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The Best Of Times: A SEAC Memory

by Genevie (Gena) Hawkins Urban

Washington Apple Pi Journal, January/February 2001, pp. 11-15, reprint information

Prelude to the Future

January 2001 marks the start of a new millennium. You don't have to be a fan of the novel (and movie) 2001: A Space Odyssey, to know how important computers will be over the next thousand years. But before we plunge headlong into the unknown, Gena Urban offers us a chance to pause and take a look back over how far we have come.

Gena Urban and her husband, Bernie, were among the original founders of Washington Apple Pi. She did volunteer work with the Pi for several years, and from 1983 -- 1988 was a member of the Pi paid staff, as co-office manager and assistant Journal editor.

From 1949 -- 1965 Gena worked as a computer programmer at the National Bureau of Standards (now National Institute of Standards and Technology). She programmed for the prototype digital computer, SEAC, and later for the UNIVAC and IBM 704, 705, 7090, and 7094. This story is about the early "pioneering" days with SEAC. Bernie was also a part of that experience.

She currently works for Pi Board Member Richard S. Sternberg, as a legal assistant.

It was the best of times. That's it. No worst. It was a time in the early fifties when a group of young adults, mostly recent college graduates with degrees in mathematics or engineering, came to the National Bureau of Standards. They came to work with persons of vision who had designed and built a programmable digital computing machine called SEAC (Standards Eastern Automatic Computer), with its rooms full of vacuum tubes, diodes and relays that hummed with information moving in and out.

Work had begun on developing ways to use SEAC for practical applications in 1949, before the construction of the computer was completed. The first programs were prepared for SEAC in the Machine Development Laboratory of the Applied Mathematics Division. Those early "pioneers" prepared a basic library of fundamental subroutines and methods of incorporating them into computer programs. They worked closely with the engineers to apply SEAC to programming use and to iron out the many wrinkles of this marvelous machine. Changes to the hardware were incorporated as the programmers found problems or suggested improvements. Under the direction of Dr. Edward W. Cannon, those contributing to this early effort were Merle M. Andrew, Ira "Corky" Diehm, Florence Koons, Samuel Lubkin, Ethel C. Marden, Ida Rhodes and Otto Steiner. Joseph Levin joined the group later to direct programming in the Computation Laboratory.

SEAC performed its first integrated computational operation on April 7, 1950. On May 9, it carried out its first significant computation, the tracing of optical rays through lens systems for the NBS Optics Division, and on June 30, 1950, SEAC was officially announced and dedicated.

Who among us had ever imagined as we studied through our college years that such a computer would ever exist, let alone that in a short time we would be programming it to perform monumental tasks of computation!

We came from all over -- Manhattan, Brooklyn, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Texas, Georgia, Long Island, North Carolina, Wisconsin and elsewhere -- to work at jobs that were so much fun we couldn't believe we were getting paid to perform them.

Names of some of these people (not listed above) pop into my mind: Sally Tsingou Peavy, Renee Jasper, Norman Levine, Ann Futterman, Don Rubin, Frances Froberger, Dottie Jirauch, Bernie Urban, Maxine Paulsen, Kay Christoph, Frank Stockmal, Lambert Joel, Karl Goldberg, Morris Newman, Helen and Frank Meek, Bill Hall, Bill Cahill, Ruth Anderson, Ben Handy, Mike Montalbano, Leon Gainen, Sol Pollack, Charlie Swift, Viola Hovsepian, Phil Rabinowitz, Leon Nemerever, Joe Wegstein, Terry Ledley. On the engineering side, under the direction of Sam Alexander and Ralph Slutz, there were Karl Wilder, Bob Elbourn, Sid Greenwald, Art Holt, Margaret Fox, John Cooper, Ruth Hauter, Leonard Cahn, Walter Urban, John Rafferty, Jim Pike, Bill Youden, Mark Shiowitz, Max Klein, Arnold Weinberger, Russell Kirsch, Jim Pike, Ray and Earle Toense, Phil Shupe, Bill Bridges. Others came to the group a little later in the decade - Milton Abramowitz, Franz Alt, Irene Stegun, Don Larson, John Todd, among others - but this story is about the early Fifties. (Those not listed by name should feel no slight. It's my memory that fails, not their contributions.)

