Wednesday, November 21, 2012

New Zealand's first computer programmer

An ICT1201
My colleague Bob Doran, a keen computing historian, has written this blog post.

Ruth Engleback must be close to the earliest computer programmer surviving in NZ. Now in her 80th year, she immigrated to NZ in August 1962 with her husband and two children (four more were born in NZ.) She lives on Albany hill on a 10-acre block where the family has been since 1965.
   Ruth (nee Thomson) was one of first group of four trainee woman programmers
hired by BTM in 1954. She stayed with the company until July 1959 just
before the birth of their first child. The group of trainees were from various
backgrounds; her’s was running all facets of a building-company office – the
others had degrees or tab-machine experience. Among other projects she
developed the code for the Middlesex City Council payroll who had 3,000 (?)
employees. Her job title was “Installation Officer” and involved systems analysis,
programme writing and machine testing at Stevenage.
   In Auckland she was approached by Motor Specialties towards the end of 1963
to help set-up their ICT1201 system. She thinks that MotorSpecs learned of
her because of a contact made by her husband who went goldmining in the
Coromandel with Reg Middleton. At Motorspecs she worked with Warwick
Johnson (son of MS owner?) getting the system operating. She stayed for about
a year. She later went back to MS in 1979 when they had an ICL1902T – her
daughter Lucy also worked for MS. MS replaced their ICL equipment with IBM
when Bruce Rankin became head of the department.
   She is certain that the MotorSpecs’ 1201 was second hand and came from the
NZ treasury. She also recalls hearing that NZ had bought a 1201 when she was
working for BTM in England. She thinks that the Motorspecs 1201 was replaced
by a 1300 in 1964-65 and the 1201 was given to ATI. She gave a course to ATI
staff on programming the 1201. She thinks that ATI passed on the computer to
   Programming of the 1201 was done at the machine language level. When
writing programs they did write the opcodes in mnemonics but had to hand-
translate them to binary. The 1201 was an optimally-programmed machine –
each instruction had the address of the next so the programmer had to arrange
the instructions on the (drum) memory to ensure that there were no large inter-
instruction delays. Setting up the 1201 for a task also involved wiring plug-
boards of an attached tabulator to route data appropriately. Because the memory
of the 1201 was so small, most tasks involved punch card dataprocessing
techniques with sorted decks of cards?