There’s always a biggest, latest, most controversial development happening in the world of SEO. But in the bigger scheme of digital marketing will ‘threats’ like AI have any impact in the long run? Will history remember the way we all felt about new SEO technologies?
In this special episode of the Yeseo podcast Andrew Laws of Yeseo is in conversation with Norman Sanders. Norman was born in 1929 and has been at the forefront of computing for many years. He knew and worked with many early innovators in the world of computing, including Alan Turing and Shaun Wylie (the Bletchley Park Enigma code-breakers).
Norman also rubbed shoulders (and worked with) some of the ‘fathers of programming’, including David Wheeler (creator of FORTRAN), and the development team of COBOL at IBM.
In the 1950s Norman Sanders was hired by Boeing and was responsible for computerising the design and manufacture of aeroplanes, including the Boeing 727.
My initial plan for this podcast episode was to find out if introducing computing to the world of aviation was met in a similar way to the development of new SEO tools (like AI).
What actually happened during our time together is that Norman took us on a journey that explained and explored the early days of computing. A period in history that has had a tremendous impact not just on the world of work, but also on humanity as a whole.
This episode of the Yeseo podcast is remarkable, not because of anything we have contributed but because of the engaging and often amusing story told by our honoured guest, Norman.
We took the decision to leave this interview largely unedited, so about halfway through the episode, you will hear one of Norman’s neighbours drop by to give Norman a football result. We left this in because we felt it was a charming example of the enthusiasm and gentle warmth of Norman throughout our time together.
P.S. Andrew has also interviewed Norman for his personal podcast, during which he went into great detail about his time working with Prime Minister Harold Wilson, and his recollections of Alan Turing.
Andrew’s interview with Norman Sanders on his personal podcast
The IT Archive Interview with Norman Sanders
My Computing Life by Norman Sanders (book)
Norman Sanders author page on Amazon
Andrew [INTRODUCTION]: Hello, friends, I’m here with my friend Norman, Norman Sanders.
Norman is somebody I’ve known for a few years and has a very interesting–We have a very interesting career: Ran computing. Now, early on in Norman’s life, he worked in Seattle for Boeing and was a part of bringing computer technology and the speed of computing to manufacture on a very large scale.
Andrew: So, Norman, as I understand it, around the time you finished working at Boeing, you had met…I’ll tell you what, I’m just going to ask you because I can’t remember the story. You met someone called Alan Turing. Can you tell me about that?
Norman: Yeah, before I went to Cambridge–
Andrew: Oh, that was before Cambridge.
Norman: Yeah. He was well-known as being the guy who invented the concept of computing.
Norman: And, there were a lot of things going on that we knew nothing about. Some rather sad things, but some brilliant things, as well. He wrote a paper very early on, I don’t have the date in my mind at the moment, but I can fish it out for you before the next time.
I think it was called computability or something like that, but he was a Cambridge man, but he didn’t actually take any practical part in the creation of computers; he was the ideas man.
The concept of a computer….Let’s see, the first couple of machines were made in the United States and I’ll tell you all about those later on. But all of these first computers, they’re all alike inside the metal box and the competition between them was accuracy, price, and all the rest of it until the plotters came along and then of course, the plotter people sort of, more or less, took over I suppose.
I only thought about this now today, but they started really pushing the evolution of computers because once you had the plotters and cutters, you had CAD and CAM: Plotters and cutters, then those would turn around and did turn around and say what we need a computer to do is this, that, and the other.
So, they could bring down weeks and months of turnaround time….Hours, you know, and I can give you an example about that. For example, on the scheduling of oil, there was a 4000-mile oil pipeline from Edmonton in Alberta to Toronto. 4000 miles of oil. It took a full-time, a 10-people organization to schedule. There’s not just oil, there’s half a dozen different kinds of oil, depending upon how much sulfur. See, I didn’t know any about this.
Andrew: I didn’t know that until just then!
