In Response to: Daybreak of the Digital Age [6]

The MANIAC computer — I remember it well (feature, April 4)! In the spring of 1958 a classmate, Ned Irons ’58, and I did our senior project (engineering students’ equivalent of a thesis) on that computer, the only computer in Princeton. The task was programming an interpreter — a program written in the native language of the computer — to provide a simplified programming language for students (a “user-friendly interface,” in today’s terminology).

We were not welcome at the Institute. The scientists’ concept of appropriate use of the computer was to read in a small amount of data, compute for a long time to produce an important result, and output a small amount of data. Since our project involved a great deal of input and output, they accused us of using their computer as a punch-press! But since our allotted time was midnight to 6 a.m., not many of them had to suffer through our disrespectful use of their machine.

The 40 CRTs (Williams Tube memory) had some strange characteristics. As mentioned in the article, they were very humidity-sensitive. On dry nights they would acquire “spurious bits” — 1s that should have been 0s.

We completed the interpreter very successfully, and received top grades. But undergraduates never got to use it. As was noted, the computer was retired soon after we graduated, and donated to the Smithsonian.

The article mentions the use of the MANIAC computer to do calculations for a thermonuclear device. Operation Ivy, the joint task force that detonated the first hydrogen device, was under the command of my father, Maj. Gen. P.W. Clarkson.