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Family history: A legacy in programming

Posted by gregwarner, 15 June 2011 · 568 views

old computers
At times I enjoy a trip down memory lane, despite the fact that I'm not the sentimental type. Perhaps the only time I've gotten teary-eyed over an historical find is recently when I Googled my great aunt, who was my number one inspiration to enter the computer science field.

My great aunt was a UNIVAC programmer for the U.S. Navy Electronics Lab in San Diego, during a time when computer programming was predominately a female field. She was quite a remarkable woman. I recall a story that was told at her funeral over a decade ago: There was a U.S. national typist competition held at one point during her life. My great aunt could not enter the competition due to financial issues, however, our family confirms my great aunt possessed a faster typing speed than the declared winner, and, if memory serves, by no small margin. It is very possible that at one point, my great aunt was the fastest typist in the nation.

She gave me my first computer, a TI-99/4A. (Or rather, four TI-99/4A's. I'm still kicking my younger self for eventually dismantling them all to see how they worked!) She is the sole person responsible for introducing me to the programming field. If it weren't for her and her generous gift, I may not have ever become what I am today, a career programmer loving every minute of it.

I recall diving head-first into TI-BASIC, not really knowing what I was doing. I wrote all kinds of games, programs, and utilities I could dream up. I tried to teach my younger sister to type by writing her a typing tutorial program, that is, until I accidentally overwrote it before it was completed. Still, I must have written dozens of interesting little programs in my youth, all before I entered junior high.

I recently decided to Google my great aunt to see what I could find. I discovered a programming manual for the NELIAC (Navy Electronics Laboratory Algorithmic Compiler) language, a derivative of ALGOL 1958 developed by the Navy to run on their UNIVAC machines. The manual is from the U.S. Navy Electronics Lab in San Diego, written in 1962. My heart almost stopped as I read the final paragraph of the foreward:

Special acknowledgment is due Mrs. Helen Bate for the preparation of the manuscript and her knowledgeable editing of the text for technical accuracy.

Helen Bate was my great aunt. It was overwhelming to actually find an artifact (albeit a virtual copy) that she had a direct hand in creating. I was too young when she died to really talk about the details of her career, but, having found this book, I feel as though I've reconnected with her in some mysterious way. As I read through the pages, knowing that her hand skillfully worked alongside the authors to write it, I feel as though she's now teaching me all about her work, like it should have been back when she was still with us.

So here's to the woman who, though I'm sure has done even greater things than this, single-handedly made me who I am today.

Link to the book:

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