Thursday, August 29, 2013

Claude M. Watson (1922-2013)

Claude Meacham Watson (July 30, 1922 to August 26, 2013) is the reason that my present wife and I met, and, ultimately, had a baby, and careers.

Claude M . Watson
In the summer of 1977, Star Wars was new. People tried to set Guinness-type records by seeing it dozens or hundreds of times. I had taken a class in computer programming taught by Claude Watson in the Winter ’77 quarter and I enrolled in it again for the Fall. I also had a subscription to Industrial Research & Development magazine. I filled out a bingo card for some kind of equipment or other and had the literature sent to “Obi Watson Kenobi” at Lansing Community College. Claude knew whom to blame. “Please don’t do that,” he said. “The dean already thinks that I’m senile.”

Actually, at 55 then, far from deficient, Claude was clairvoyant in his perceptions. He was an early advocate for personal computing. He already had arranged for the science department to acquire a Hewlett Packard 9815 “desktop calculator” in 1976.  Later, they acquired an IBM 5100 desktop computer (programmable in BASIC and APL) and then a Hewlett Packard 9830 “desktop calculator” programmable in BASIC with a full ASCII keyboard, and an X-Y pen plotter.  Realize that Apple Computer was incorporated on January 3, 1977. Steve Wozniak had been an intern at Hewlett Packard and knew to ask if his project would interfere with one of their markets.

VAX manager Philip A. Dawdy
and micro technician 

Geoffrey J. Rarick circa 1990.
Lansing Community College already had a Data Processing department in the Business Division. We punched cards for two runs a day on an IBM 360. Claude offered the chance to program interactively. That created a lot of tension. They argued loud and long. He was not allowed to offer his first class for credit. The quarter that I took it, you could opt for No Credit. I took it for 2. The year before, Spring 1976, I took “Business Programming in Fortran IV.” I got a C+ and had no idea what I was supposed to have learned for the grade. But it seemed compelling. Also, for some odd reason, I got the feeling that I could somehow cadge time in the computer labs, both there and at Michigan State University. I learned to hack passwords. Then, I took Fortran again in the Winter of 1977 and got an A. At the same time, I was in Claude’s class in Basic and got a C+. But it was compelling… and I did not need to hack passwords for free time. All I had to do was turn the computer on. I took the class again; and that’s when I met the girl I married. Mr. Watson was her physics instructor. We got married and moved to Las Cruces. I got a job at White Sands Missile Range where HP desktops were everywhere.
Earl R. Youngs c. 1991

After returning to Lansing in 1979, our daughter was born. Our friends Earl and Elizabeth Youngs were working in the Science department. Earl was in charge of the lab aides. Elizabeth was a clerical, and eventually the department secretary. Earl offered me the chance to work as a lab aide, if I would enroll part-time for six credits. I set up labs for Claude and the other instructors and completed an associate’s degree in 1980.

Under Claude’s quiet leadership, the LCC Arts & Science division installed a Commodore Pet network. Then, they
Elizabeth M. Youngs c. 1998
acquired a DEC VAX. In the meantime, I worked as a programmer and technical writer around Lansing. I signed up for directed studies under Claude, earning a quarter hour of college credit for learning something new. He recommended that I write my documentation in TeX (“tech”), a typesetting language developed by Donald Knuth. As a result, I was hired by a medical records firm deeply invested in TeX for documentation. As it happened, TeX was the basis for SGML, the Standard Generalized Markup Language. SGML became HTML. In the meantime, I served as the secretary of our local DECUS chapter and produced the quarterly newletter in TeX. In addition to writing the system maintenance manual for a MicroVAX, I also documented the game of Moria on the VAX using TeX. When HTML was invented, it was pretty easy for me to figure out.

Claude told me that he grew up on a farm, and hated country life. [According to his wife, the story is somewhat more nuanced: 
"The only thing you wrote that I would differ about was why he joined the military.  He had graduated from high school at age 16, and had already been working for a local dairy owner since maybe the 8th grade when he was offered a job helping to deliver milk at 25 cents/day.  You took it into the home and put in in a family's ice box.  The dairy owner had no children and seemed to have "adopted" Claude, who was feeling somewhat trapped in the job when one of his classmates came home on leave, in Claude's words "extolling the virtues of the military."  His friend had just served in Hawaii and was being sent next to the Philippines.  His friend ultimately was captured by the Japanese and spent the war in a Japanese prison camp.  Claude and another  friend hitchhiked to Chicago to enlist, intending to use the combined radio and photography experience they planned to gain to adventure sail after their enlistment was up.  Instead WWII intervened."
On March 7, 1941, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He learned radio operations and maintenance. After the War, he completed a master of science degree in physics. His thesis was “Demonstration of Fresnel Interference by Means of a Ripple Tank”; and it presaged his passion for teaching. He was hired by Lansing Community College. The rest is history.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Mike,

    Not only did I enjoy discovering your blog but what a treat to run across a photograph of my big brother too!

    Lovely work,

    Holly Rarick Witchey