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Oral-History:Mary Kircher

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Contents

About Mary Kircher

Mary Kircher was born in New Jersey in 1929. She attended high school in Connecticut and went on to Clark University in Massachusetts, where she majored in mathematics. She began working for Los Alamos in the 1950s, first in the Calculations Group on Marchant calculators and later on as a computer programmer for MANIAC. She was among a small group of women computer programmers and coders for MANIAC at Los Alamos. Kircher worked with FORTRAN, BASIC, and Hewlett-Packard languages with at Los Alamos.

In this interview, Kircher talks about her childhood and the influence of her family on her career. She goes into great detail about her time working at Los Alamos, the workplace environment there, and her experience with computers. She also talks about her family life outside of Los Alamos.

About the Interview

MARY KIRCHER: An Interview Conducted by Janet Abbate for the IEEE History Center, 3 April 2002

Interview # 607 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.

Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, 39 Union Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901-8538 USA. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Mary Kircher, an oral history conducted in 2002 by Janet Abbate, IEEE History Center, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.

Interview

INTERVIEW: Mary Kircher
INTERVIEWER: Janet Abbate
DATE: 3 April 2002
PLACE: Mary Kircher's home in Albuquerque, New Mexico

Women in Computer Programming, MANIAC

[This recording captured part of a conversation we had before the interview proper, which starts on page two.]

Kircher:

The idea that coding was women’s work didn’t last very long, because it was apparently discovered that there was a little more to it than just this writing down stuff.

Abbate:

So coding was considered a women’s job?

Kircher:

Coding? I think so. Yes, to begin with.

Abbate:

In the early fifties, you mean, when you started?

Kircher:

Yes, this was in ‘52. Good grief, that’s half a century ago! You weren’t even born. [laughs.]

Abbate:

I certainly wasn’t.

Kircher:

At that time, when we did coding—programming: to add two numbers, you didn’t say “A plus B equals C,” or even “A plus B goes to space C.” You said, “Bring A up into the register, but remove what was in there before; and then bring B into the same register, but add them; and then put the result in someplace else.” You had to break simple operations down into their even simpler parts. So that was kind of boring, kind of interesting. You never think of addition or subtraction that way, until you have to. Of course, multiplication and division had their own commands.

It was, at first, a woman’s job. And then—not too long after, because I didn’t work on the MANIAC very long, really—then they started bringing young men in, to do the same work. Then coding was for men to do, too, and then we became “programmers.”

Abbate:

Are you saying the use of the term “programmers” was correlated with men coming in?

Kircher:

Probably not. It just was about the same time. Because “coders” I don’t think sounds classy enough. It’s not a very descriptive term, because we were not . . . In a way we were encoding arithmetic, and in a way we were doing a program that the machine could follow—because that was the big difference with the digital electronic computers: they could follow a program. They could accept instructions, as well as accepting numbers like an adding machine does. That was the big deal. And they could do things many times over, until the program told them not to; told them when to stop. Well, you’ve done programming; you know what I’m talking about. And we didn’t have “do loops” and things like that.

Abbate:

Would this be in some kind of assembler, or were you using binary? What were you using at that point?

Kircher:

Hexadecimal, which of course is four binaries—mostly because the geography of the machine was such that there were four lights here, and four lights, and then a bar, and four lights and four lights and a bar—just because that’s how it was built.

Abbate:

This is the MANIAC?

Kircher:

The MANIAC, yes.

Abbate:

Well, why don’t I back up a bit, and we can get into this.

Background and Education

[BEGINNING OF INTERVIEW PROPER]

Abbate:

To go way back: can you tell me when you were born and where you grew up?

Kircher:

I was born November 5th, 1929—right after the Great Crash—in New Jersey, and grew up there until I was thirteen. I lived a couple places in New Jersey. At this time, World War II just was underway. My father had a war job in Connecticut, and he had been living up there for a couple of years, and when I finished eighth grade, we moved to Connecticut. This was in ‘43.

Abbate:

What did your father do for a living?

Kircher:

Oh, this and that. His wartime job was managing a plant which made two-pound shot for tanks. He’d done all kinds of things; after that he did a number of managerial-type things. He was really good with people, and so that’s what he did. He worked with a whole bunch of technicians, whatever.

Abbate:

But always technical types of work?

Kircher:

Always factory-type, if that’s what you mean: yes. Construction; making things. One of the things he got involved with that I remember was a little—they wouldn’t do it anymore: it was called a “picture pistol.” It was a little thing that looked like a gun, but you’d pull the trigger and a little film would change from one picture to another, and the barrel of the gun was the projector.

Abbate:

I have never heard of that!

Kircher:

It didn’t last long! [laughs.]

Abbate:

Did he invent any of these things? Or was he just managing the process?

Kircher:

No. He just worked in these different places.

Abbate:

Interesting. Did your mother work?

