MEMOIR: CHAPTER EIGHT: Bread Trucks and Computers

Bread Trucks and Computers

During 1965-1966, I demonstrated the ECP-18 for teachers and students in math classes from Seattle to San Francisco, driving up in the van, finding a couple of strong and eager math teachers to help  pull the computer out and haul it into their classroom. The demos and teaching attracted some attention, and we sold around ten—each of them individually and personally manufactured in his 2-car garage, where one half of the space was devoted to building circuit boards, and the other half to programming and testing the computers. Math teachers (mostly male, back then) loved the idea of teaching kids to program using binary and hexadecimal, loved being pioneers themselves. But they had to convince their superiors to come up with $8000 for a machine that wasn’t backed up by a large, well-known company.

Allan and I sold the company to a big-time operator from Texas, who wooed us with champagne and promises to try to get the selling price down. I got 40%, the first actual income I’d seen from our venture. It was worth it.

This article about the Computer Instruction Network was published in July, 1967.

By then, I was ready to stop traveling and be out  of the van. But it was not to be. I was offered a five-figure salary (unheard of in 1966, especially for a woman) to direct a new, federally-funded project through the Marion County, Oregon, Intermediate Education District (IED). It was right up my alley, and of course, there was no one else who could have done it at that time. The goal was to take computing into high schools in Marion, Polk and Lincoln counties, somehow. The Project was called The Computer Instruction Network.

I hired a small staff and we set up an office. Then we bought a used bread truck, and refitted it to hold an IBM 1130 computer—not a “classroom computer” in the sense that the ECP-18 had been, because it was too large to leave the truck, but we drove the van to every high school in the two counties, including the Chemawa Indian Boarding School in Woodburn, and we trained teachers and students in machine language programming. We took along the large roll of orange extension cord, ran it into the building and brought the kids out to the parking lot in small groups throughout the day.

Some shots of the converted bread truck we called the “Computemobile.”

The Computer Instruction Network operated from 1966-1969 and got a lot of national attention, as the first and most innovative attempt to get computers into classrooms. I gave a lot of speeches. Qualified for The Red Carpet Room at 100,000 air miles.

In 1964, two scientists at Dartmouth had invented a language called BASIC: Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, which allowed non-machine-language programmers to write programs in a fairly simple, intuitively sensible language. We were excited about the possibilities, and traveled to Dartmouth and Minnesota to talk to the inventors and learn the language. BASIC caught on slowly, but finally became widespread on microcomputers in the late 1970s and 1980s, when it was typically a standard feature, and often part of the firmware of the machine, particularly on Apples. BASIC and its variants are still in use today.My granddaughter Fay made a poster for her Social Studies class in 2004, entitled “My Grandmother’s Career in Computer Technology.” I loved it. She even had a photo of me wearing the wig I bought when it was fashionable in the 70’s and unfortunately used for my passport photo, which meant that from then on, if I traveled abroad, I had to wear the wig. What was I thinking?

In 1969 we still lived in Independence, where Don still taught Junior High math. The kids were now 7, 8 and 10. We had paid off our medical debts and bought a new house. I bought a new Mustang convertible, Don bought a new yellow Ford truck, and I commuted to Salem, ten miles away, to work on the Computer Instruction Network project, with occasional out-of-town trips. More postings on the refrigerator, more casseroles, and now each of the kids had chores to do.

But the marriage had been faltering for years. Nothing much had changed, except me. I was off and running, fast, loving life and my work, seeing the possibilities for my career. We had babysitters who could come and “live in” when I was traveling, and take over the cooking and child care. For Don, nothing much had changed. For me, everything had changed.

Every so often I would suggest that we get marriage counseling. Don wasn’t the least bit interested. “What for? We’re fine.”

We weren’t fine. I was responsible for everything to do with homemaking, cooking, and child care, though I hired help for child care, and I still packed up the kids and their paraphernalia every morning and schlepped them to daycare or school for the day, before I drove to Salem. At the end of the day, it was reversed. I picked up the kids and their stuff, drove home, got everybody comfortable, started a load of laundry, and got dinner ready. Don walked home from work and settled in to watch a ball game.

The final straw, as our relationship continued to break down, was the cold winter morning I got myself and the kids ready for work, daycare and school, and found that the furnace wasn’t working. On my way out the door with the kids and their stuff, I yelled for Don. “Don, could you call a repairman before you go to school? The furnace won’t come on.”

He stepped into the garage, looked at the furnace, and turned to me. “Your fingers can dial that telephone as well as mine,” and returned to his cup of coffee.

On the way to work that day, I realized that I was making enough money to easily support my family, was already doing everything needed to keep the family going, and Don was beginning to represent just another demanding mouth to feed. It was 1969. The project was ending in Salem, and it was time to make a new plan.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “MEMOIR: CHAPTER EIGHT: Bread Trucks and Computers

  1. Karen

    Judy, as I read these, I realize I can see a movie in all this. I know, I always say that, but I really can. A great project for a woman’s production group.

    • judyallen

      It feels like a big piece of history–the birth of computers in education and the emergence of women from centuries of oppression. Big word,I know. But what word would be better?

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