Jeff's Story

I graduated from Mercer Island High School in Seattle in 1974.
This is right across Lake Washington from where Bill Gates was
graduating about the same time from Lakeside; we were in two
of the wealthiest school districts in Seattle; about 70% of
graduates went on to college.

Consequently the Mercer Island School District had an Actual Computer
of its own.  It was a leased IBM System/3 called the Red Baron,
adorned with a little plastic model of the famed aviator in his plane.
This computer was used to do class scheduling for the entire school
district, which included the High School, two Junior High Schools and
a number of elementary schools.

The school district had one grumpy programmer managing the machine,
whose answer to any programming question was "It saves core". 
He had no interest in having mere students messing with his machine,
but a few of us geeks arranged for a special advanced class in programming
which gave us access to it.

At the time (circa 1972-3) I had taught myself Lisp from the Lisp 1.2 Manual
and Fortan from Ed MacCracken's book, doing exercises on graph paper for
lack of access to any actual computer.  Writing RPG II on the Red Baron S/3
was my first chance to actually write code and run it on real hardware.

(At the time the high school was experimenting with student access to
an Olivetti programmable calculator, and also one by Singer -- yes the
sewing machine company.  Nobody was clear on what desktop computing
would look like or what companies were equipped to compete in that
market.  The Olivetti had magnetic cards for program storage and 384
bytes of memory; I never managed to pack a tic-tac-toe minimax search
to fit in it.  Nobody considered them to be actual "computers". The
most interesting thing we found to do with them was to make odd noises
by abusing the built-in printers.)

The Red Baron had a pair of IBM 5444 disk drives, one removable,
but as students we were not allowed to touch them;  we did everything
using the 96-column cards, compiling cardstack-to-cardstack.

The most popular RPG II program I wrote was one which let the computer
console be used as an additional cardpunch, doubling our cardpunch
resources from one to two and thus letting twice as many students
punch in programs at the same time.  RPG II made that simple exercise
much more difficult that one might expect; it took me most of a
semester to get it working.

I have fond memories of the Red Baron. When in 1974 I went on to take
programming at the University of Washington (which did not yet have an
undergraduate computer science program, just a scattering of classes
like Math 114 and Engineering 141 and 378 -- the latter CDC 6400
assembly programming in COMPASS), the 029 keypunches used there for
LISP programming etc seemed very big and clunky by comparison to the
Red Baron's dainty cards.  (The UW actually had interactive terminals,
but the hourly cost to use them was beyond any normal undergraduate
student's budget.)

-Jeff P.