Kircher:

Never. She didn’t have a Social Security number. Back then, I can remember, I couldn’t get one until I got a job.

Abbate:

I guess they were relatively new.

Kircher:

For everyone, yes.

Let’s see: I went to high school in Connecticut; graduated from Middletown High in 1947; and went to Clark University in Worcester, Mass., where I majored in mathematics and extracurricular activities. It was the first time I’d had a really good social life, and the first time I’d ever dated was when I got to college.

Abbate:

Was that because of the war?

Kircher:

No, that’s because I was not considered worth dating! I think my parents had truly given up on my ever getting married. My mother’s sister was a single woman, and a career woman; she was a proofreader for the Brooklyn Eagle when I knew her. So I think they figured I was going to be like Aunt Mary, and I needed a college education to have a good job.

Abbate:

So did they expect you to have a career? Or only if you didn’t get married?

Kircher:

Probably only if I didn’t get married. My mother and father were both in their forties when I was born, and I was an only child; so they were a generation behind, in a way, and very traditional in things like that—like who’s going to work and who’s not going to work.

Abbate:

But they encouraged you to get an education, it sounds like.

Kircher:

Oh, yes!

I started out to major in chemistry—hated it!—and went into math.

Abbate:

Had you already been interested in math, earlier in your childhood?

Kircher:

I’d always enjoyed all the math and all the science: all of it, not exclusively math.

Abbate:

But you knew, when you went to college, that you were already interested in math and science.

Kircher:

I was going into science for sure; yes. And ended up in math after one year.

This was right after World War II, obviously, and the school was full of veterans who were finishing their education, mostly on G.I. Bill. So, the school was running summer school, and I didn’t want to go back to Middletown for the summer, so I went to summer school for two summers, and I ended up graduating in three years—which was kind of neat. And then I went and did what I wanted to do: I got the job I was looking for; I went to work for an insurance company in Boston, Massachusetts—and it turned out to be terrible! [laughs.]

Working at Los Alamos and Programming MANIAC

Abbate:

Why was this the job you wanted?

Kircher:

I don’t know! It just seemed, at the time, that’s what I was interested in. I wanted to work in Boston, and—well, I had sort of an “in” with insurance companies. The father of one of my girlfriends was an insurance company executive in Worcester, Mass., and so he gave me recommendations to companies in Boston. And I got the job, and it was not well-paying; it was not interesting; the man I was working for didn’t really like me very much, apparently—or didn’t like the work I did; I don’t know—so I stayed there for about a year and a half, and after about a year I’d started investigating other places.

My high school girlfriend had two of her college friends who had come out to Los Alamos, and they were math majors, so I applied to Los Alamos. It was a long time before they had an opening for me, but they finally did. They called me for an interview: I was to fly from Boston to New Mexico at their expense—which was incredible! That really shook up the entire insurance company. They even offered me a raise! And I just fell in love with New Mexico right away: you know, the sparseness of the trees, and the different climate, and the different look of it, and all the mountains, the ruggedness of the mountains.

Abbate:

Was that the first time you’d been out of New England?

Kircher:

Not quite.

Abbate:

I guess New Jersey isn’t New England, technically.

Kircher:

But it was the first time I’d been any farther west than Ohio.

I accepted the job and came out here. My first job—the one I was hired on for—was working in the Calculations Group, which was fairly large and had Marchant calculators. That was it. You’ve heard of them?

Abbate:

I’ve heard of them and seen pictures.

Kircher:

Well, they could do all kinds of stuff, including getting jammed—and I was really good at that! [laughs.]

Abbate:

At jamming them, or unjamming them?

Kircher:

At jamming them! Because if you, basically, tried to divide by zero—even though you were not literally dividing by zero—they would just go bananas. [laughs.] I was sharing an office with a man who was good at unjamming them, fortunately!

Abbate:

Now, this was in 1953?

Kircher:

‘52.

Abbate:

‘52. I see. So they were still using these mechanical calculators.

Kircher:

Yes.

Abbate:

Did they have any computers at that point? I don’t remember.

Kircher:

There were IBM machines—tabulating machines—which you could hook up to do a lot of calculations, and the MANIAC was under construction, because I went to work for that—let’s see, it was probably late ‘52; because I had arrived in February, and several of us were transferred down to the MANIAC group, and we were working to learn how to code for the MANIAC.

One day they came and told us, “Oh, come on into the machine room! It’s going to run! It’s going to run!” It was generating prime numbers. What’s the first thing that prints out? “Twenty-five.” [both laugh.] When I retired from my second job at the lab, somebody asked me to tell some MANIAC stories, and of course I told that one, and then somebody came up to me afterwards and said, “What happened?” It was probably hexadecimal, because “two five” hexadecimal would be “37” in decimal. So that would be a prime number.

Abbate:

So they had the right number, but they just weren’t expressing it right.