Norman: You see, the great thing was getting in on this and once I started writing programs for people, you know, I realized it didn’t need mathematicians. I happened to be one, but it needed someone who could sort of turn an idea into a program and I have no idea how would you examine people, how would you interview them to do a programming job only if they have already programmed, or how do they start and all the rest of it.
Andrew: It’s a funny thing. When I first started working as most people would see, in computers, I was fairly sure I got my first job in computers because I knew how to fix one.
Norman: Yeah, hardware.
Andrew: Yeah, hardware, and it’s only because I had broken my dad’s computer so many times and managed to fix it before he got back from work and it was the case of “Well, if you know what that is, you can have a job” and my understanding that it was not a dissimilar thing to yourself: “Well if you know what a computer is, then welcome on board!”
Norman: That’s right! And that became the basis of my career: Knowing the right questions. When I ask you questions, you answer the questions and I’ll turn your answers into a program and you know, change your life and effort.
We wouldn’t say things like that “Change your life”–
Andrew: I’ve got a brilliant mental image of you like a troubadour of technology charging through the companies of America and Britain like a revolutionary armed with knowledge and…What was the programming language? Would you have called it a language or technology?
Norman: Well, I did not to start with. First of all, on the AirDac at Cambridge…I’ll show you a picture, but there was no language. It was just the instructions. If I wanted to add two numbers together, I wrote down ‘ADD’ or something and a girl would punch it up in a card and those pieces of software written by a chap called…His wife and I have dinner together every year….David Wheeler, his name was.
He was a wonderful chap and so many of these people visited us in America and came and stayed with us; people who were all around at the very, very start of the thing. All dead now except their wives, who still have dinner with me and we talk about the old days even now.
Andrew: So, David Wheeler, it was fair to say, he wrote some software that translated commands?
Norman: Yes, okay, so he translated commands from a written version like say ‘ADD’ ‘STORE’ ‘COMPARE’, that sort of thing, firstly into a language called Fortran for the translator…What the hell was his name? I’ve got it all written down; I’ve written enormous amounts of stuff.
And then, that was an engineer’s…John, who worked for IBM and he was an engineer, but then he, after some additions, came along and said, you know this language Fortran it’s not academically sound as it should be, so they made a new version called ALGO.
Andrew: What was John’s second—
Norman: Well, I know it, but I’ve got it written down somewhere. I’ll find that out for you. The thing is, Fortran language was written by the chap John who was an IBM employee. So, IBM would hand out to all purchase of IBM equipment like the 701 or the 704 and all the rest of it, and so you’ve got the software, you got the programming language with the machine.
Another subject we can talk about is how standards get set up, because that was another disaster, but anyway…
So, first of all, when you had Fortran and ALGO, these are mentioned in my book and COBOL, and I’ll show you a picture of the creator of COBOL. I don’t know whether she’s still alive or not. She was an admiral in the American Navy.
It’s the strangest people. I got the books about how things worked and then the books about how it all happened. One book about how it all happened, and in that one, it’s how did people happen to come along into computing.
I happened to come along because when I walked into Cambridge university only to see this computer, as soon as I discovered where it was, it was across the road from a pub called The Eagle and when they were there and said “You’ve made a computer, I hear!” and almost no one…They weren’t amongst the undergraduates and so forth and even the staff, the staff were dreadful.
There was no awareness of the computer, what is it, because none of them had heard this play called RUR, Rossum’s Universal Robots. There was no expectation of this at all, you see, and I was just old enough to have heard that play, probably the youngest kid to have heard it.
I don’t know…I was going to make a point, but I can’t know what it was.
Andrew: So, you became involved in computers and of course, you’ve written a lot about it since then, but there’s one notable part of your life that you and I have discussed privately outside of this recording, where you happened to be at dinner and you were sat next to somebody so you didn’t recognize but who turned out to be quite an important person.
Norman: Yes, okay, so first of all, we talked about Alan Turing and he didn’t really have any friends, and so forth, and he had one really good friend who was the guy who let me into Cambridge…I’ll show you a picture of him. They got their Ph.D.’s together very early on and so I knew about him, I had read about him before I went up, and I was one of the last people to see him alive.
