John Cheever On Computer Programming

In The Wapshot Chronicle (Harper and Row, New York, 1957), John Cheever writes:

There was a demand that year for Tapers and he pointed this out to Coverly as his best bet. The government would pay half of Coverly’s tuition at the MacIlhenney Institute. It was a four-month course and if he passed his exams he would be taken into government service at seventy-five dollars a week,.  Advised and encouraged by his friend, Coverly enrolled in some night classes on Taping. This involved the translation of physics experiments into the symbols–or tape–that could be fed into a computation machine….

The first lecture was an orientation talk on cybernetics or automation, and if Coverly, with his mildly rueful disposition, had been inclined to find any irony in his future relationship to a thinking machine, he was swiftly disabused. Then they got to work on memorizing the code.

This was like learning a language and a rudimentary one. Everything was done by rote. They were expected to memorize fifty symbols a week. They were quizzed for fifteen minutes at the opening of each class and were given speed tests at the end of the two-hour period. After a month of this the symbols–like the study of any language–had begun to dominate Coverly’s thinking, and walking on the street he had gotten into the habit of regrouping numbers on license plates, prices in store windows and numerals on clocks so that they could be fed into a machine….[pp. 155]

Coverly passed his Civil Service examination and was qualified as a Taper. [pp. 164]

These little excerpts are notable for several reasons:

  1. I have never seen the programming of computers in that early period of computing history referred to as ‘taping’; neither have I seen programmers referred to as ‘tapers.’ I have not been able to find instances of this nomenclature elsewhere. (I have, of course, seen human calculators referred to as ‘computers.’)
  2. Cheever’s descriptions of ‘taping’ and the process of learning a ‘programming language’ are not elementary; I wonder if he had some experience with computers and working on them. (Incidentally, the method of instruction–the memorization of a set numerical quota of symbols every day or week–reminds me of a story a Taiwanese friend once told me about how Chinese is taught to young children in elementary schools.)
  3. Cheever refers to Coverly being employed at “one of the rocket-launching stations where Tapers were employed.” The Wapshot Chronicle was published in 1957; NASA only came into being in 1958, so the activities Cheever would have been referring to would presumably have been those of the US Air Force’s Atlas missile program or perhaps an experimental project run by NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA).
  4. Cheever indicates that Coverly was “qualified as a Taper” on passing a Civil Service examination; I wonder whether there was such an examination and if so, who administered it, what it was called, what its contents were, etc.
  5. I wonder if such a reference to computer programming is among the first–if not the first–in post-war mainstream fiction. (By which I mean works not classified as science fiction.)

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