How to become a computer programmer—in 1969

The ad below ran in Esquire (and many other publications) in 1969. The pitch seems reasonable enough until you consider that home computers weren't introduced until the late 1970s. So how were people going to learn programming without a computer to practice on? According to the ad copy, students were expected to "train by mail."

I wonder if anyone ever actually learned programming in this way?

Esquire - Jan 1969

     Posted By: Alex - Thu May 30, 2019
     Category: Advertising | Computers | 1960s

Reading this I recall a commercial for ICS schools. At the end of the commercial a list of courses scrolls from top to bottom on the screen. One of the offerings is Auto Mechanic. I would not be the postal delivery person's favourite delivery point if ICS was to mail an automobile engine to my home.

agent j
Posted by agent j on 05/30/19 at 06:49 AM
Actually, you could. At the time, without having Time-sharing systems widely available at businesses, the vast majority of the time a programmer spent was sitting at a desk, going over a sheet of paper (usually 11" x 17") and verifying that what you wrote in it was what you meant to write in it. Then you'd give your "coding sheet" to Data Entry, and a clerk would punch your lines into punch cards, one line per card. You then took the coding sheet and the punch cards back to your desk, and verified that what you wrote is what was punched, and that the cards are in the correct order. At that point you took your card deck to the pass through to the operations center, where a computer operator would feed it and any data cards you have into the computer's card reader, run the program against the data, and have the output (print-out and/or more data cards) and returning them, along with the original deck, back to you where you'd go back to your desk and look at the results. The only steps that the mail would delay are the getting the program and data cards punched, and the program run. People were not used to the immediate feedback of today so waiting 3-4 days was not a big deal.

The rest of the class was probably teaching the diagramming used at the time to logically break the program into steps. And the syntax of the programming language (probably COBOL, maybe FORTRAN) involved. A lot of secretaries improved their positions by learning to code and becoming programmers.

I caught the tail end of this system in the mid-1970s when I was in the Explorers program.
Posted by mjbird on 05/30/19 at 06:50 AM
Back in the day, I spoke ALGOL. But I was ahead of the rest, before deciding to stick with speaking only mathemagics with an engineering dialect.
Posted by Virtual in Carnate on 05/30/19 at 09:51 AM
I bought a computer language instruction set (series of booklets) in the 1970s. They were not designed to be used with a computer or any specific operating system. You could have used with a computer if you had access but I certainly did not. They were kind of useless in a practical sense but they did teach a bunch of useful general ideas. It was not a smart purchase for most but you could have gotten something out of them.
Posted by Floormaster Squeeze on 05/30/19 at 10:07 AM
The news lately about for profit schools taking advantage of G.I. bill education dollars is certainly not new. I signed up for aircraft engine "training" in the comfort of home, using my benefits in the early '70s, and went on to become a toll and die maker nowhere near an airport.
Posted by John on 05/30/19 at 10:52 AM
I couldn't have described the process better than mjbird. My experience working with computing machinery has been similar to our esteemed colleagues - I started in the early 1980's, just at the point where personal computers were becoming available for consumers and learned PET BASIC on Commodore computers (they were cheap and worked) before deciding on programming as a profession. The university was still using a punch card system at the time I began, with hours of desk work and then the long wait time between submission and results, but by the time I finished my education and graduated it had changed over to the personal computer as a teaching tool.
Posted by KDP on 05/30/19 at 10:53 AM
Seconding (or is it thirding?) mjbird and KDP. I learned programming in high school when the nearest available computer, an IBM 360, was eighty miles away. Creating flowcharts was the big thing. When we did write programs, the punch cards were done at the school district's office and then sent to the University to be run.

At best, it only took about a week to get the punch cards done and another two weeks to get the program run and results returned. At worst (when the school's data entry personnel were inputting grades), the punch cards took three weeks, and getting the program run could take another four.

My three years of doing this in high school let me slide through the first semester of programming in college.
Posted by Phideaux on 05/30/19 at 12:14 PM
LSEU was actually a legitimate way for some people to get into more useful trades like TV and appliance repair. A lot of minorities who were shut out of apprenticeship programs went the correspondence school route. They were finally brought down when they tried to offer a correspondence law degree. Their assets have largely ended up with Pearson education.
Posted by Mark McD on 06/02/19 at 05:33 PM
In fact, Barry Melton, co-founder and guitarist for Country Joe & the Fish, took the law program at LSEU, before finishing with his JD at Ocean University. Somehow, he passed the California bar exam and is a practicing defense attorney.
Posted by Mark McD on 06/02/19 at 05:37 PM

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