On a personal note, I had come from a small college in the foothills of North Georgia, and since my older sister was working for the Federal Government in Washington, D.C., I wanted to join her. The only Civil Service exam available in my area was for a stenographer. So I scored on that, and headed North to work for the Mineral Products Division of the Bureau of Standards. After a year or so, the Personnel Department suggested I transfer over to the Mathematics Division to work with a new digital computer. My first assignment was to put into type a SEAC programming manual written by Joe Levin (no word processing then). He was delighted that I was a typist as well as a mathematician. I took the opportunity to learn programming as I typed.

SEAC was housed in Building 83 of the old NBS (at Connecticut and Van Ness in D.C), and occupied a large room with a catwalk to access the components, and a console room. The Applied Mathematics group occupied a suite of rooms down the hall. SEAC had 512 words of mercury delay line memory, 45 binary digits (bits) per word, and later this was increased to 1024 words with the installation of the Williams CRT memory.

SEAC 1950

SEAC filled a large room, with overhead catwalks installed for reaching components for servicing. This picture shows SEAC's control console room. The cabinets along the right wall are for processing tapes.

In the beginning, computer input was by Teletype (at a rate of 2 seconds per word) and paper tape. Since programming was in base 16 (hexadecimal -- the word sexadecimal was carefully avoided), there were numerals 0 - 9 and letters A - F. This created a need for some ingenious printed output, with only six letters (one of those, F, was used as a space), the number 0 for the letter O, and 1 for I or l. You could maybe stretch it to use a 5 for S or a 6 for G.

The diagnostic program to make sure all was well inside SEAC was called FIBA FIBA FOO, printed as 1BA 1BA 00, since the F was printed as a space. The tests created a unique sound if all was well in the computer's innards, and we soon learned to smile if we came in and there was the old familiar musical trill of FIBA FIBA FOO, a sound which I can still hear in my mind's ear.

But this story is not primarily about the computer. It is about the individuals who worked with it and set the stage for much of the modern day user-friendly desktop computers. Though we were probably not aware of it at the time, we were indeed pioneers in the field of computer programming. We wrote subroutines to perform functions that would be common to the many applications that were being programmed, and worked on improved standards for their use and insertion into programs. The subroutines had to be very efficient because of the small amount of memory available, and anyone who could save a memory cell was indeed the hero of the day. The first computer game prototype - shooting down airplanes on the CRT - was developed. We assisted the U.S. Air Force in programming and running huge linear programming models.

We had no compilers or languages that would relate computer functions to English phrases. We coded in "words" consisting of binary digits grouped as hexadecimal characters. (Ida Rhodes never even went that far -- she wrote her programs in binary, permutations of 45 1's and 0's in a word of code.) Later on, crude compilers were written that made programming a little easier, starting with a rather primitive one and then evolving into a little more sophistication, but never anything elaborate or really easy to use. But we were setting the standards for compilers to come.

There was a camaraderie that formed among us that I believe to be extremely rare, if not unique, in a workplace. We worked together as a unit and with the engineers, learning this new field, and supporting each other's strong points and weaknesses. But it wasn't just the work that caused our bond. It seemed as though each person was a special individual with a warm heart, a sense of humor, an appreciation of each other, an intense interest in living a full life -- and with eccentricities! I doubt that these personalities would have been the same in another environment. There was a constant flow of human interest events. We gave to our work all our energy and most of our time -- any time of the day or night, many of us were there -- but we always found time to laugh and enjoy those around us. Some of the incidents that I remember are listed below.

