From Sputnik to Supercomputers: 50 Years of Technology

It was October of 1957, an especially tense period of the Cold War. The Soviet Union had just successfully launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to reach space. The incident shocked Americans, who had previously thought they were far ahead in science and technology, and even raised serious concerns about the possibility of a Soviet missile attack.

“It scared the bejesus out of America,” said Calculus teacher Jon Stark, who was in first grade at the time. “We felt the Russians were backward peasant farmer types, and suddenly they had the ability to rain death down on us from the skies.”

In response, the United States government instituted a series of sweeping education reforms to encourage American schoolchildren to help reclaim their country’s position as the leader in space exploration.

“The great pressure on anybody at that time who could do math and science [was that] they should do math and science, because it was a matter of national survival to be able to compete with the Soviets,” Stark explained.

Growing up in this new wave of enthusiasm for technology, Stark would go on to pursue undergraduate and graduate studies in mathematics, economics, and astrophysics, just to name a few. For Stark and many other American students, a lifetime of math and science pursuits had all started with the Space Race.


Stark PicThe early years

When Mr. Stark taught university courses in the 1970s, the fate of computer science as we know it today still seemed uncertain.

“It wasn’t clear if the engineers were going to do it or the mathematicians,” Stark recalled. “There were no gains, you see. If you were doing programming, it was because you needed a problem solved.”

This might not seem surprising considering the kind of technology students had to work with. Computer programs back then were written on physical punch cards, not digital files. Students would labor away on a gigantic machine called a keypunch, carefully punching combinations of holes in their cards to create commands. Each punch card was about the size of a scantron sheet and represented one line of code.

“You had to be a damn good typist,” Stark said. “Any mistake along the way, you’ve punched a hole; you can’t unpunch a hole. …And because you had a physical set of cards, they could easily get shuffled and mixed up, and that was very awkward to cope with.”

A punch card for a program written in Fortran. Typical programs might require hundreds or even thousands of these cards stacked together to complete a task. (Wikimedia Commons/Arnold Reinhold)

A punch card for a program written in Fortran. Typical programs might require hundreds or even thousands of these cards stacked together to complete a task. (Wikimedia Commons/Arnold Reinhold)


Trying to run a punch card program produced a whole new set of problems. Students had to take their box of punch cards and instructions to a computer operator, who would run the programs of one person at a time and return the results. Nowadays, if a computer program fails, the programmer sees a detailed breakdown of the type of error and how they might fix it. But if a punch card program was unsuccessful, the compiler would give no details—not even where in the huge stack of cards the error had occurred.

As Stark eloquently put it: “Basically, they just said ‘fatal error, boom’.”


A more positive outlook

Despite the relatively primitive and troublesome nature of technology in the 1970s, Mr. Stark sees some significant benefits of having lived through this earlier period of computers.

One device Stark particularly likes is the slide rule, a tool made of slidable sticks that was used several decades earlier to perform arithmetic calculations. He feels that it gives students a much more intuitive understanding of mathematical concepts than a typical modern calculator.

“There is information to be gained and insight that comes from seeing analog presentations,” Stark explained.

Unlike the digital calculators used today, slide rules required students to manually set up calculations by aligning logarithmic sliding scales and reading the result. Since numbers on the slide rule only went from 1 to 10, students had to keep track of decimal places and think carefully about whether their answers made sense. They also got to see how changes in one number could affect the calculation, improving their intuitive understanding of mathematics.

“That awareness of magnitude, that number sense that came from it, was really really helpful,” Stark recalled. “Students today, with the digital technology, tend to take the number that pops up and trust it.”

The plug-and-chug mentality, an all-too-familiar situation for many MVHS students, may be one of the tradeoffs that come with more advanced technology. But luckily, it doesn’t have to be that way. Stark hopes students can be bolder when approaching math and science problems, and encourages them to speculate about answers instead of giving up so easily.

“I think at this point it should be a matter of courage,” said Stark. “People here want the right answer all the time. …They suck at guesstimating anything, cause they don’t want to be wrong. Well, you’ve got to be wrong to figure out what right looks like.”

A new stage of technology

Over the next three decades after Mr. Stark attended school, technology continued to grow at an amazingly fast rate. In 1974, HP released the first handheld scientific calculator, eliminating the need for slide rules almost overnight. In 1977, Apple released the landmark Apple II, touching off the personal computer revolution. In 1989, British scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, allowing people to easily spread information around the world. By the start of the 21st century, many of the far more recognizable innovations — like Google, Windows XP, and Mac OS X — had already been released.

It was in this new environment that MVHS Physics teacher Michael Lordan began to study mechanical engineering in college. Lordan, who attended UC Davis from 2004 to 2008, recognizes the rapid increase in popularity that programming has enjoyed in the last decade.

Lordan Pic“I think programming has certainly grown since I went to college,” he noted. “My last year in high school there was maybe one or two Java classes total, and that’s certainly exploded now.”