Kircher:

They had the right number, but it wasn’t translated; yes. But funny? Oh my goodness! [laughs.] And of course we couldn’t laugh, because it was terribly embarrassing.

Abbate:

So who did that first demonstration program? Was that people in your group, or was someone else already doing it?

Kircher:

Nick Metropolis, who was the Group Leader, was there, and Lois Cooke, who was one of the first programmers. I doubt that you have her name here.

Abbate:

I don’t think I do.

Kircher:

She married—her married name was Luergans: L-U-E-R-G-A-N-S—and then they left the Hill [a nickname for Los Alamos], and everybody lost track of them. You have the best name of all for knowing where people are, which is Mary Menzel. You can’t get off her Christmas card list! So she knows where people are. She is the one who was visited by someone we had all worked with back in the upstairs calculations group, Lorraine Zahn.

But, let’s see: Finally the MANIAC got going, and it had vacuum tubes. I don’t know how many; an awful lot. The memory was vacuum tubes, which were about three inches in diameter, and they had one thousand twenty-four spots on them, which is two to the tenth. Each spot was one bit, and each tube had one bit from each word of the memory; there were forty of those tubes, and so your word in memory was one bit in each one of them. Each word was forty bits long. The whole thing had 1024 words, and you could do quite a bit. Not much, but more than you could do without it. It was interesting, programming for that thing.

Abbate:

How were you trained to do that?

Kircher:

I don’t remember. We’d apparently had some kind of classes. A man named Jack Jackson was in charge of the programmers, and he would show us how to do it. It was this “Bring it in from memory, add it on, send it back”—and of course, everything in absolute programming. If you wanted to store something, you didn’t say, “Send it to a-nicely-named-spot”; you said, “Send it to space three-zero-zero,” or something like that. And you had to figure out how much space your program would use; how much space you needed for your block memory, your arrays; and how much space you needed for your temporary memory—and not have everything overlap!

Abbate:

So you were very conscious of the physical layout of the machine.

Kircher:

Oh, extremely; yes. Of the fact that you had one thousand twenty-four words. It didn’t take very long before a tape deck was added. This was a big old Ampex tape deck; it was about waist-high—thirty-three inches or three feet—and reel-to-reel. We’d use that. The tape was marked in sections long enough to hold the entire memory. The tape was wiped with a solvent at the end of the sections so it would be obvious when to start your dump. After all, that’s how your cassette tapes work; they have a blank end.

We had a fast, high-speed printer, probably the first one that was ever made, and it was so fast that the paper had to come down. It couldn’t feed it up; it had to just fall down. That must have been when I was just about ready to quit, because I quit before Monica was born, and she was born in September of ‘54, so I quit in July of ‘54. By then, they had all kinds of other things. They had a drum memory. I remember using that. You saw the hardware, but you could program things onto that drum memory.

That was quite a machine. Somewhere I have a picture of it.

[recording pauses.]

Abbate:

Now, when you went to New Mexico, you weren’t expecting to work on a computer, were you?

Kircher:

No. I was expecting to do the work on the Marchant.

Abbate:

What did you think about computers? I mean, when they first said, “Here’s this opportunity,” or “We’d like you to do this.”

Kircher:

Oh, okay. When I was in college, one Saturday, I guess it was, the head of the math department organized a field trip to Harvard to see the Mark IV. I don’t have very many recollections of it, but it certainly was a beautiful piece of machinery! All that polished brass. Just gorgeous! That was purely mechanical, and down in the basement there was one being worked on that was electronic; that was the Mark something-or-other. But that much I had seen, so I did recognize that big computers were possible.

Did I want to go down and work on the MANIAC? “Well, all right, why not? Give it a try; see what happens!”

I started out sharing an office with Mary Menzel. She was Mary Tsingou at the time; of course, I was Mary Hunsberger. There were three Marys in the group: Mary H., Mary B., and Mary T.

Abbate:

Who was Mary B.?

Kircher:

That was our Group Secretary, Mary Boswell.

It was kind of interesting, but I didn’t really want to transfer, because I enjoyed the women I was working with upstairs. But I finally did.

Abbate:

So the computer was in the basement or something?

Kircher:

Well, it was on the first floor. The computer room was actually, I think, a few steps below. Yes, you had to go down a few steps to get into it; it just happened to be lower. When you get to Los Alamos and you see Ashley Pond, you’ll see a little memorial—it’s obviously a memorial of some sort—and our offices were in the building along where that memorial is. There was a big building around Ashley Pond. The MANIAC was away from the pond, toward Trinity Drive. Yes; that’s right.

For a while, Mary and I had an office that had a vault under it, and apparently the vault had originally been used for all kinds of important stuff, but when we were in the office, the vault was totally unused. So we’re sitting there working very quietly one day. Of course, we had a limited way we could arrange the office, because there was this trap door—I mean, it was not just a little trap door; it was a full-size door trap door. And one day, this security guy comes charging into the office with his hand on his gun! He didn’t have it drawn, but he had his hand on it. The alarm had gone off, down in the vault. You know, a silent alarm; we didn’t know what was going on, but he pulled up the trap door, went down the stairs, and found that there was a flashing light down there, I guess. But it had done it all by itself.