Sound from the SEAC was produced by an AM radio, tuned onto 1000, which monitored the one megacycle clock. (Fortunately, there were no local AM stations operating at 1000 on the dial.) By listening to the monitored sounds of the computer computations, the engineers were given information as to the status of internal operations. It also gave us a chance to make music. Some enterprising individuals with an ear for music soon realized that certain computations, e.g., multiplications or additions, when repeated a certain number of times per second, would approximate a particular musical note. Joe Wegstein and John Cooper entered into a strong competition against Frank Stockmal to see who could play the first tune on SEAC. It was necessary to devise the configuration that would produce each note. Joe and John set out to program the music for "Yankee Doodle Dandy", representing the Union forces, and Frank Stockmal to program "Dixie" for the Confederates. Dixie won, and John commented with near tears in his eyes, "It's a sorry day for the Union." There was a later scene when SEAC was playing "Dixie" and John was marching up and down in front of the console carrying a confederate flag, when in came an unannounced VIP tour.

Among the childbirths that occurred in the engineering families while they were working with SEAC, there were eighteen straight boys (John Rafferty contributing many of these). It was decided that it was the one megacycle clock that was causing the streak of male babies.

Don Rubin announced his coffee break every morning with the greeting, "Tennis, anyone?" He declared 384 to be the number -- ? At the lunch restaurant he would always say, "What, no lasagna?"

Frank Stockmal collected $5 from each of us and traveled to Las Vegas with a sure mathematical formula to beat the game, but the wire came back to us: "Send More Money."

Sol Pollack had an annoying habit of coming into the console area while someone else's program was running and pushing a switch which he thought was in the wrong position (it wasn't). This led ultimately to the P.R. switch on SEAC (Pollack Remover).

With the advent of automatic computers, it became feasible to compute large prime numbers, which were of utmost importance to the "pure" mathematicians of the day. Any time SEAC was not being used for more pressing and profitable calculations, the prime number program would be running. This usually occurred on the graveyard shift, and one of us would always be assigned to that shift. The prime numbers would print out on the Teletype machine. One graveyard shift, the Teletype unexpectedly ran out of paper, and extra was nowhere to be found. What to do? If there was no printout, all that computing time (sometimes hours between prime numbers) would be lost. So someone, who for some reason unknown to me was called "Burgle, Burgle", put in a frantic call at 1:00 am to Karl Wilder who was in charge of the paper supply. He kept extra supplies in the ladies room (space was at a premium), but, alas, it was locked and no key around. The "day" was saved by using a roll of toilet paper on the teletype machine. What a hero! (I have heard that this output display went along to the Smithsonian with other relics of SEAC.)

Later on, input was by way of a magnetic wire cartridge, a 4- or 5-inch oval device with magnetic wire running between two spools. Input could be typed onto paper tape and then inscribed onto the cartridge with a peripheral device, thus eliminating slow input time while actually on the computer. We stored our programs on these cartridges, and guarded them with our lives. At one time, Norman Levine kept experiencing a programming "bug" which he could not account for. He went over and over the program, but it was faultless. He happened to look at the back of the cartridge and there in the small exposed space of wire was a real bug (dead of course).

The standard "put-down" when someone became obnoxious was, "Quiet, or I'll inscribe you on a wire cartridge, read you into the memory, and push the memory clear button."

When Helen and Frank Meek were courting before their marriage, they were having supper one evening in the nearby Hot Shoppe, and Frank was overheard to say as he gazed soulfully into Helen's eyes, "But, Helen, it's monotonic increasing."

We were a devoted bunch of programmers and neither rain nor snow, nor power failures would deter us from our tasks. Once, when the electricity went off during a storm, the building was left in almost total darkness. Most of us took the chance to chat and socialize, but we discovered Norman Levine desperately working on his program under the emergency light in the hallway.

When Karl Wilder was leaving the building to get married, someone tossed from a second story window a large bag of bits that had been punched out of Teletype paper tape. It would have been a fitting ceremonial rite except that the bag was unopened and hit Karl in the head. He never knew the intention here.

Bill Youden was reported to read the comic strip "Pogo" backwards, frame by frame, so that he could create his own story.

This conversation was overheard between Lambert Joel and Karl Goldberg: "What are you doing reading to Morris from the telephone directory?" "Calling out random numbers." "But Morris isn't copying them down." "That's what makes them random."

