‘Hidden Figures’ Reminds Viewers How Far Technology has Come

A stack of computer punch cards.

I don’t understand the cloud, this computer cloud thing.  Somewhere, somehow your computer file is floating around in the air.  I don’t understand cloud printing.  I don’t understand Google Drive.  Where is Google Drive?  Who else can see it?  I don’t understand any of this.  What I do understand is holding something in my hand knowing that my file is on it.

When I started college decades ago, everyone stored their files on floppy discs, which were floppy and easily damaged.  They were used on the early Apple II computers that had black tube screens with green letters.  Those were the only colors.  Innovative back then, but fitting now only for St. Patrick’s Day in a computer museum.

What concerns me is that if I can’t hold on to my file, who else can get it?  What if the Russians hack it?  It has been said lately, in the media, that the Russians can hack anything.  What if the FBI director some day says that I was “extremely careless,” with my computer files?  If the FBI says that you’re careless with your computer files, you can get in serious trouble.  Well, most people can get in trouble.

Even before college, I remember computers in high school that stored data on IBM punch cards.  Punch cards are the dinosaurs of the computer programing evolution.  

The movie “Hidden Figures,” released to theaters January 6, follows the delivery of the first IBM computer to NASA.  It took up the whole space of a NASA office, and several men tried, but failed to operate it.  That is until Dorothy Vaughan came and solved their problems.  This early computer stored programing on punch cards. It took a whole stack of punch cards to run a computation.  

Vaughan was a computer pioneer and paved the way for many women, especially black women, to work in the field of computer science.  Katherine Johnson, one of the women who worked with Vaughan at NASA, developed the formula that allowed John Glenn to be the first man to orbit the earth.  Before her, none of the men at NASA could figure out it.  

Without those women working at NASA, America would have never won the space race with the former Soviet Union or landed on the moon.  It is incredible today to think that America put a man on the moon using computers that ran on paper cards.  

Today we have phones that fit in our pockets. Our phones have apps that can do an infinite number of programs.  Back in the 1950s and 1960s, it took a large room filled with a gigantic computer, several people and a stack of IBM computer punch cards to run those same type of programs that are on our phones today.

I have not totally given up on the computer punch card.  I have an old 1970s era Allen electronic organ at home that still works today that runs on IBM punch cards.  The organ stores different organ sounds on the punch cards.  In the front of the organ, there is a slot for the punch card reader.  The organist slides the card into the slot to change the organ’s sounds.

The IBM computer punch card is historic.  It ran computers, it ran organs, and a stack of them helped NASA win the race to the moon.


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