Memories of the early days —
NZCS: Why and how it was so
Formal histories may tell well enough what has happened, but often they say little about why and how it came about. Anecdote will sometimes fill the gaps and perhaps my recollections will help in this way.
When I returned to New Zealand from Australia in 1959, it was not long before I was offered a job by Jack Wills, general manager of IBM. It was a momentous time because, not long before, he had sold New Zealand’s first computer to the Treasury and its delivery was eagerly awaited. I had been a ‘rocket scientist’ in UK and Australia and, starting in 1954, had used computers to study mathematical models of guided missile performance. It had been agreed that while the primary job of the computer, an IBM650, was to produce the public service payroll, one third of its time was to be allocated to other departments for scientific work. I got the job of instructing those concerned how to use the 650. I met a lot of interesting people, such as John Robinson, who later contributed so much to the society. To whatever extent I was successful, my efforts would have been the first to spread knowledge of computing widely in this country. I had decided that as the demand for knowledge of computing would grow very rapidly, the thing to do was to get on with the task of helping to meet that demand.
The story was different in the Treasury. With the aid of IBM’s (notorious?) aptitude tests, just two members of its staff had been selected as its programmers — one of them was Bill Neale. They had taken the view that programming was a ‘black art’ and they were its high priests whose knowledge was to be withheld from the common people. I guess I blew that one for them.
Around this time, word spread that a group of interested people, aware that using computers was a new activity, began to discuss the formation of a society to focus interest and provide a forum for discussion of computing topics. Busy enough anyway, I awaited developments. One concern of the group was that as computing still had only a toehold in New Zealand it provided too narrow a base. Most automatic data processing at the time was done using punched cards and electromagnetic equipment. Another was that the computer vending firms themselves might come to dominate the society and use it for their own ends. Thus the society they founded in October 1960 became the Data Processing and Computer Society. In a similar vein, the first computer conference in Australia in May the same year was entitled the Australian National Conference on Computing and Automatic Control (ANCCAC). Of the 14 founding members, I recall Gordon Oed, Errol Jones, Paul Walker, John Robinson, Athol Carrington and Jack Wills. Computer companies were each invited to nominate two members of their staff who would be eligible for full membership with voting rights. Jack Wills nominated myself and Robin Currie who, some time later, was transferred to the IBM plant at Poughkeepsie, New York State. There, sadly, he died as a result of a motor accident while on his way to work
In the event, concerns about the computer companies dominating the society proved to be unfounded. The computer companies played a lesser rather than a greater part in the affairs of the society and few of their staff have held any office in it. Ian Lauchland of IBM, national president in 1980–1 was a notable exception.
In August 1961, I accepted an appointment at the University of Canterbury as a senior lecturer in mathematics with responsibility to manage the IBM1620 computer which IBM had offered to the University on advantageous terms to meet the latent demand, especially from the engineering and science faculties. Not long before this, Athol Carrington had been appointed to the first chair in accountancy in the University. The 1620 duly arrived in May 1962. I heard little of the society’s activities which at that stage were wholly in Wellington. Then, rather more than a year later, I had a telephone call from Athol who said that Gordon Oed had been in contact with him suggesting that it was time to consider forming a branch of the society in Canterbury. Accordingly Athol and I convened a meeting in the School of Engineering which was well-attended and those present agreed to proceed to the formation of a branch of the society. A provisional local committee was formed with Athol as chairman and we proceeded to plan a sequence of five or six talks for the year to come. Fairly soon afterwards, I received an invitation from Brian Cox of the University of Otago to visit Dunedin where the formation of an Otago branch was being mooted. This I did and the branch was duly established.
Of course with branch formation and society activities being distributed geographically, society organization had to be adapted to cope, although its membership and resources remained quite modest. A small executive committee was formed in Wellington with the branches being invited to nominate one Wellington member each as their representative. After the first year in Canterbury, Athol suggested that he had done his bit in getting things started and he handed over the local chairmanship to me so it was my job to find a Wellington member to act for us. First I thought of Bruce Payne, who was lecturing at Victoria University and had been a colleague of mine in our undergraduate days at the University of Otago, but he pointed out that he was really better suited to represent Otago and this was agreed. When I thought again, John Robinson, a Canterbury engineering graduate, come to mind and John duly accepted appointment. It turned out that I had indeed made a fortunate choice, as John served the society well for many years, being president in 1974–5.
We proceeded on an even enough keel until 1967, when I received a grant from IBM (largely on the advocacy of Robin Currie) to attend the IBM Systems Research Institute in New York for three months. I needed a successor in the Canterbury branch. Once again, my second choice was a good one as it turned out — Bernard Battersby who was a prominent accountant in Christchurch. I duly set off for New York and soon afterwards for a period of refresher leave at the University of London. When I returned, I found out that Bernard had taken on his task with a will. He was elected national president in succession to the first president, Gordon Oed. He had completely overhauled the constitution of the society, to be broadly similar to that of the Society of Accountants, and changed its name to simply the New Zealand Computer Society. Grades of fellow, member and associate were introduced with qualifications for each and procedures for election. A national council was set up with two representatives from each branch, meeting, usually in Wellington, twice a year.
