When I got out of the service in 1967, I was hired by Aetna Life & Casualty in Hartford, Conn. to be a computer programmer trainee. I was taught to write programming instructions in Cobol, Fortran and Basic, the programming languages that would compel the big IBM 360 computers to complete a certain task or series of tasks or otherwise do our bidding.

At the end of the day, my hand-written binary instructions and those of my co-workers were picked up by office assistants who, around 4 p.m., wheeled tables from desk to desk, collecting all that handwritten code to take downstairs. Around 5 p.m., a large group of mostly minority women reported to the bowels of the world’s largest colonial structure (Aetna’s home office on Farmington Avenue) and began the monotonous process of transforming our instructions onto 3-inch by 7-inch IBM punch cards.

They worked all night at this and in the morning we’d find our transposed efforts of the day before residing in a tray of punched cards on our desks. These were examined to ensure that the sequence of cards in each tray corresponded with the sequence of instructions we’d sent down the night before, and were then taken to the big—seven-foot tall—magnetic tape units that resided alongside the actual computers—nearly as big—in a special temperature controlled room.

Then, the cards were fed into the “mag-tape” units by white uniformed technicians. We were not allowed into this special room unless we donned a sterile white uniform. Eventually the magnetic tape, having absorbed the very elementary sequence of instructions contained in the punched cards, delivered this information to the computers, which then performed the described function.

Often that function would be something as mundane as, essentially, “move the information found in block A on page one to the corresponding block on page 4.” Creating the language to accomplish that rudimentary exercise had taken a good part of my previous work day and when coupled with a similarly pedestrian effort by the several other programmers in my area would, at the end of the day, have begun the process of digitally creating and transmitting to a branch office somewhere else a completed insurance policy.

I was at the cusp of a revolution and didn’t see it for what it was, didn’t see it at all for that matter.

Today, I have a computer on my desk. It’s black and it turns on when I push a button on a little box next to it. Elaine bought it for me and she showed me—several days were required—where the button is.  

Phil Crossman owns and operates The Tidewater Motel on Vinalhaven that, thanks to his pioneering work, is able to handle reservations made via computer.