me! A few years ago I met up with an old schoolfriend via Friends Reunited and she recalled the course and how I'd ended up in charge with some fondness (she having since become a teacher herself - of IT!)

Subsequently, whilst still at school, I taught myself FORTRAN and then successfully applied to Imperial College to read Computing Science. I've been in the computer industry in some form or another ever since. And all thanks to that young teacher.

Sadly, very sadly, I cannot remember her name all these years on. But I still remember the effect she had on me and my classmates in involving us in the very new science – or 'art', is it truly was then – of computer programming.

Thank you Teacher, where ever you may be. I couldn't have done it without you.



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