We’ll just call her Dorothy


This post was sent by Alex, son of (top secret) STEM-ma Dorothy.

My mother was quite the techie back in the day.  She got a master’s degree in math (having to endure a professor telling her that women don’t belong in math along the way).

After receiving her master’s, she became a computer programmer.  She worked various places, from Sandia National Laboratory (I think) to JPL.  She wrote programs to simulate the flight of surface-to-surface missiles.  Her first programs were written in octal – she thought it was great when she finally got an assembler!

She complained to me about the “dumb physicists” who couldn’t understand that changing a constant took ten minutes, but changing a formula took all day.  (I should think so, if it was written in octal!)  In her complaint, there’s probably a bit of a jab at her son (me) who has a physics degree.  But notice something else – these people she’s calling “dumb” are, literally, rocket scientists.

She told me about some of the computers she worked on.  One had a whopping two registers, and a series of patch cords, so that you could re-wire the CPU.  That means that you could change the CPU’s instruction set by moving patch cords!  Debugging on such a system might get interesting – you’d have to check the cords as well as the program.  Another had trays of memory (maybe twice the footprint of a full-sized laptop, and maybe two inches high) which had 100 words (36 bits each) of vacuum tube memory.  In the morning, they’d run a memory check.  If it failed, they’d hand the tray off to a tech, slide a spare tray in, and keep running.

My mother had a Q clearance.  This was the level of security clearance needed to access nuclear secrets.  While she was at JPL, she knew in advance about the launch of Pioneer.  It was very secret, because the Russians had already launched Sputnik, and if we failed it was going to be a huge blow to national prestige.  It was so secret, she couldn’t even tell her husband (my dad) until after it had happened.

My mom retired in 1960 to raise her children.  By then, my dad had a job as a computer programmer, and we were easily able to live on his salary.  Two years after she retired, she explained to my dad how floating-point arithmetic worked.

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