What got you interested in technology? IT's rich and famous share their memories

From father of the internet Vint Cerf to visionary sci-fi author William Gibson, the hardware that got IT's hall of fame started...

From father of the internet Vint Cerf to visionary sci-fi author William Gibson, the hardware that got IT's hall of fame started...

Superstars of the tech world like Dell CEO Michael Dell, father of the internet Vint Cerf and sci-fi author William Gibson have changed the way the world thinks about and consumes technology - but where did their passion for computing first start?

silicon.com spoke to some of the biggest names in computing, technology and related fields to find out how their early experiences kindled their love of tech.

Vint Cerf
Photo: David Meyer

VINT CERF
Co-inventor of the internet's TCP/IP protocols

What are your memories of your first computer?
The first one I saw in person in 1958 was called Sage (Semi-Automated Ground Environment) housed at System Development Corporation (SDC) in Santa Monica, California. SDC was a spin-off from RAND Corporation (a US Air Force think tank), as I recall.

Sage was a tube-based computer housed in at least three rooms, and you literally went inside the computer whose tubes lined the walls of the room. The operators sat in front of large, circular radar screens. It was like a scene out of Dr Strangelove (which would not be released until 1964). The system took radar tracking information as input from Distant Early Warning stations in northern Canada. The idea was to detect incoming Russian bombers flying over the North Pole to attack the United States and Canada.

The second computer that I actually got to program was called a Bendix G-15. It used punched paper tape for input and output which was prepared or printed using a Flexowriter keyboard/printer system. My best friend, Stephen D Crocker, got permission to use this machine at UCLA around 1960 when we were both still in high school.

What was the moment that first got you excited about the potential of technology?
Apart from the early experience with the computer at UCLA, I think I became particularly excited as an undergraduate at Stanford University where I got to use an extraordinary computer called the Burroughs B5000. I learned to program in Burroughts Algol (BALGOL) and discovered that you could create whole, simulated worlds that basically did whatever you told them to do. You could create a whole, synthetic, virtual universe to play with. I was hooked!

What modern technology do you wish you had growing up and why?
I really would have liked to have a personal computer that I could use all the time. In the early days, we had to use punched cards and submit our 'decks' to the high priest of the computer centre (uh, the computer operator, actually) and hope that the one or two runs we could get in a day would produce results as opposed to annoying syntax error messages. Having a computer at your disposal 24 hours a day would have been fabulous! Of course, I wish I had also had access to the internet but didn't get to use even its predecessor, the Arpanet, until I was about 26 years old (and a graduate student at UCLA).

Stephen Elop
Photo: Nokia

STEPHEN ELOP
President and CEO of Nokia

What are your memories of your first computer?
Atari 800. I have distinct memories of the 300-baud acoustic modem, that required me to dial (as in by spinning the phone dial) the university computer, listen for the wail, and then stick the phone handset into the modem. I also recall with some clarity that you had only about a 50/50 chance of moving data between Atari computers using a floppy disk because the alignment between floppy disk drives was never guaranteed.

What was the moment that first got you excited about the potential of technology?
The first moment that I became truly excited was when using the full text editor EDIT/EDT on a VAX 11-780 minicomputer running VMS. After painstakingly writing and editing Fortran 77 programs using a line editor, I could now move the cursor around the screen, edit at will, all powered by my VT-100 terminal. Amazing.

Thereafter, there have been a series of distinct 'technology revelation' moments. My first IBM PC, complete with a 5Mb removable cartridge hard drive. First cell phone. First access to the internet etc, etc.

What modern technology do you wish you had growing up and why?
The internet, with its vast collection of searchable information. I am able to so much more efficiently learn, find things and complete the picture on so many topics, in every setting... I only realise now how limited my visibility was so many years ago. Of course, I will be writing the same thing again in 10 years.


Dell CEO Michael Dell
Photo: Courtesy of Hartmann Studios

MICHAEL DELL
CEO and founder of Dell

What was the moment that first got you excited about the potential of technology?
From the time I was seven years old, I was captivated by the idea of a machine that could compute things. I remember being fascinated with my father's adding machine. I would type in an equation, it made some really cool noises, and out came my answer with minimal effort or time.

My first experience with an actual computer came in junior high school when my math teacher brought in our school's first teletype computer terminal. Those of us who were interested in learning about the computer could stay after school to play around with it - we'd write programs and do calculations.

In both cases, the machines did the tactical work while I dreamed up more complex problems for them to solve. That's still the benefit of IT today - computing power combined with our limitless ability to create, innovate and imagine is driving progress on a global scale. And that's very exciting to me.