Abbate:

But there was nothing in the vault.

Kircher:

As far as I know, no.

Abbate:

So this was just an underground room?

Kircher:

It was a former vault. It was just unused. As far as I know, it was empty. We knew something was down there, but we didn’t pay any attention to it. We just had to keep off the door! [laughs.]

Abbate:

So it wasn’t like an air raid shelter or something.

Kircher:

No. It was more like a safe. That was a funny one.

Abbate:

Well, what kind of security did you have to work under? Were these top secret jobs?

Kircher:

Mostly not. We were actually in an open area. We did not have to go through security to get to our offices. Personnel was here, and the MANIAC group was down here: T-7. Upstairs, you had to go through security. There was a desk on the landing and a security guard.

Abbate:

That was where you had worked before.

Kircher:

Yes. Actually, that’s right: we were in a secure area before.

Abbate:

Now, when you were doing the hand calculations, did you know what they were for?

Kircher:

No.

Abbate:

So it wasn’t that you personally possessed high-level knowledge that they had to worry about.

Kircher:

No. It was, I think, that the people who put it all together knew what our calculations were for. When we were doing the Marchant calculations, there were two women who would write up sheets for us. There’d be steps across the top, and numbers to work with down the side, and you’d take the first number and you’d do whatever it was the top said. And unfortunately, at the time, nobody used scientific notation! You know, like “three times ten to the minus fourth.” So it would be “point-zero-zero-zero-zero-whatever,” and that was very awkward. If they had used the scientific notation, it would have been easier; but the Marchant did not work with that, so we would have had to do that on our own. But frankly, it would have been easier! [laughs.]

Well, you’d just keep following the instructions on the sheet till you came to the end. A lot of the things you were doing were what are called “cross-sections,” which is how much of a solid—an atom—is nucleus, and how much is empty space. This is the sort of thing you do, apparently, by the book-full, because there were books and books of cross-sections. That’s something I think we did on the MANIAC, too, because it’s not an extremely difficult calculation; it’s just that there are so many of them.

Abbate:

What kinds of problems were you working on on the MANIAC?

Kircher:

I don’t remember. Whatever people would bring, mostly. And we would do our flow diagrams, which were sometimes very nice and very helpful. What do you call them now? “Flow charts”? Or don’t you do those?

Abbate:

“Flow charts” is what I’ve heard. I don’t think people use them anymore.

Kircher:

I know. I didn’t think so. There’s too much built-in software. But if you’re starting from scratch, why, you’ve got to have something to tell you where you’re going.

We’d do our flow diagram, and then we’d just program whatever there was. You get your equations, you get your boundary conditions, you get what’s wanted for results: begin at the beginning, continue until you come to the end, and then stop.

Abbate:

Would you work on them individually, or were they sort of team projects?

Kircher:

There would usually be one programmer with the other people involved. So it would be one person doing the programming.

Abbate:

A bunch of physicists and a programmer, or something?

Kircher:

Yes, one or two physicists, and maybe one of your higher-up programmers’ supervisors—not exactly supervisors, but somebody else who was more of a mathematician.

Abbate:

I see; kind of a mixed team. Were there particular scientists that you tended to work with over and over?

Kircher:

Well, let’s see: I remember Roger Lazarus, with whom I still am somewhat in touch—he’s still in Los Alamos; and some guy who ended up going to New Mexico Tech: Al Petschek. Nobody else in particular. They were just whoever needed something done, and they’d go to Jack, and Jack would assign somebody.

Abbate:

Who’s Jack?

Kircher:

Jack Jackson.

Abbate:

Oh, right.

Kircher:

Mostly Mary T. was working with . . . [To her husband:] What’s the name of that guy who lived next to the Lilienthals? Big wheel? Ulam! Stan Ulam.

Abbate:

Ah!

Kircher:

Yes. And that woman whose name I gave you, Elaine Alei, worked with [Enrico] Fermi on one project. But they mostly gave me the nobodies, I guess! [laughs.] That one Elaine was on, I think [Edward] Teller was in on it, too—because I can remember how loud he was. He’d walk up and down the hall, yelling and screaming—not really, just loud!

Abbate:

Were they difficult to work with, the scientists?

Kircher:

No. They were all a bunch of frustrated teachers, so when they find somebody they can teach, they’ll go to it! I noticed this especially when I went back to work in ‘72.

Abbate:

Interesting. So all the coders at that point were—or all the programmers— What were you called? You were actually called “coders” at that point?

Kircher:

Well, I don’t know what our title . . . Our title was “Research Assistant”; “Research Assistant” or “Research Associate,” something like that. It was what you called a woman who had a degree, but that way you didn’t have to call her a Staff Member and pay her as much as the men.