Before becoming a teacher at Monta Vista, Mr. Lordan worked as a lead thermal engineer at an aerospace company called Space Systems Loral, designing and testing satellites. Taking full advantage of the newer technology available, he created detailed computer models of his satellites, used machines to simulate space-like conditions, and even performed tests once the satellites reached outer space.

After talking to the older employees at his company, Lordan saw how crucial recent improvements in computer technology were to his work as an aerospace engineer. Unlike earlier generations, he did not have to sacrifice a large amount of complexity or quality in his satellite designs just to make his projects feasible.

“They can do so much more now with the computer power they have now than they could have done 20 years ago,” Lordan emphasized. “Just the detail of the spacecraft models that they could build has grown exponentially.”


A look at the modern era

The breathtaking technological advancements that Lordan described have only continued to gain momentum into the 21st century. From the clubs and interests at Monta Vista, it’s clear that technology has gained a widespread appeal among students.

MVHS junior Jananni Rathnagiri is an officer of MV Technovation, a club that encourages women to pursue programming by participating in an annual national app competition. She remembers becoming fascinated with technology at a young age.

“Both of my parents are software engineers,” Rathnagiri explained. “Even before they started trying to expose me to [programming], I was a logical thinker. I liked computers, I liked machines, so I naturally started coding around seventh grade.”

Growing up in an era of smartphones and high-speed computers, Rathnagiri recognizes how ubiquitous technology has become in our daily lives. She drew a sharp contrast with the state of computers in the 1970s by commenting on the things students use today.

“Technology is linked in almost every aspect of life,” she said. “If you want to go somewhere, you use your GPS. If you want to look up what restaurant to go to, you use your computer, or your iPhone.”

When Rathnagiri took AP Computer Science last year, she saw firsthand the gender gap in technology — of the more than 30 students in her class, less than nine were girls. That’s when she decided to join MV Technovation, where she could meet other girls like her who found an interest in programming.

In a team of three, Rathnagiri developed an iPhone app called ClubHub that allowed students to easily schedule and coordinate events for clubs. Participating in the four-month challenge gave her the confidence she needed to continue working as a developer.

“It was my first complete app,” said Rathnagiri. “That made me learn a more about what it takes to make an application, whereas before I was only making smaller apps and not really working on a full project.”

 

Jananni

The ClubHub team and their submission for the 2015 Technovation app challenge. Names from left to right – Carol Wang, Natasha Puthukudy, Jananni Rathnagiri (photo used with permission)

 

According to Rathnagiri, part of the reason many women feel discouraged from doing programming in high school is because of the disproportionate amount of males in tech and stereotypes that women usually work in the humanities. Fortunately, she feels that Technovation has succeeded in helping girls feel more comfortable pursuing their interest in technology.

Rathnagiri believes that increasing the amount of women in technology-related fields would not only would it be a victory for gender equality, but also help tech companies make better products.

“Women provide a different perspective in the workforce,” Rathnagiri explained. “A different perspective may lead to a more efficient way to solve a problem, or a faster way to do something, which would increase productivity.”

Recently, tech giants like Google have taken note and launched initiatives to help address the gender gap. And as Silicon Valley continues to grow, encouraging more women to feel comfortable and eager pursuing STEM fields will remain one of the pressing issues of the 21st century.


Teaching the next generation of coders

Nikhil Cheerla, another MVHS student, sees enormous potential in the future for people with programming knowledge.

“It’s almost like a language and a way of thinking,” said Cheerla. “Almost like you know how to read English or know how to read French, if you know how to understand programming and algorithms, there’s this whole class of problems that becomes a lot easier to solve.”

MVHS junior Nikhil Cheerla (red t-shirt, left) teaches a Java programming workshop at the Los Altos Library. (Photo from MathAndCoding – used with permission)

Cheerla is the co-founder of MathAndCoding, a non-profit organization of high schoolers who teach programming to local students in the Bay Area. Since its inception in 2014, the group has grown to 30 volunteer teachers and organized courses at over 20 library branches. Cheerla described being initially motivated by how simple it had become to spread programming with newer innovations like online courses.

“Right now if you want to change the education system, if you want to make it easier to teach people how to code, it doesn’t take a lot of resources…We realized it was actually pretty easy to make an impact.”

According to Cheerla, high schoolers often have a unique advantage over traditional teachers when it comes to teaching programming to fellow students.

“We have a different perspective on how quickly things are changing,” he explained. “We’re used to seeing the world change a lot faster, and instead of just being stuck to traditional models…we know we’re gonna teach what people want, and what’s relevant.”

Cheerla recognizes that today, with the endless amounts of information on the internet, students no longer have to wait until college to delve deeper into programming. He encourages people curious about technology to take advantage of advanced online courses that are now easily available to them.

“There’s way more online resources than you think there are,” Cheerla noted. “In some ways, you don’t have to sit in a traditional class…you can actually take [Stanford programming courses] by yourself if you wanted to.”

We’ve come a long way since Sputnik, slide rules, and punch cards. By reflecting on the stories of students in the past, we can better appreciate the massive wealth of resources now available to us in the modern era of technology. We live in a thriving environment with everything from smartphones to online classes — now, it’s up to us to seize the opportunity to learn and explore.  ✦