Andrew: Oh really?
Norman: Yeah, yeah, he gave a talk…He was up in Manchester; he moved up to Manchester university and came down and talked to our mathematical society, the Maths Society, and he talked on a subject, everybody knows about this stuff, and so forth, and then a couple of days later, I was in room Q1 at Cambridge and I was having my breakfast and they had the radio on and this woman said that Alan Turing had just died; didn’t say how, but I went rushing up to Alan Turing’s friend, Shaun Wylie, who was just above me up the staircase and I knew that he didn’t have the radio on because he never did and I said “Hey, Alan Turing has died” and he just said, “I know….”
I thought “How the hell could he possibly know?!” he hadn’t had the news and he was alive yesterday, but so, Alan Turing and Shawn Wiley kept together and what happened, I’m sure it was Alan Turing’s-The lady who owned his house and rented it out to Alan Turing- rang Shaun Wylie and told him that he had died and committed suicide and the rest of it, but it was a long, long time before we got to know about his role actually during the war of cracking the…
Andrew: I’m guessing he must have been bound by the secrecy act for a long time after the war.
Norman: Absolutely. So, Shaun Wylie, he knew that I knew Alan Turing because when chess players used to visit Shaun Wylie -he was the guy who let me in and he was the guy who had the room above me- and I would get to play chess with chess champions. Incredible! I was a really keen chess player but I wasn’t in their class of chess.
He always said hey, Norman, I’ve got a friend over here who’s the leading chess player or whatever his name is.
Andrew: Is that the grandmaster?
Norman: Yeah, something like that. I used to know all these—My first book I ever wrote was a book about chess to children. I was 20, yeah, I don’t know where it is now, I’ve lost it, but it was pretty good.
Okay, do you want to ask any more questions in this particular session or shall I just show you the books?
Andrew: I’m really interested in seeing the books, but we’ve got a little while more and I’m very interested in that person who was sat next to you at dinner.
Norman: Oh, yes, yes, he didn’t sit next to me at dinner. I was at a party in Seattle and that was—You’re talking about Howard Wilson?
Norman: Yeah, I was in this party and there were some programmers, there were some English people and there were some Americans, and all sorts of people at the party, it was on a Saturday night, and this chap came up to me and he was sort of, you know the way you wander around with the glass in one hand and shaking hand in the other one?
So, I met this chap and so I said, “Oh, how do you do?” He was just standing there…”My name is Norman” “Oh hey, my name is Howard” and so on, and we just started chatting.
He was basically saying what are you doing here in Seattle, what kind of life are you leading, what are you doing if you keep, and so forth, so I started telling him and he said “Look, I’d like to spend some time with you”.
I thought “We’re spending time right now” but he went “Just the two of us. I want to spend a little bit of time just the two of us to find out really what you’re up to” so I said okay, and it turned out that the next day, my then family were out skiing. We were skiing people and there aren’t any left in this house I’m afraid; my wife has died of cancer and my kids are around the world all in different countries.
Anyway, I said the house is going to be empty and you can come around and spend a whole afternoon with me if you like, but he didn’t say what he wanted to know! I don’t know today why he wanted to talk to me.
Norman: But I’m so glad he did. He was a Godsend, a God-given thing for me because my job was to get computing known and getting it going in places. There was no one at the start that stood up and said “There shall be computing!” and everyone sort of saluting, smiling, and getting on with it, but that was my job. I was working for the United Nations all the time and getting odd jobs from like, Hungary and Yugoslavia and I would go off for a couple of weeks and get people starting, but also having a main job and taking a couple of weeks or a couple of years leave of absence to go somewhere to do things. Anyway, so, he said he was the prime minister.
Andrew: Was that a surprise to you? When you told me this story before, you said he told you he was the prime minister and you said “Of which country?”
Norman: Oh, that was just a joke. That was just a joke.
Andrew: I liked it!
Norman: But, anyway, he had never heard of a computer. It became a talk about technology and if you Google ‘Howard Wilson speeches’, you will get a lot of chat about a speech that he made on the coast up in the northeast of England. Name me a famous seaside place.