Abbate:

I see. Were there women on the staff?

Kircher:

Women staff members? Yes, certainly. But mostly with advanced degrees. We young women who were not especially dedicated, shall we say, were not staff members.

Abbate:

You were there from ‘52 to ‘54?

Kircher:

From February ‘52 to July of ‘54.

Abbate:

And then you left to have your first child. I don’t know how many kids you actually had.

Kircher:

Six.

Abbate:

Six! Oh, goodness.

Could you have stayed if you wanted to?

Kircher:

Yes. There was no bias against pregnant women. In fact, somebody told me, “Well, I guess they prefer you not have the baby under the desk, but otherwise . . .” [laughs.] You know, the insurance company I worked for in Boston: the minute you admitted to them that you pregnant, you were out! But it was not that way at Los Alamos, and I could have gone back. I was not exactly urged to come back, but it was obvious that if I wanted to, I could. In fact, I thought about it for a while, but decided not to.

Bombs at Los Alamos

Abbate:

Did you have to work long hours while you were there? Or was that common?

Kircher:

When I was first there, we were doing six-day weeks. This was to develop the hydrogen bomb, and whether you had anything directly to do with it or not, you worked a six-day week! The whole lab, yes. After that, why, it was just the regular five-day week. It was really neat, you know: you went from six days to five days and you didn’t lose any money!

Abbate:

Was there a sense of urgency, then, when you first came and were working these six-day weeks?

Kircher:

Well, a little bit, but not much. We’re the ones who started the Casual Fridays—but it was Casual Saturday! [laughs.]

Abbate:

Ah, I see! [laughs.]

Now, I’m not sure: did you know that they were making bombs there, when you first went there? I don’t know if that was still a secret.

Kircher:

I guess so. No, it wasn’t. After all, it wasn’t a secret after ‘45. And really, they didn’t make bombs there, technically; they designed them, tested them, what have you. I knew it was an AEC facility, but I didn’t think much of bombs per se. I knew they had stopped the war.

The hydrogen bomb? I didn’t really know much about it; the serious information was classified, and the stuff I got to was nothing that I could understand. All I was aware of was a sort of “we’re working hard” type of thing. Then we found out about that, and they tested it in the Pacific. I got to go to a shot in Las Vegas!

Abbate:

What was that like?

Kircher:

It was fascinating! The four of us went: Mary Menzel, Lois Luergans, Leona Otfinoski and I. If you had enough points, you could go as an “Official Visitor,” which meant you went at government expense and you got to stay out at Camp Mercury (which I guess was one of the lesser charms). But if you wanted to go on your own, you could do that. You had to take care of your own transportation and your own lodging, and then you had to get yourself out to Mercury at some marvelous hour like three in the morning. So we bummed a ride with a man who was going as an Official Visitor. I was the only one of the four with a driver’s license, so I drove us from Las Vegas to Mercury and back—twice. It was very interesting. The first thing that happened was that we were given a tour of the area, including a couple of the houses that had been put up for a Civil Defense test. You see this one house being blown apart on TV every now and then, when they are showing something about the history of the bomb; and I guess we saw the ruins of it, and I remember that we saw the house that was farther away had not been seriously damaged. We got to get out, hither and yon, and as we got back in the bus, our feet were monitored with a Geiger counter, which was interesting.

The morning of the shot, we had to be there way ahead of time, and they gave us these black glasses, so you could not see a thing. Of course, I couldn’t see anything without my glasses very well, so I had to take off my glasses and put on those; and we’re standing there, and all of a sudden you could see something through the glasses. I was very slow at taking them off to put my regular glasses on, because, you know, it would take too much doing. And then the shock wave came, and I sat down! [laughs.] But it was a very impressive thing to do. It was one of the shots where they had soldiers in foxholes, up somewhere ahead of the viewing point—because I remember seeing some of them. They weren’t all that far ahead of us.

Then we went back to Las Vegas, and Milt picked us up and gave us a little classified report of what had happened, when we were on our way home! And we stopped at a motel somewhere in Arizona, and the five of us go charging into the office, and, you know: a few raised eyebrows at the time. And he looked around and he said, “I never saw them before in my life!” [laughs.] He’d had enough of us!

But it was really an interesting thing to be able to go to see, and I’m glad I did!

Abbate:

What did it actually look like? Just a flash of light?

Kircher:

No, it looked like a very colorful mushroom cloud; with a few airplanes around, hither and yon, and some dust coming down, and all the things it’s supposed to have!

One of the former Directors of the lab was saying that he thought, even now that they had discontinued atmospheric testing, there should be one done once in a while—in order for all the chief executives of the countries of the world to see, so they would know what they were playing around with—which is an interesting attitude.

Abbate:

It sounds like you liked working there.

