Gordon Davies Interview: Selected Quotes


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Remembering the Deuce, an early computer

I went to North Staffordshire College of Technology in summer holidays to do a course in computing. That would have been in 1966-1967. And that's where ... the oldest machine I ever saw, which was the English Electric Deuce, where it had a cathode ray tube rigged to the memory. You could see the dots on the cathode ray screen, which was in main memory. It was all paper tape. And you could walk inside the machine. It was a huge monster. ACE was the NPL machine. [...] Deuce came after ACE. Makes sense! Deuce was produced by a commercial company, English Electric.

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Few textbooks, so ACM's early pubs important

In 1968-1969 the [British Computer Society] existed, but I don't remember people took it too seriously. ACM was the really important computing society, even in England, even in 1968, 1969. In 1969 I was reading Communications of the ACM and using it quite regularly. And then I joined in about 1974, I think. Once I -- and I can't remember why -- but I think by 1974 I joined ACM as a member; it may be a bit later I joined the BCS. But ACM was always the prime, you know, way up ahead. The BCS had very small publications. And ACM, I think we all valued its publications because at that time textbooks were few and far between.

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Don Knuth's Art of Computer Programming as manna from heaven

I remember Don Knuth's volume Art of Computer Programming coming out -- what a goldmine that was! I mean, those books, the Volume 1 and the Fundamental Data Structures one, Information Structures, and then the Sorting and Searching books, they were like manna from heaven because they had everything you needed to know for lecturing, because there wasn't much around at that time. You spoke about the guy from New York and his books had only just come out, FORTRAN, Dan McCracken's book; they were exciting books in that time. Well, in fact, Don Knuth's books were just off the planet; Sorting and Searching is still a wonderful book, one of the greatest computing books ever written.

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England to USA: like going to another planet

Even at that time, ACM and the United States were like another planet. You grew up in England, with America being a completely different world. In your early years and teens, the idea of that you might get to travel to America was just not possible, you couldn't possibly do that sort of thing. Shows you how much things have changed. It was like going to the moon as far as I was concerned, to go to the US.

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Increasing involvement in ACM, SIGCSE, ITiCSE

So ACM and the US were this golden thing, far away. And so I joined them. Then 1979 was my first real involvement. I submitted a paper to SIGCSE, and I think it was 1979 I went to a SIGCSE conference and gave a paper about one of the computer management courses I had taught. That's when I first sort of met people and thought, "There is nothing like this in the UK at all." Few people who were interested in teaching. That is when my real interest started from -- I must have been interested in it before then, because I knew about it, but 1979 in Kansas City, I think it was, was my first SIGCSE. And -- well, after that it sort of developed. I think the probably more significant ones there -- I went to one or two, then there was a gap. And then I started again early 1980s I think. It must have been 1982, 1983, 1984 when I met Boots [Cassel]. And I used to harass her about the fact [SIGCSE] was too US-oriented. And it was time they did something in Europe. And so we ended up with ITiCSE.

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How developing courses at an Open University is different

In about 1986 I started on a course and I led the course team. And leading a course team is a very serious job. And for two years, that was my life and I neglected loads of things at that time. It isn't like a traditional university, in that deadlines really do matter, because you're going into print, you're making TV, and all sorts of things like that. And therefore, you're not like you are in a conventional university, where you're almost on your own in front of the class. At the OU you're not, you are part of a much bigger team, a bigger organization. You screw up, it has a knock-on effect. If you're late, others things happen. So I think it's the first time I ever came across the idea that you've got to really work as part of a team and you have responsibilities. Academic life at that time certainly was very much an isolated activity, in the sense that you could sort of do what you liked, within reason obviously. But you didn't have to depend on other people and other people didn't depend on you.

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Producing television-based courses

So going to the OU meant you were part of a group. You worked with people who were not academics. These were editors, BBC television people, quite a different environment. And that's what made it so exciting. I mean, to go to the OU -- and I think I must have made about twenty different television programs all together, all over the world. Quite often in the studios and that type of space. So that was great fun. That really was exciting. And I have recently, in fact, put all of my TV tapes on DVD. They're all getting a bit old now. And some of them really are quite entertaining. Television programs I made 20 years ago on XXX. And on NASA, about the space shuttle, made in 1986-1987. Some historically quite interesting to a certain small group of people, I'd have say. But, you know, they are quite interesting look ... snapshot of what people were teaching at the time, as well as being a case of what was current in computing outside the academic world at that time.

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First time requiring students to have a PC

It was the first course that required students to have a personal computer. We had never done anything like this before. So you were expecting students who didn't know what a computer was, and we were expecting them to buy one and use it to run Pascal programs. Internet didn't exist. So it's difficult to think what the problems were. Plus now, everything we just take for granted. Then, we used go to great lengths to help students to switch on a machine and put in a floppy disk -- tell them all about these sorts of things -- because they had never done ... didn't know how to do this. And there was no network. We had to post everything [using regular postal mail]. We had to post floppy disks. Different world.

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Rental PCs arriving via the post

[O]ne of the big achievements at the time by a colleague at a high level was that we received a huge grant, at least it was a huge grant at that time, to buy ... I think it was about 3000 Amstrad machines. And we bought these Amstrad machines. [...] Amstrad is the company. Amstrad is the company. Three thousand PCs. And we used to rent them to students because students couldn't afford to buy the machines, so we ran a rental pool. Just because the OU was always very good about disadvantaged students and making sure students had access. So we bought these machines and then rented them out every year. And this machine would arrive in the post, basically. And at the end they would have to box it up and send it back. That was how it worked in 1988; it just seems incredible now.