9.10.2014

Dad & Technology

My Dad never went past the 8th grade.  Back in his day, especially if you were a farm boy, that was common.  You were needed on your parents' farm, you accepted it, it was the way it was.

Thus, Dad never learned things like typing in a business class.

After the war, he came home to a small homestead that sustained the family with pasture and livestock, as well as a large garden.  Soon he realized he'd have to return to education to make a better life.  Despite not having a high school diploma, he was still able to take advantage of the new G.I. Bill, and went away to a school called the Gale Institute in Minneapolis, MN.  He had to be away for the better part of nine months from Mom, but he stuck it out.  He wrote letters home, and looked ahead to making a better life for his young family.

His course was focused on teaching him skills he would need to be a telegrapher for the railroad.  I don't what the entire curriculum consisted of outside of telegraphy itself, but evidently typing was not included.  To the day he retired, he always typed using what he called the 'hunt and peck' method.
Ad in July 1949 Popular Mechanics for training at the Gale Institute in Minneapolis, Minn.,
for railroad jobs. It was one like this that my Dad and his brother Robert saw that eventually 
got them to attend Gale Institute in early 1951.  Both of them ended up getting good jobs 
with the Great Northern Railway (which became the Burlington Northern) for their entire 
careers - Dad in Minnesota, and Uncle Robert in Montana...

I learned that term from him one day when my mother took me to visit him at his office, in the depot at Noyes, MN.  I still remember well the first time I visited the depot.  I was just a little girl, only about 7 or 8 at most.  To me, it was a thrilling experience to see where my father worked.  Passengers were still part of the business then, and we entered via the waiting room with its beautiful long, wood benches.  There was a water machine, with its big glass container sitting on top.  I went to check it out, and found of all things, paper cups!  I had to try it.  As I put the cup under the spigot and pressed the button, I almost jumped as the machine made a huge "glug, glug, glug" sound and large bubbles drifted up inside the upside down glass bottle.  I tried it again with the same result.  I laughed and thought, what a fun way to get water to drink!

I then noticed the counters and men behind them sitting at desks or walked through with papers, my ears picking up an interesting staccato clicking, of varying speeds.  My Mom went to the counter and Dad came to greet her.  He saw me and I looked up at him and he smiled.  "Would you like to come inside and see where I work?"  I replied, "Yes!"

The door opened on the right, and in I went.  Dad introduced me to his co-workers.  I noticed all of them, including my Dad, wore white shirts and ties.  My Dad had a pocket protector and had pens and pencils in it, and some of the other men did too.  Suddenly, I heard a voice like on the radio.  But I soon realized it wasn't on a radio, but coming from a phone-like apparatus near the front window, where there was a long ledge.  It looked like an old wall phone, expect the mouth piece was on a retractable metal arm; there was no ear piece, and in its place was a speaker of sorts.  Whoever was talking on the line was heard by all.  It was meant to be that way - it was an 'open line', or a dispatch line.  Below it were the mysterious machines that had been making the clicking noises I heard before.  No one acknowledged the voice or the clicks at the time which seemed strange.  Shouldn't someone 'answer the phone', acknowledge the clicks?  I later learned that the strange clicks and even stranger short-hand language coming over the dispatch phone, didn't concern the Noyes depot but another point further on down 'the line'.  All the men in the office, but especially the Operator/Telegrapher, kept their ears open for anything to do with Noyes.  They had to, because it was imperative that everyone was on the same page to keep the trains moving, and to keep the trains moving safely.  The dispatcher is like an airline traffic controller.  The local depots' point-of-contact were the Operator/Telegraphers, and one of them for Noyes was my father, Gordon Short.

A telegraph:  It was the hardware, and the
Morse Code it translated and send across
its wires, was the binary software of 'dots'
and 'dashes'.  Messages sent this way were
the email of their time, lasting well over
a century, just in time for the modern age
of the computer to put a nail in its coffin.
Later, I witnessed my Dad in action.  He suddenly went over to the machines, which he told me were telegraphs, and began to press on a round metal tab, making his own syncopated clicks.  When he was done, he explained he was doing something called Morse Code, which was like a shorthand 'code' language consisting of 'dots' and 'dashes' - in a sense, a very early, manual binary language.  When I think about it now, it was in a way, like a human computer.  Some have said that the 19th century invention of telegraphy and the vista of communications it opened was that century's version of email.  People around the world could suddenly communicate very quickly, and it transformed business and society in general.  It was on its way out when I saw my father that day, but we both didn't know it then.

In a few years after that, the railroad company brought in the first computer systems, dinosaurs compared with today.  It was a huge jump in technology for men like my father.  Although he was nervous about it, he succeeded in learning the system.  He was very proud of himself, and rightly so.  I remember seeing the computer room with all the punch cards and keyboard and screens and tapes, and thinking, wow my Dad is working with computers!

Between running out of supplies, getting a serious illness, or indian attacks, I never made it to Oregon!
Soon after that I encountered the Oregon Trail in 8th grade math class with Mr. Johnson, using a dumb terminal with a black screen with white type, a simple >:  prompt, and a god-only-knows-what-baud phone modem that called into the University of Minnesota's MECC.  I guess those two events - along with the seeds of imagination planted in me by such programs as Star Trek - were the roots of my interest in, and eventual vocation in, the field of network administration.

Early computer technology at the railroad:  Punch cards


My parents were very proud of me, as I was of them.  I love to think back on how much has changed.  My Mom caught the computer age at the tail end of her life.  I bought her a simple machine that could connect automatically to the internet and had a simple menu for email, etc.  She and I communicated for awhile that way, and Mom really loved the technology and the ease of communication it provided.  She had been a life-long letter writer, as many in our immediate and extended family were.  Of course she loved it!  She not only corresponded with me, but others in our family.  I just know Mom would have taken to using even more technology, but sadly it wasn't meant to be.  Dad passed away, she never got over her loss, and mourned for the rest of her life, another six years.  But that is another story.