Ida Rhodes was being visited by Sinclair Weeks' Undersecretary of Commerce (a Republican). She was observed secretly turning off her hearing aid in the middle of the visit, allowing him to continue unheard.

Three engineers, identities uncertain, left one winter's Friday night, drove all the way to Miami, spent a few hours in the sun, and arrived at work Monday morning with a sunburn.


This is not the console for SEAC, but for its West Coast cousin, SWAC. Note that consoles consisted of switches and dials; there is no keyboard.

Ethel Marden taught many of us how to program the computer, but she also taught us many of the finer points of life. She instructed us in scuba diving; she herself was an avid scuba diver and held the women's world record in 1954 for a depth of 165 feet. She showed us how much fun riding in her MG could be, how to open an English muffin so that all the crevices would be there to catch the butter, which wines were good and which to serve with various foods, how to properly serve brandy to get the full aroma -- indeed, all the little things that create the good life. The Mardens unveiled their Frank Lloyd Wright house design in 1951, and there were daily reports of the compromises or non-compromises between architect and client. It was 1956 before we had a picnic on the cornerstone.

Frank Stockmal was an avid Dixieland jazz fan. So on Friday evenings a large group of us would assemble at the Bayou, under the Whitehurst Freeway on K Street in Georgetown and listen to Wild Bill Whelan and his Dixie Six, as we drank beer and ate pizza (my first introduction to that marvelous food). Near the end of the evening, the musicians would strike up "When the Saints Go Marching In," and Frank with awe and wet eyes would lead us around the room in a fevered march. Alas, I read just recently that the Bayou will soon be closing after all these years, forced out by new development. Such is the fate of our memories.

Scientists came from Los Alamos and Oak Ridge to use the SEAC for computations relating to the hydrogen bomb. They most often had to take the graveyard shift for their work, and one NBS employee always had to be there with them. That's how we found out that some of the material in their top-secret file cabinet was liquid.

There are other memories that linger: lunch at the National Zoo cafeteria to watch the lions being fed; Frank Stockmal's amazement at the gentleness of the male elephant, who dug a hole for the female at mating time; coffee breaks at the old Hot Shoppe; martinis at Pouget's; fishing parties on the Chesapeake with Ginnie Pollack's fabulous ham, lots of spot fish caught, lots of beer drunk; the promotion party at Bill Hall's when our group got their GS-7 rating, with bourbon, baklava and hangovers.

There were times when it seemed that the SEAC had broken down and would never be repaired again. This was extremely frustrating when working against deadlines and with clients breathing down our necks. On such an occasion, after days of downtime, and in a momentary fit of anxiety, I penned this parody:


When SEAC's last tubes are busted, and the
tapes no longer magnetic

When the oldest cartridge has rusted, and the
youngest dump is pathetic,

We shall rest, and, faith, we shall need it -- sit
down with a martini or two,

Till the master of all computers shall call us
to work anew!

And those that were good shall be happy: they
shall sit in a cushioned chair;

They shall code for an infinite memory, with
tapes of speed so rare;

They shall have real printers to print on --
alphabet, decimal and all;

They shall code for a page at a sitting and never
work graveyards atall!

And only IBM shall praise us, and only IBM
shall blame;

And each one shall work for money, and no
one shall care for fame;

But each for the joy of the dollar, and each with
his own ul-cer,

Shall recall the SEAC with horror, for the mess
of things as they were!

With apologies to Kipling, of course.

Then, after a few years, there came the lure of the big aircraft and other industries out West. We were a prime target for recruitment in this new technology. Many left for more money and the easy California-style living. Westward ho! Also, there was the ADX2 (an alleged battery booster) incident, with its political ramifications and a resulting cut in funds to the Bureau, and so some lost their jobs through RIFs. And along came the Remington Rand UNIVAC. With IBM's entry into marketing digital computers, SEAC became an outdated, though beloved, computer.

Many of us remained at the Bureau, new employees came, but the aura was dispelled. The best of times was a SEAC memory.