In Response to: From the Archives

The photo and request for recollections of early Princeton computing brought several RAMs from this former late-night denizen of the Computer Center down Prospect Avenue.

First, introduced to the computer for a statistics course senior year with Albert Beaton, it was amazing to punch an equation onto computer cards and see the answer jump out shortly afterward on green-lined sheets of computer paper. No calculator or hand-figuring needed!

Second, as a grad student doing a thesis in social sciences at UMass while coaching part time on the inaugural Princeton women’s track team, I was eligible for a computer account, based on my old U-Store number. I frequented the below-ground keypunch and ready-rooms late into the night (when computer time was cheaper) with a number of obscure and future notables. 

One was John Nash *50, later Nobel Prize winner for game theory, who hung around nights at the Computer Center, perhaps partly from isolation before becoming famous.  Another was a group of Italian musicologists who were apparently pioneers in computer music, which they occasionally played for listening pleasure. And still another was Kibbie (Qubilah) Shabbazz ’83, daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabbazz, whom my former professor Jan Carew, a friend of Malcolm’s, had also mentored (Carew later wrote a book about conversations with Malcolm).

Third, after asking so many questions (what’s a crosstab?) and learning so much from the Computer Center’s Social Science User Services, the head, Judith Rowe, offered me a job as a counselor for social science computing. This led to precepting a politics department public-opinion course. 

Fourth, having succeeded in drafting my thesis on white-collar work on computer cards, I often marveled each time I needed a copy that, by simply giving one command, I could generate and print a complete copy of the 300-page tome! And I mused that if I had only figured out long ago that single command (which I’ve now forgotten), it would have saved a lot of time.

Fifth, as an assistant professor at Smith, I would return to the familiar haunts of the Princeton Computer Center when the sophisticated computing – e.g. discriminant analyses – needed for my first book on the white-collar working class required more computing capacity than the Smith or UMass machines could as quickly handle.

Finally, when I was teaching social science statistics, I would always remind my students to be fearless of using the computer: Their programs could not break the million-dollar machine. Yet one night the IBM 360 went down, and checking the bulletin board for the posted report on breakdowns, I found a cryptic comment: The cause was a program by a user – yours truly. Fortunately, it was fixed shortly afterward, just a long-standing reminder of Murphy’s law.

Richard Sobel ’71
Wilmette, Ill.