First languages: Rich Alderson

I was introduced to computers in the form of “Computer Math”, a high school class in programming in FORTRAN IV on the IBM 1401. My first exposure was as a guest of friends from the chess club, who were taking CM in the autumn of 1968; I was sorry that I had not known about the 1-semester class when I was signing up for my senior classes the previous spring.

This was the second year the class was taught, and demand was so high that the school district decided to offer it again in the spring. I rearranged my schedule, with the aid of the faculty adviser of the chess club (chair of the English department), and so began my life with computers.

The FORTRAN class was the usual, with lots of math oriented assignments as one might expect, since the teacher was the chair of the Math department. We learned to calculate areas of triangles, parallelograms, and so on, and how to make the printer and card punch do tricks. Exciting stuff (NOT).

Fortunately for me, my friends from the chess club were offered the opporunity to do a second semester of programming, taking classes in COBOL and PL/1 on Saturdays at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They used programmed instruction texts (read a paragraph or two, answer a question, see the answer on the next page, lather, rinse, repeat to end of book). I borrowed the two texts, read them cover to cover over the weekend, and proceeded to do all my assignments in 3 different languages.

I quickly fell in love with PL/1, which combined the mathematical capabilities of FORTRAN IV with the commercial processing capabilities of COBOL, and threw in marvelous string handling. Since I was interested in human languages already, this was a wonder and delight to me, to be able to string characters together on the fly instead of laboriously building a FORMAT statement to print a single line of text over and over.

For our final project in Computer Math, we were allowed to choose from several possibilities, such as “compute pi or e to 1000 places”. One possibility was to calculate the payroll for a mythical company; this is what I chose. I even used the 1968 tax tables, which included formulae for each bracket, to calculate deductions from people’s checks.

When it came time to turn in our projects, I showed the teacher all three versions of my program. He was dumbfounded. I got an A.

That began my lifelong interest in programming languages. Over the years, I have learned a couple of dozen, and have written compilers or interpreters for a few. I was always more interested in what I could do with a computer than in the physical details of how the computer worked, for years and years. That lasted until I went to work for a company building a new generation of one of the systems on which I made a living for decades.

But that’s a topic for another day.