What are your memories of your first computer?
I bought my first computer when I was fifteen. I had been hanging out at the local Radio Shack, using their computers and saving money to buy my own. The first thing I did when I got that computer home was take it apart to understand exactly how it worked.

I would spend the next several years figuring out how to enhance computers to make them more powerful by adding memory, hard drives and faster modems. I'd sell them for a profit, buy my next one and start the process over. Eventually, I started buying the components in bulk from distributors to reduce costs. My mother said my room looked like a mechanic's shop.

At the same time, I ran what back then was called a Bulletin Board System, which was a way of electronically connecting with other early computing adopters via a modem and phone line. We shared code, posted messages, exchanged news and formed connections. Prehistoric social media, if you will.

What modern technology do you wish you had growing up with and why?
I've learned that technology on its own isn't what really matters. What's important is how technology empowers and benefits people. So I would have loved having fibre to the home, cloud computing and the incredible compute power we have in datacentres today at my fingertips when I was growing up.

I look at the information, tools and new ways that my own children collaborate, and I'm astounded at the potential we've enabled for them. Advancements like personalised learning, the ability to connect in real time with peers in any part of the world and ubiquitous access to information are changing the way we all live, play and work.

What really excites me is the opportunity to wake up each day and be part of the most dynamic industry I know of. After all, IT is really all about giving people the power to achieve and do what matters most to them.


William Gibson
Photo: Penguin Group

WILLIAM GIBSON
Author and father of cyberpunk

What are your memories of your first computer?
I bought an Apple IIc and mechanical printer from Eaton's, the now-extinct Canadian department store chain. They were marked down for quick sale, to make way for the first Mac. I was shocked by the very considerable noise the floppy drive (a separate box) made. I had assumed these machines had no internal moving parts, I suppose. The only home computer I'd ever seen in operation, prior to my IIc, had been a Sinclair, hooked up to a thrift shop television set. The whirring and clicking of the IIc's drive seemed Victorian, disappointing. But I was an instant convert to word processing, regardless.

What was the moment that first got you excited about the potential of technology?
Less a moment than an era. I can only just remember the early 1950s, when America was on its post-war techno-enthusiasm kick. I was in love with Willy Ley's Rockets, Missiles and Space Travel, very heroically illustrated. I was unthinkingly confident about technology, until I learned to be quietly and constantly terrified, in the Cold War way, of nuclear war.

What modern technology do you wish you had growing up and why?
Any answer would require a full-on alternate history, as any of the ones that would have fascinated me would literally have changed everything. I would probably have asked for space travel and robots, neither of which have worked out at all the way they were imagined then.


Noel Sharkey
Photo: Chris Beaumont/CBS Interactive

NOEL SHARKEY
Professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield

What are your memories of your first computer?
The first computer I used was a PDP 11 with its 8K of memory in a box as big as a large filing cabinet. I had to program it with Octal keys which my hand seemed to learn to do automatically. I wrote my first AI program in 1979, an automated Haiku poet, in Basic on a Commodore Pet. There was no editor or software for the Pet so I had to write my own. I also wrote a Space Invaders for it to learn machine code. All of the programs were saved on an audio cassette player and I had to use a stopwatch to find them on the tape. Oh what we used to be able to do with a few K of memory in those days.

What was the moment that first got you excited about the potential of technology?
It is difficult to give a precise time but it was before I was four years old. I was pretty obsessed with science fiction and was an avid nightly listener to Dan Dare when I was three.

What modern technology do you wish you had growing up and why?
I would have gone crazy for the internet when I was growing up. I was 33 in 1982 when I first used it. I hated school but was a closet bookworm. It staggers me to think how much more access I could have had to human knowledge with the world wide web than I could get from the local library in a little town in Northern Ireland in the 1950s.


Hermann Hauser
Photo: Amadeus Capital Partners

HERMANN HAUSER
Co-founder of Acorn Computers and co-founder of Amadeus Capital Partners

What are your memories of your first computer?
I built my first computer out of a shoebox and eight marbles which encoded an eight-bit number. The bottom of the shoebox was made into an inclined plane with holes which housed the mechanical flip flops. My brother and I built them to act as staggered adders for the marbles as they rolled down the eight lane tracks. This allowed us to add one eight-bit number to another by reading the sum off the flipped units after the second lot of marbles rolled down the tracks. This was a very simple demonstration of how binary numbers could be represented (1 = marble, 0 = no marble) and how a simple adder works. At that stage I had no idea I would ever get involved in electronic computers.

What was the moment that first got you excited about the potential of technology?
When I used the IBM 370 mainframe computer for my PhD. I used spline fits to my data sets to visualise reaction parameters from my experiments. This was clearly a task that could not be achieved by hand calculations and took a very short time with a computer.