Kircher:

Oh, yes! I enjoyed it.

Family Life

Abbate:

Did you meet your husband there?

Kircher:

Yes.

Abbate:

What was he doing?

Kircher:

He was a Chemical Engineer, working with uranium for—what, thirty, forty years? For a long time. He’d been in Los Alamos for about six years when I came. The first time I can specifically remember meeting him was at a party that one mutual friend had put on for his sixth anniversary in Los Alamos. And then we hung around together with the same group, and finally started dating.

Think of another question here! Get me started on something else.

Abbate:

Well, one of the things I usually ask is whether you had trouble balancing work and family, and it sounds like you chose to balance that by taking time off.

Kircher:

I took turns.

Abbate:

So, between I guess ‘54 and ‘72, were you not working at all? Or were you working part-time?

Kircher:

That’s right. I wasn’t working at all.

Abbate:

So you were raising six kids all that time.

Kircher:

Yes. I wasn’t working for the Lab.

Abbate:

That’s plenty of work!

Kircher:

I was fortunate enough to be able to stay at home. And then—well, when you have six kids, there is no such thing as enough money, so I went back to work. I applied, and finally got a job. I worked half-time for several years, which was marvelous.

Abbate:

When was this?

Kircher:

In ‘72. Let’s see: I started work just about the time—just about the day—that our oldest started college, which was handy. And then I worked half-time for about four years; four or five. Our youngest was in fourth grade, fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade, and then I started working three-quarter time, because my father was in Santa Fe and I had to go down and see him at least once a week. Then one day, we came home from a six-week trip and I said, “Gee Pop, I haven’t seen you in a long time,” and he said, “Oh, haven’t you?” So I decided, “Well, I may as well go work full-time. He doesn’t know whether I’m there or not”—which is very sad, but that’s the way it was. I would take off an afternoon fairly often to go visit him, because the Lab’s vacation policy was quite generous.

Abbate:

So they were fairly flexible about working part-time?

Kircher:

The job I had? Yes. I was working for a physicist, who died just a couple of years ago, and we just worked well together.

Abbate:

Who was that?

Kircher:

Wally Leland. He was a real good physicist: a very good experimentalist; a very good theoretical man, too. I would do his programming and his calculations.

I got back to work, and one of my first jobs was to straighten out his files of the computer instruction books for the computer facility in Los Alamos. I couldn’t even read them!

Abbate:

What do you mean, you couldn’t read them?

Kircher:

They didn’t make sense to me, that’s what I mean!

Abbate:

Oh, because you came back after . . .

Kircher:

It was eighteen years, and it was a whole new world!

Working with Computer Again at Los Alamos

Abbate:

I was going to ask what that was like. What computers were they even using at that point?

Kircher:

Oh boy. Good grief. That’s a terrible question! Ask Mary; she’ll know, because she worked at CCF. I worked at one of the other sites, and I had table-tops: Hewlett-Packard ninety-eight something-or-other.

Abbate:

Is that a minicomputer?

Kircher:

Yes, it is. They called it a “calculator,” but it’s actually a computer. You could store programs and do all kinds of stuff with it. I ran those things—several of them, different versions—for all the time I worked. I did some work with the CCF, the Central Computing Facility, but this was not my primary job. My primary job was a bunch of little “what ifs.”

Abbate:

What do you mean?

Kircher:

Well, “What if this geometry is done? Then what happens when we do such-and-such?” And it was fun. Sometimes I had the most magnificent blackboards! There was one where I had three simultaneous differential equations to solve, and that’s impressive, right? [laughs.]

Abbate:

What kind of programming language were you doing it in at that point?

Kircher:

I was doing FORTRAN on the CCF. The Hewlett-Packards each had their own. One of them spoke BASIC, more or less.

Abbate:

You were doing differential equations in BASIC?

Kircher:

Well, yes.

Abbate:

Wow.

Kircher:

No, actually, the differential equations would be in the Hewlett-Packard languages, which were just individualistic, and they worked out fine. I don’t remember any of them anymore.

How Programming Became a Man's Job at Los Alamos

Abbate:

That’s like an assembler kind of thing?

Kircher:

It was just built-in language. Not an assembler.

Back in the MANIAC days, the first sign that it was really not going to be a woman’s job anymore was when Jack Jackson got some of the young men together—none of the women—to write the first assembler.

Abbate:

Really!

Kircher:

Yes! We were not invited.

Abbate:

Wow.

Kircher:

And there was some bitterness about it, of course. I was married and probably pregnant by then, so I didn’t feel quite the way some of the others did, but I know Mary was upset. Mary was a little more sensitive to women’s issues than the rest of us.

Abbate:

So these men were not particularly any more qualified than the women?

Kircher:

No, they weren’t! We didn’t think that much of them. We had no incredible respect for that batch.

Abbate:

So this was Metropolis’s idea?