Andrew: Oh, in the northeast?
Norman: Yeah, I think just the northeast.
Andrew: Newcastle springs to mind or something.
Norman: It’s not Newcastle, but anyway, if you Google ‘Howard Wilson Speeches’, this main speech will come up and there will be a sentence there which will say this is the most memorable speech of the 20th century. You know, that speech is outside in the other room there.
Andrew: Is this ‘The White Heat of Technology’?
Norman: The White Heat of Technology!
Andrew: I was reading it’s the 50th anniversary of that speech a couple of years ago.
Norman: Was it?
Andrew: They had a three-day conference somewhere, I forget where, it might be in America, and the whole conference was around this speech and I thought “They should have invited my friend Norman!”
Norman: Oh, my name is unknown!
Andrew: So, we ought to tell our listeners, because we both know, and we’re dancing around it, but you ended up writing that speech for Howard.
Norman: Oh yeah, I can show it to you, but he didn’t call it a speech, he called it a memorandum, because in those four hours from two till six on that Sunday afternoon, he went from not knowing anything about computing till, “Why do all the Englishmen come over here and write programs for Boeing?” and I say “Oh, that’s the problem. Britain should be harnessing itself to the computer.” And so on.
Andrew: So, the nut of the speech was, as I understand it, the way it’s now seen with fifty years distance, the importance of the speech was that at the time, the proceeding conservative government was seen as quite looking to the past and how Wilson’s labor government came and said no, if Britain is going to succeed, we need to look forward.
So, the speech that you wrote was quite a turning point because it was a battle cry, as I understand it, to say no, Britain is going to move forward, we’re going to embrace technology, and we did!
Norman: Yeah, and so this memorandum I wrote is just detail, but I did something else for him too; nothing to do with computers. I’ve lost a lot of stuff because I’ve moved around so much, because we’ve got to cut down a bit, and so I haven’t got everything. I haven’t got a letter that I wrote to him.
It was a political thing about Poland. There was a sort of nonaggression pact that was sponsored by Gomulka and Ripache. You see, Ripache was, I think, the first president of Poland after the war and Gomulka was the second one. Ripache sort of generated this pact, which was supposed to be signed by Russia and America and Germany and so forth, and Britain, and they weren’t getting on with it. This was the time when Wilson was prime minister so I thought maybe I’ll try my hand at getting him involved in peace in our time and so forth; nothing to do with computers!
So, I did and, in a year, he went over and met Khrushchev.
Andrew: Oh, really!?
Norman: On my instance, yes.
Andrew: I’m not going to slightly derail this but, a really dear friend of mine was the first western journalist to interview Khrushchev.
Norman: Is he really?
Andrew: A guy called Martin Page, yeah. I mean, that’s a story for another time, that sort of carried on—
Norman: So, I’ve got a page of Manchester Guardian out there in my Wilson box, and of course, nothing came of it, but at least he tried. He went over there and so forth, got him warmed up.
Andrew: Norman, I think there are many fascinating topics we can talk on. Time is not our friend today, I’m afraid.
Norman: Okay, that’s all right, I know you’ve said so, that’s okay. Didn’t expect it to be.
Andrew: Oh no we’ve had a lovely discussion, but I’d like to come back someday, but for now, I’m going to say goodbye to the listeners. Would you like to say goodbye?
Norman: Yeah, how do you say goodbye? What do you say?
Andrew: However you wish. Could you say goodbye in Norwegian?
Norman: Ja det kan jeg gjøre (Yes, I can do that). Yeah, I was there a couple of months ago; I was there in November. Have I mentioned this at all?
Andrew: When we’ve been chatting, yeah, absolutely, and another time, I’d like to talk about your work at the university in Norway but for today, I’m afraid, that’s about it. So, can you give us the goodbye in Norwegian again and we’ll sign off?
Norman: Nå skal jeg si adjø på norsk (Now, I will say goodbye in Norwegian).
Last Updated on March 7, 2023