What modern technology do you wish you had growing up and why?
Facebook. It would have been great to share my enthusiasm for the sciences and physics in particular with other kids of the same age elsewhere in the world. I am sure I would have made good friends in many different countries in the world.


Autonomy CEO and founder Mike Lynch
Photo: silicon.com

MIKE LYNCH
Founder and CEO of Autonomy

What are your memories of your first computer?
It was my uncles' calculator - you could write 'hello' upside down: 07734. Then a Compukit UK101 built by an older school boy. But my true love was the BBC Micro 650. The 6502 may have only had eight bits but they were perfect bits.

What was the moment that first got you excited about the potential of technology?
Those LED watches you had to press the button of to see the time - so cool. In retrospect, so crazy too.

What modern technology do you wish you had growing up and why?
Music Studio Lite free all on the iPhone. In the days of Duran Duran, I could have never afforded all the gear needed to make my inner number one hit. Now it's free on a phone - move over Simon Le Bon...


SAS founder Jim Goodnight
Photo: SAS

JIM GOODNIGHT
CEO of SAS

What are your memories of your first computer?
It was back in 1963. I was a student at North Carolina State University. I walked into a room and saw a Selectric typewriter typing all by itself. It was amazing. It was an IBM 1620 computer, and the typewriter was its printed output device. I really was fascinated.

What was the moment that first got you excited about the potential of technology?
After getting my bachelor's degree, I continued to work for the statistics department at North Carolina State University. I was writing programs to analyse agricultural experiments involving livestock and crops. Researchers would bring the data to us to analyse. Before that, they had a room full of people with calculators adding up the data manually. We began shifting that work over to computers, which were well suited to handle large amounts of data and computations. It really underscored for me the power and the potential of analytics to solve big problems and harness big data. Now I see that power and potential every day as SAS helps our customers solve important business challenges.


Richard Stallman
Creative Commons: redjar

RICHARD STALLMAN
President of the Free Software Foundation

What are your memories of your first computer?
The first computer I ever owned is the one I am using now: a Lemote Yeeloong, which I chose because even the BIOS is free/libre software. From the BIOS on up, there is nothing in the machine that denies the user's freedom.

Before this one, the computers I used had been donated to the Free Software Foundation, and before that, they belonged to MIT and Harvard. In the 1970s, only someone very rich could have bought a computer that wasn't a toy. I never had any interest in the personal computers of the 1970s and 1980s because the computers in the lab were far more powerful. I didn't care who owned the computer as long as I could write software for it. And the most interesting software to work on was software that the others in the lab would use: system programs.

If you're asking about the first computer I ever used, that was an IBM 360 to which I had to submit jobs via punched cards. It sure looked impressive, but the PL/1 program I wrote needed more memory than the machine could offer.

What was the moment that first got you excited about the potential of technology?
As soon as I heard that there were machines that could be programmed, I wanted to program them. I was around six years old at the time, and it would take a decade before I actually saw a computer.

What modern technology do you wish you had growing up and why?
In terms of freedom, computing technology is getting worse. Earlier computers were designed for users to control them, but nowadays they are designed increasingly to control their users (ie, saps).

Apple's latest computers don't even allow users to freely choose what applications to install. Future Intel PCs will come with Restricted Boot, which means you can't run your choice of operating system on them. We may soon encounter computers configured not to allow their users to switch to the GNU/Linux system.


Kevin Warwick
Photo: Chris Beaumont/CBS Interactive

KEVIN WARWICK
Professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading

What are your memories of your first computer?
When I was a university undergraduate - punched card input for a computer the size of a barn. Answer to my simple calculation came back about three days later that I had forgotten a full stop therefore the program had been aborted.

What was the moment that first got you excited about the potential of technology?
When I was about 11, my father had a neurosurgical operation, I read Michael Crichton's Terminal Man, I twiddled with motorcycles - all this linked to make me think what might be possible if we stuck electrodes into a person's brain to link the brain with technology.

What modern technology do you wish you had growing up and why?
The internet. Plugging your nervous system into the internet means your body is no longer limited by biological constraints.


Jeff Hawkins
Photo: Numenta

JEFF HAWKINS
Founder of Palm Computing and founder of Numenta

What are your memories of your first computer?
The first computer I was exposed to was an analogue computer. It was unimpressive. My first digital computer was an unknown computer at the other end of a teletype in high school. My physics professor got me time on it because he was worried I was not being challenged in class.

What was the moment that first got you excited about the potential of technology?
I saw a Lissajous pattern on an oscilloscope generated by two signal generators. It combined mathematical elegance, simple electronics, and taught me what an oscilloscope was - all amazing.

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