By far, the biggest "cusp" experience had to do with computation. We were the generation that bridged the slide rule and the computer. Let me explain.

In the sixties, the pocket calculator was still Flash Gordon[6] stuff. The HP-35, the first real pocket calculator for engineers, appeared on the scene in 1972. (What a coincidencejust as I was finishing my Ph.D. Timing is everything!) The slide rule was instantly and irrevocably dead. But up until that point, slide rules were an engineering staple. Simply put, you performed calculations on your slide rule. Using a computer to get everyday answers was simply not practical back then. Computers were batch-oriented, and to get answers, you had to write programs. In FORTRAN. It was just too much overhead for one-off work. Whereas today you might fire up Excel, back then you whipped out your slide rule.[7]

[6] Another antiquated American reference. Flash Gordon was what we had long before we had Luke Skywalker. In an interesting twist, his villainous arch-nemesis was Ming the Merciless instead of Darth Vader. Things were much less politically correct back then.

[7] The slide rule was sometimes called a "slip stick." We joked that we did our calculations with a "s drool." We were very geeky.

You started to learn how to use the slide rule as a freshman in college, if not sooner. It was not just a matter of learning how to do it. You had to learn how to do it reliably, accurately, and quickly. You used your slide rule to get answers on 50-minute physics, chemistry, and engineering examinations. If you couldn't use this as a real tool and if you couldn't compute quickly, you would fall off by the side of the road. It was as bad as having the ink blot under the straightedge.

The instructors didn't cut you too much slack, either. Sometimes we would receive some partial credit if we showed we understood the computation but screwed up the result; but ultimately we found that you didn't get enough credit for good grades if you didn't get the right answer. What a novel conceptlots of credit for the right answer, not much for the wrong one. But, as one of our crusty old professors once remarked, "Engineers get paid for getting the right answers." By the way, did I mention that speed was important?

So, we practiced. Herman Bilenko, an upper-division electrical engineering student, ran a slide rule remediation club. We met at lunch, and he would give us problems and we would race to see who could get the right answer the fastest. As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.

The Software Development Edge(c) Essays on Managing Successful Projects
The Software Development Edge(c) Essays on Managing Successful Projects
Year: 2006
Pages: 269 © 2008-2017.
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