A friend of mine, Euclid, just showed me an interesting
quote describing a bunch of golfers madly competing on an
IBM 704 computer in 1959! Except back then it was called "program bumming" (not golf) and they were "ski bums", not golfers. I wish I knew about this quote when I first wrote this article. :-)
There were secrets to those IBM machines that had been painstakingly
learned by some of the older people at MIT with access to the 704
and friends among the Priesthood. Amazingly, a few of these programmers,
grad students working with McCarthy, had even written a program that
utilized one of the rows of tiny lights: the lights would be lit in
such an order that it looked like a little ball was being passed from
right to left: if an operator hit a switch at just the right time,
the motion of the lights could be reversed--Computer Ping-Pong!
This obviously was the kind of thing that you'd show off to impress
your peers, who would then take a look at the actual program you
had written and see how it was done.
To top the program, someone else might try to do the same thing with
fewer instructions--a worthy endeavor, since there was so little room
in the small "memory" of the computers of those days that not many
instructions could fit into them. John McCarthy had once noticed how
his graduate students who loitered around the 704 would work over
their computer programs to get the most out of the fewest instructions,
and get the program compressed so that fewer cards would need to be
fed to the machine. Shaving off an instruction or two was almost an
obsession with them. McCarthy compared these students to ski bums.
They got the same kind of primal thrill from "maximizing code" as
fanatic skiers got from swooshing frantically down a hill. So the
practice of taking a computer program and trying to cut off instructions
without affecting the outcome came to be called "program bumming,"
and you would often hear people mumbling things like "Maybe I can
bum a few instructions out and get the octal correction card loader
down to three cards instead of four."
-- Steven Levy in the book Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution
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