Kircher:

I don’t know. It may have been. Nick was a pretty much of a good male chauvinist, I think. After all, he was a man of his era. He died not too long ago, too; I went to his memorial service in Los Alamos.

Abbate:

Women were doing so much with compilers and software other places . . .

Kircher:

Yes. That may have been when Jack’s wife was in between with marriages. She was married to him, she divorced him, and then she remarried him! [laughs.] Whatever! But then, that may have colored his attitude toward women.

Abbate:

Oh, so it might have been Jackson’s idea?

Kircher:

Yes. I mean, it may well have been.

I can remember, I think, that we women made some comments, but didn’t fight very hard.

More on Workplace at Los Alamos

Abbate:

When you came back, what was the male-female balance in the computing staff at that point?

Kircher:

There were a lot of women and a lot of men. As I said, I was not working in the main computing office; but I did know, of course, some people there, and there may in fact have been a few more women than men, from the people I ran across. I’d go up there occasionally. They had a help office, and I’d go up there and ask for some assistance, and it was very often a woman who was helping me out.

One of the men I ended up talking to had been the man who ran the movie theaters in Los Alamos, back in the fifties! I don’t know what his training was for computer work, but that’s what he was doing, and he was in the help office, and he helped me out. I just happened to get talking to him, because our Z numbers weren’t very far apart. You’ve heard about Z numbers?

Abbate:

No, I haven’t actually. What was a Z number?

Kircher:

Everybody had a Z number. This was your identification for the Lab. It was on your badge; it was on your post pass; it was on everything, especially when it was a closed community: you’d write a check and you’d put your Z number on it, which would be the identification; you didn’t need your address. My husband is 10098; I’m 49638. I don’t know what they’re up to now, but they’re still using Z numbers! You were assigned it when they opened your file for your clearance, so it didn’t exactly relate to when you arrived; it was related to when you had a file opened.

Abbate:

You had the same one when you went back?

Kircher:

Oh, yes.

Abbate:

Did they recruit women from the community? I mean, did women from the local area end up doing programming as well?

Kircher:

Well, that Calculations Group had a number of local women in it. MANIAC? No, we did not have housewives. We were strictly professional.

One of the groups Wally had worked with back in the fifties, I guess, and sixties, was for reading the traces of nuclear breakups in bubble chambers, and he had a lot of housewives doing that, because they couldn’t do it very long within the day. It was a part-time job; your eye strain was too much.

There were very few women in Los Alamos who wanted a job who couldn’t find one. Most of the women I knew who didn’t have any specific scientific job ended up in the library. It helps to have a feeling for science to be there, because there is so much scientific information, and the questions would all be of a scientific nature.

Abbate:

So I guess you eventually got used to the changes in computing when you came back.

Kircher:

Oh yes! It took a while, but I did figure it all out; and what a change there was from when I started in ‘72! Because I was named in charge of some terminal—it was a computer that hitched to the CCF, but it was a complicated mess, because you had to turn it on the right way, and then you had to feed it cards, which of course meant that you had to redo the ones that got chewed up, because there always was something that got chewed up—oh, those cards were a pain! But it wasn’t very long before they were gone. There may be a connection there: they were hard to work with.

Abbate:

Was this a time-sharing machine?

Kircher:

Was this a time-sharing machine? No, that wasn’t. The CCF was. I think it always was, because they just had to do it. Oh, it was always fun. I’d sit there at a terminal—this was years after the cards—and check to see what my program was doing, and it would be doing nothing because I never had enough priority to go very far! [laughs.] And then they ended up getting more machines and faster machines, so that there was hardly ever a problem with time, after a while.

There was one program Wally and I did: We were working with lasers for nuclear fusion for power generation, and there was this great big amplifier chamber, maybe thirty feet long. It was huge. So we broke it up into cells of a few centimeters on a side, cubes, and then we would follow the lasers—the beams, the photons—from one place to another. So they’d go from this cube, and on to this one, and then this one. And it took half an hour on the Cray to run the program. Now, that’s a lot of calculating!

Working with a Cray

Abbate:

So you were using a Cray at some point?

Kircher:

Yes. Finally.

Abbate:

How long did you work there?

Kircher:

I worked from ‘72 through about ‘87, I guess. I worked half-time, three-quarter time, full-time, then back to half-time.

Abbate:

What was that like, working with the Cray?

Kircher:

Well, it was like working with any other computer. You don’t see it; you don’t hear it; you don’t feel it; you just send it information and it sends you information, that’s all! [laughs.] No connection whatsoever! No real connection with it.

Abbate:

I don’t remember the details of how they’re used. You didn’t have to write things in parallel or something for it?

Kircher:

No. If it was going to go in parallel, it was somebody else’s concern.

Working with Different Programming Languages

Abbate:

The compiler or something. So, you were using FORTRAN or something at that point?

