Saturday, 26 June 2010

Gap years: My early life as a baked beans tester

These days it is quite common, especially for those from better off families, for students to take a gap year before they commence their university studies. This is sometimes just travel to distant and exciting places, more often a mix of travel and work. For instance my son spent a school year teaching science at a remote secondary school in Guyana, and then travelled across South America, returning home just in time to start university. Such a venture required a massive fund raising effort by all the family to raise the funds to support his activity, plus further cash contributions, but the trip proved a huge success. I suppose this sort of thing is good for broadening horizons, teaching independence and promoting personal initiative, all very handy characteristics for life in general, and very helpful as preparation for a university-level degree programme.

In my day, however, by which I mean the mid-1960s, gap years were largely unknown, not least because hardly any families - and none that I knew personally - had the money to support such a thing. In those more austere days, taking a gap year might even have seemed a bit frivolous or self indulgent, whatever the putative benefits that might be claimed. So most people finished secondary school at the normal time, had the usual summer break, then went straight on to university. In my own case, things worked out rather better, as I learned of my acceptance at Cambridge just before Christmas 1963, but did not start as a student there until October 1964. Feeling rather overdosed on courses and exams at that time, I decided to leave school immediately. With support from one of my teachers, I found a job working as a mathematician for Reckitts, a large company based in my home town, Hull, and did that for nine months.

This was a truly amazing experience. For a start, it was nice to have a proper job when still just 17. And the job itself was both very varied and hugely educational. Let me explain what I mean. Much of the time, I worked in a large, open-plan noisy room alongside about eight other people, only the section manager having his own separate office. We did a wide range of statistical calculations and plotted various fancy charts, all the number crunching being done using electro-mechanical calculators. Once half a dozen of these calculators were clattering away, you could hardly hear yourself think. Before starting work I had never seen such machines, as when we did calculations at school we always used logarithm tables (I still have my old school tables, in fact), but it wasn't hard to learn how to use them. However, doing divisions was more of a challenge than the other arithmetical operations, as I recall. I also had to learn a good deal of basic statistics as we had never done that at school and I wanted to understand what we were doing. To help me learn a little more about 'modern' calculating, I enrolled at my local technical college to do a course in numerical methods - and there we used even more primitive calculators, entirely mechanical ones operated by setting various levers and turning a crank handle.

As a sideline to the main work I was doing, I joined a panel that was engaged in testing all the available brands of baked beans, supposedly so that Reckitts could 'design' their own super-duper brand that would sweep the market. I don't think they ever succeeded, but it was fun to be part of the process for a while. For each tasting session we had to complete a short questionnaire asking for our overall views about the product (and, of course, we tested blind - we were not told which brand we were consuming), plus questions about colour, shape, size, sweetness, and probably other features that I no longer recall. Data from hundreds of these questionnaires was then used to perform some sort of principal components analysis (though I don't recall how this was done without a computer to help), the notion being that the first component from this analysis defined the 'ideal' baked bean. Well, I'm not so sure about that!

Aside from these relatively 'routine' tasks, I spent a lot of time on a personal project assigned to me by the head of the department. This was to develop some sales forecasting models and write a computer program to compute sales forecasts for a few dozen of Reckitts' diverse product lines. Before then I had never seen a computer, and it turned out that I was to use the Hull University computer - yes, they only had one at that time, an Elliott 803 (see picture). It was not very powerful, input and output consisted of reels of punched paper tape, and it was massive, filling much of a bungalow next to the University campus.

To perform this task I had to read a fair bit of technical material on sales forecasting, seasonal adjustment, and related matters as I knew nothing about forecasting when the project began. That was pretty interesting, and sometimes quite challenging, but it was nothing compared to the delights of learning my first programming language, Elliott autocode I think it was called. No one else in the office knew the language, so I had to teach myself. Nowadays it would be considered a terrible language - but it worked, and did the job I needed. Once I got started, and typed up my first programs onto paper tape, then typed data onto another reel of tape, I would cycle across Hull two or three times each week to use the University computer. No multi-tasking in those days, so I would have to wait until the computer was free; then I typed into the main keyboard a few machine code instructions telling the computer to read my first paper tape, and off we went. Once done, the computer spewed out a mass of paper tape, and I could finally see my results when this was fed into a teleprinter. Usually, the result was 'program failed', with little indication as to why; computers were not user friendly then. After many attempts, I started to get decent output in the form of some nice tables, and was able to finish my period at Reckitts by writing a short report for my boss.

So, that was my gap year, a wonderful and varied experience. It was really lucky to have such a chance.

1 comment:

  1. This description brings back memories. I found the post by Googling "Hull Elliott 803" to prepare some remarks for when I get an honorary degree from Hull Univ on July 14 next week. I was in the Sixth Form at Greatfield High when Hull Uni got its 803, and in 1964, prior to my final year at GH, I had a summer job at BP- Saltend. They assigned me the task of developing software to help them use the 803 and a new real-time process control Elliott Arch 9000 they just installed at Saltend. I went over to use the university machine once a week, and after they all saw that I knew what I was doing, would be left alone in full control of the machine for the entire two-hours they rented time on it. I became fluent in reading five-channel paper tape, and in entering commands in real time by setting individual bit switches at the console. I programmed in ALGOL and wrote some subroutines in Elliott machine code. It was a lot of fun and I gained an understanding of computing that would be harder to get today. The next year I headed off to Kings College London to start my bachelors course in mathematics. Keith Devlin, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA.