SATURN 2015: Programming in the 1960s: A Personal History (Session Notes)

Len Bass

by Jacob Tate, Mount St. Mary’s University

Len Bass gave us a witty and comical presentation titled “Programming in the 1960s: A Personal History.” He took us through his early education and career in computer science.

Dr. Bass graduated with a bachelor’s degree in math; he had no knowledge of computers but was able to get a job as a computer programmer because this was the direction many people with math degrees were taking. He first learned Fortran, which had to be punched onto cards and then run through a machine that gave the output through a large chain printer. This was a long and grueling process; Dr. Bass told a story about how it took him six weeks to debug a simple math program. The problem was that the machine did not have enough bits so there was an overflow error, but no one had ever heard of this kind of error!

In 1968, Len went to graduate school at Purdue, which was one of the only schools that offered a PhD in computer science. The new computer at Purdue was so big that they had to re-dig the elevator shaft just to get it to the basement! After his time at Purdue, he became a professor at the University of Rhode Island. A memorable story from his time teaching there was that a female student got her hair caught in the new typewriters. Dr. Bass observed that “during the 70s hair styles were noticeably shorter than in the 60s.”

His humor and presentation skills are unparalleled, and it is awesome to see Dr. Bass speaking! It is truly an honor to have experienced his stories and it is something that no one who was in the room will ever forget. He is a founder and hero of the field and a generally funny and wonderful man. Thank you, Dr. Bass, for your pioneering efforts in the field and for taking the time to share your fascinating stories with all of us!

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