At a council meeting in 1969, membership numbers were allocated. Since then, more than once, excitement has been aroused about members with very low membership numbers. The then president, Professor Tom Cowan, got number one, but after that they were allocated in a rather hackneyed manner branch by branch: Auckland first, then Wellington, then Canterbury, then Otago — even though Auckland had been the fourth branch to be founded. This meant that some of the members who got low numbers, were relatively undistinguished. It might have been better to have allocated numbers by lot.
Thus the society adapted to the rapid changes in its field and it has indeed continued to adapt in the years which have followed as circumstances demanded. At the annual general meeting associated with the national conference in Auckland, Bernard Battersby, Gordon Oed and Paul Walker were elected as the society’s first fellows. It is true to say that the society has, over the years, been regarded in a varying light by those who are employed in computing/information technology. At one stage there was an opinion that it was unduly dominated by academics. When Bevan Clarke and I did a survey of membership we found that this was not so, just 9% being so employed, which seemed to us to be about the right proportion.
The society’s biennial national conferences over the years and ‘Rutherford’ conferences on a smaller scale in alternate years have been memorable events for those who attended. Richard Hamming, a keynote speaker at one conference and a figure of international standing, and his charming wife, Wanda, became personal friends in whose home I was a guest on two occasions. I well recall his remark ‘Newton declared that he had stood on the shoulders of giants. In computing we stand on each other’s feet!’
I recall particularly the 1978 conference in Auckland. I had been elected national president that year, Graeme Barnard having been my staunch advocate, I suspect, so I was in the chair. I had earlier made the suggestion to the conference committee that Professor Sydney Michaelson of the University of Edinburgh whom I knew well and who was quite a ‘character’ would make an excellent keynote speaking. So it proved, Sydney and his wife, Kitty — also quite a character — duly attending. At informal interludes in proceedings Syd always seemed to be engaged in a lively interaction with a cluster of attendees. On the day after the conference ended, Graeme Barnard and his most supportive wife, Janet, who were excellent hosts, gave a luncheon party on their yacht and this was most enjoyable. When the guests were duly put ashore afterwards, Graeme suggested to Syd and me that we should accompany him to take the boat around to its mooring in the Tamaki River. We did this successfully and climbed into Graeme’s small fibreglass dinghy to go ashore. This would have been all right except that it had a crack in its transom and with three aboard, water began to pour through it. Syd in the bow and no seaman became much alarmed as he could not swim and clearly had visions of a watery grave. However, with vigorous pulling and bailing we got him safely to the landing.
The conference dinner was also a great occasion, with Dean Martin Sullivan of St Paul’s Cathedral as a witty after-dinner speaker. It was the occasion too for the award of fellowship of the society to John Robinson. This was an utter surprise to him and I have never seen anybody with such a stunned look on his face as John when he came up to receive the presentation!
At a special meeting associated with the conference, and after many years’ gestation and referral back to the national executive at the previous conference, a Code of Ethics was to be presented for the meeting’s approval. Knowing of its rough treatment on the earlier occasion, I decided to be well-prepared and so acquainted myself thoroughly with the parliamentary rules of procedure. I duly announced at the start of the meeting that I’d conduct it under those rules. Fortunately, nobody else knew them as well as I did, so all went well, though an amendment from Paul Compton led to one lively moment before it was defeated and the Code of Ethics was adopted successfully. I believe that this was a worthwhile step in enhancing the status of the society generally.
The society was well aware of the social issues of the day surrounding computing, one of which was its impact on employment. It was decided to invite an overseas speaker of stature to visit and address the topic. This time I suggested Kristin Nygaard of the Norwegian Computing Centre, Oslo, co-creator of Simula, the first object-oriented computing language, who was also active in labour relations in Norway. I had spent some time with Kristin in Oslo and knew of his contribution in this area and also that he too was a ‘character’ whose visit would be enjoyed. So it proved at the four seminars presented here by Kristin and his wife Johanna. Unlike Syd Michaelson, and a real Norwegian, Kristin was an experienced sailor. My daughter, Sally, arranged a special visit for him to Kapiti Island, a wildlife sanctuary near Wellington, with a small party. The weather on the day dawned grey and threatening but we decided to go ahead and duly landed on Kapiti after a lively passage. The ranger gave us a short introductory talk in which he said that they had successfully exterminated Norway rats on the island. Kristin interjected impishly ‘I am Norwegian’, rather disconcerting our host. The visit went well and on the return passage, the rougher the sea became the more Kristin enjoyed it, albeit some others aboard did not, so it was a well chosen expedition.
On another social issue, the society took an active part in debates on the treatment of personal information stored on computers and information systems. Knowing better than most of the possible risks of abuse of such information, the society took a conservative view and advocated firm measures for the protection of privacy. I remember discussing the issue with Richard Hamming who counselled caution lest too many barriers be created to the legitimate free flow of information. ‘After all,’ he said, ‘why should those who have nothing to hide be concerned about this?’ As things have turned out, I think we were rather naïve and he was wiser that we were. On too many occasions since, personal privacy has been cited by organizations to withhold information when one has suspected that their own interests in secrecy were the real reason for not telling.
Today, when the computer has become ubiquitous, one social issue of concern seems to be the pollution of landfill sites by the numbers of discarded computers — unimaginable in my day! The issues will surely keep on changing and so too will the challenges faced by the society in meeting them. I wish it well in this task.