In the mid-1970s I spent six months as the tape librarian at a computer center in a college town in the Midwest. I had no interest in computers, but I needed a job before I started graduate school. To me, computers were mammoth, mysterious machines that eventually were going to replace humans. Working at that computer center only confirmed my prejudices. The mainframe (a UNIVAC 1110) was as temperamental as a mother-in-law on a 500-mile car trip. “The 1110 crashed again,” some computer type would scream, and I would have to dig out tapes from the library to help restore the lost memory.
The mystery was only enhanced by the strange language everyone spoke. Not only were there odd uses of everyday words like “bugs,” “boot” and “hardware”—the computer operators used foreign languages such as COBOL, FORTRAN, EXEC 8 or BASIC to communicate with their machines.
I did see my first hard drives and video computer terminals while I worked there. Most of us had to use punch cards to interact with the 1110, but the mainframe operators had a little green TV screen and a keyboard at their command. Even a disinterested worker bee like myself thought that was “pretty cool.”
While everyone around me took it all seriously (“Have you heard about FANG?” one gushed at me), I felt like a foreigner who just wanted to go back home. Starting journalism school that winter was my “escape key.”
I didn’t see any high school types sneaking around that center, looking for free access to the computing power, but there may have been some. At just about the same time, several students from Seattle’s Lakeside School, including Paul Allen and Bill Gates, were logging onto the UW’s various mainframes.
Unlike my dismissive attitude toward computers, Paul Allen was obsessed with them. He wanted to understand how they worked for the pure joy of learning, so he spent hours hanging around the UW’s computer centers. While on campus he saw his first computer mouse and played his first computer game-Spacewars.
Sometimes he was mistaken for a UW student. Other times he was caught and banned from the computer room. Once he used his father’s connections to gain access to an electrical engineering professor’s account for the entire summer. No one could have predicted that this brazen kid would have a new, $70 million computer science and engineering building named after him 30 years later.
Paul Allen saw the potential when most of us didn’t. Today there are students poking around our library archives, a medical school research site or an oceanography laboratory. They are doing it for the pure joy of learning, and there is no telling what might be the outcome of their journey. But one fact is certain: There wouldn’t be any potential of discovery if it wasn’t for the amazing UW resources in their midst.