How I Became a Programmer

Computer History Vignettes

By Bob Bemer


You have to have them to be born and exist. My maternal grandfather Alexander Maitland Comb was a Scotsman of the dour religious type. Among his callings he ran a bakery in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. There his eight children from wife Amelia Emily George helped out. For a long time I thought she was a Chippewa Indian because of that surname, until I found out she was English, from Canada. The boys were mostly successful -- one a Detroit District Attorney, another a president of a Union Carbide subsidiary. My mother was Ruby Lucille Comb, a local English teacher until my father, the principal and mathematics teacher, persuaded her of a better vocation.

My paternal grandfather was William Bemer, originally from the city of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, married to Pearl Hunter, and living in Albion, Michigan most of his life. He served as its assessor for a long time, and as mayor in 1918. He must have been liked, for there is a Bemer Street there named after him.

My father, Clarence (fortunately nicknamed "Stub"), was first a school principal and then superintendent, who had allowed me to fit kindergarten, first, second, and third grades into one year. He was innovative for his day. Boys took cooking and sewing for homeroom (I do both to this day) and girls took woodworking and machine shop.

Prerequisite -- Liking and Caring for Children

Once when I was perhaps 10 to 12 years of age, my father received a call that the police in Watersmeet, Michigan, were holding a Wakefield boy for some offense. He might have been on the way to larger ones, for at least one of his brothers was then in prison.

My father did not subscribe to having cars with two seats. With extra capacity you might be stuck with carrying others all the time. So we scrambled into his one-seater. On arrival, they trotted out the boy in handcuffs. My father, furious, demanded they be removed. We then walked out and got into the car, with the boy in the middle. He was substantially older and larger than I was.

On the way back, my father asked if anyone would like ice cream. We would, so he got out and walked across the street to the store, leaving us without any instructions. It was obvious later that this was a test. The boy could best me and escape. But the trust placed in him was perhaps the first he had experienced. We stayed patiently until the ice cream arrived, and then back to Wakefield, depositing the boy at his house.

I never again heard of his being in trouble.


My father found himself reluctant to send me to college at age 15. Such was not unheard of -- he just didn't want me tempted. So I spent a post-graduate year at Cranbrook Academy near Birmingham, Michigan.

It was a wonderful experience. I learned how to say "sir" to all, to wear a jacket and tie, to treat with boys of financial station far above mine, and to resent none of it. Most significant was a small course in psychology. During an absence of instructor we got a substitute from the University of Michigan. One question he asked was whether anyone present had an inferiority complex. I was the only one to raise my hand. He looked at me and said "You damn fool. If you really had an inferiority complex you would never have raised your hand!"

Within 24 hours I flipped 180 degrees from introvert to extrovert. Which is how people have seen me in my years of being a programmer, and why I am populating this website with memoirs that I hope some people will find interesting.

From there I attended Albion College, in Michigan. Partly because my father had, mostly because of a full scholarship for being able to play several instruments. Primarily cello and trumpet. In those post-depression days that was a great help.

Due to helping teach a course myself via reading the textbook a day or two ahead, I was offered a scholarship in educational psychology at Purdue University. I went there to meet the head of the department, who took me up in his all-metal Luscombe single-engine aircraft, as I had told him of my interest, and building prize-winning models. But eventual U.S. participation in World War II was becoming apparent, so I declined the offer and went out to Burbank, California.

There I got a certificate in Aeronautical Engineering from Curtiss-Wright Technical Institute. Upon graduation, I worked in several departments at Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica. In the loft, in master tooling, and in aerodynamics. And played in the Douglas band, which was a pretty good one.

I always had great interest in architecture, studying city planning under the great Eliel Saarinen at Cranbrook. So at war's end I worked first for a tract house designer, then for Paul Laszlo Design in Beverly Hills (working on remodeling the Beverly Hills Hotel). Then a position as Senior Set Designer at RKO Pictures Studio, a fairly responsible job. My boss was one Charles Pyke, known for two recurring sayings:

  1. "What are you drawing besides your breath and your salary?"
  2. (at the commissary) "Shall I eat this, or have I?"
When this job disappeared because of a general strike, I whiled the time by making custom furniture for movie stars. (Note to Art Linkletter: "Do you still have that white birch coffee table?") But one day former fellow employee Wayne White reminded me that I still owed him $100 from our time at Douglas Aircraft. I said I would repay promptly if he found me a position at the RAND Corporation, an independent offshoot from Douglas Aircraft that is still in business. I was then 29.

There I met early IBM computers and fell in technical love. I just knew that the computer business was what I had been designed for. But on graveyard shift, and with 5 children, I had to take a second job. First at Todd Shipyards, and then with IBM's EAM operation in downtown Los Angeles.

My then wife disbelieved the situation, and a nasty incident occurred. I took her to a psychiatrist, who, after interviewing both of us, said it was my fault because I was always moving from job to job! No stability, he said. How I wish I could find that man today, after I have been a computer programmer for 53 years this last March 15 of 2002!

Saying Goodbye

I delivered the eulogy (or memorial) for both of my parents, in the belief that a proper job was unlikely to be done by some minister in a Florida retirement community.

I spoke of those who loved them, and why. I spoke of those they had done great good for, and what that meant to those people, and how it had changed their lives.

I spoke of what the example of their lives had meant to the many their lives had impinged upon.

I spoke of what they had done for me, their only child, to ensure that I might benefit the world more than harm it.

And I told of the only time I was ever mad at one of my parents. My roommate in my freshman year at college introduced me to scallops, of which I had never heard, but loved immediately. Soon I tried to pass this wonderful discovery on to my father, only to have him say he had eaten them many times at the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York, while attending Columbia University.

Some people today miss what I had -- memories of my parents with nothing but good feelings about them, and pride in their lives. I regret only that they never experienced the world using things and ideas I had invented.

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