Today almost everyone has at least one computer and people can check their email or surf the internet from their phones. In the early days of computing, computers were the size of a large rooms, there was no internet, and programming was either hard-wired or done with punched cards. In his memoir, Birth of an Industry: Computers in the Early Years, Gene Denk not only chronicles the development of the early computers, but shares what it was like to work in that fast-changing and challenging environment. In his years at the Pacific Missile Range and through 25 years at IBM, Gene’s career spanned pivotal years in the industry. This book was written so that important history would be saved for posterity.
Interview with the Author
Why did you write this book?
Quoting from the book on page 1, “The way of life in the computer world at that time is a story that few people are left to tell, and it is important that those days are not forgotten. They were the foundation for the technology of today.”
What kind of reader is it targeted toward and why?
The book is targeted at current computer professionals and others who share an interest in computers. Parts of the book are quite technical, and others less so, all mixed with stories of those days.
The book has been in the works for a long time. What is of special interest in this book to today’s computer professionals and users?
Computer professionals will find some commonality and many differences in tools and techniques. For example, I retired just as object-oriented programming was becoming popular, so I had a very limited exposure to that technique and to new programming languages.
What do you see as the most significant innovations during the time you were working in the computer industry, and what do you see as the most significant innovations since that time.
I think the most significant innovations over the past several decades have been new hardware technologies leading to reduced costs, increases in memory sizes, and miniaturization of components, all requiring higher levels of manufacturing automation.
What surprises you the most about the modern computer age?
The power of a tablet computer, of a shirt-pocket computer that is called a cell phone, and by the vast markets for such devices.
Do you have a favorite story you would like to relate that didn’t make it into the book?
I would have remembered more stories, had I started the book a decade earlier. There are stories in the book that I would not be able to recall any more now because of my age. I will turn 80 this fall (2012), God willing.
Donald (Gene) Denk began his career in computer programming in 1960 when most people had no idea computers existed. He spent seven years, mostly as a systems programmer, working for the Pacific Missile Range. During a 25-year career at IBM, Gene worked in Manufacturing Development and the Product Test Laboratory during the time when the computers that once filled whole rooms
evolved into desktop computers. Gene lives with his wife of 54 years in San Luis Obispo, CA. They have nine children and eight grandchildren.