Kircher:

Yes. I’m not sure which number FORTRAN, but just FORTRAN. I did take a class in C, once. I found it thoroughly ridiculous! [laughs.] It was my feeling that the person who invented C never had to type his own programs in. Well, you think about that: you do a colon, and a right paren[thesis], and then you do a dash, and maybe you do that twice—just ridiculous amounts of grammar. That was my personal complaint about C.

Abbate:

What was your favorite language?

Kircher:

I don’t know. I think I could still think in FORTRAN, because it’s very straightforward. Once you learn it, it’s easy. The Hewlett-Packard languages were very simple and straightforward, and I had never had any trouble with them. You could write an equation by writing an equation, with parentheses, and signs, and then an arrow for “goes into”; but I don’t remember much about them.

Abbate:

Did you find that you could pretty much pick up any language you needed to know?

Kircher:

Yes. I have trouble with spoken languages, but computer languages I got along fine with.

Abbate:

So, once you have the principles down, it’s not an issue?

Kircher:

Yes. If you’ve had a class in logic, that’s a big help.

Reflection on Working with Computers

Abbate:

What did you find most satisfying about working with computers?

Kircher:

Being able to do the things I wanted to do. You know: “I need to do this, this, and this, and I can do it this way and that way.” The Hewlett-Packard I had had an excellent graph machine, so I could make very good graphs as I was calculating, and I liked that. I liked being able to do output that was graphic, that was immediately understandable.

Abbate:

Did you have to work out ways of graphing things? Were graphics routines not really well-developed at that point?

Kircher:

On the Hewlett-Packards: yes, I’d have to tell it what the limits of the graph were, I mean physically and numerically, and then tell it what X and Y were. I’m not quite sure what you mean. I didn’t have to say “Move the pen X notches”; I had to say “Go to X = whatever and Y= whatever.”

Abbate:

So it had a coordinate system.

Kircher:

Yes. It was a pretty sophisticated thing. And it also worked as a reader. So instead of a pen, I could put in a little fiber optic thing, and move that with the controls. It had up, down, left, right controls. It was a big platform like this, that would hold, I think, eleven-by-fourteen paper, roughly. It had a bar for the X input and a pen for the Y input, so it had total X-Y controls.

Abbate:

So you could sort of manually draw something in . . .

Kircher:

I could manually draw stuff—if I was good, which I wasn’t.

Abbate:

. . . or you could plot things and it would read them in.

Kircher:

Yes. Mostly I would plot, of course, from sending information from the computer. And I could do all kinds of labeling, and play around like crazy!

Abbate:

What do you think were your best skills as a programmer?

Kircher:

Well, actually, to put it in a way that sounds sillier than it is: keeping Wally happy! You know, I could answer the questions that I was asked. Maybe it would take two tries, but I could do it!

Abbate:

Did you have to help him figure out what was doable with the computer?

Kircher:

No.

Abbate:

So that was pretty clear-cut.

Kircher:

Yes, he could easily recognize what was doable with the little ones I had, and what needed one of the big ones from the CCF.

Abbate:

He sounds like the ideal client!

Kircher:

Oh, he was a nice man to work for! Yes, we got along fine. Our personalities didn’t clash. He was a very methodical thinker, and he could get everything just right; and I’d go [making birdlike sounds:] “Trubaloobalu! Tweet-tweet!” But sometimes that’s what you need; you need to flip a little bit around to get around a corner that he was having trouble turning.

Abbate:

So you’re saying you were more . . .

Kircher:

I’m more intuitive.

Abbate:

. . . spontaneous?

Kircher:

Yes. More intuitive than he, and spontaneous, yes. I miss him—although I hadn’t seen him for several years, because we’d come down here to Albuquerque.

[pause.] Well, think of another good question, Janet!

Mentors and Role Models

Abbate:

Did you ever have any mentors or role models, either in your education or at work?

Kircher:

I can’t think of any. I have often wondered about this, because mentoring is such a popular thing nowadays. I had teachers and professors that I admired and learned from, but never in any incredible amount. Never, “Oh, if it weren’t for so-and-so, I would never have made it!” Well, that’s not true: I would have made it. Maybe not as well, but I would have got there! And the same at work. There was a neighbor I used to call on for help in programming, because he’d been doing FORTRAN for years and years and I was trying to learn it, and he was as helpful as he could be, but I’d never think of him as a mentor. Good grief, not him! [laughs.] There have been many people who have been helpful; cooperative; but no one in particular whom I think of as the very special person to help me do my work.

Abbate:

Did you mentor anyone else?

Kircher:

I doubt it.

Abbate:

Well, it doesn’t sound like, when you came back, you were actually working with a lot of other people very directly.

Kircher:

That’s true.

Abbate:

You didn’t have any programmers under you, or anything?

Kircher:

Oh, no. It was more of a one-to-one deal. I worked with anybody I needed to work with.

It was very interesting: there was a concerted effort at the time by the Lab to hire more women in the technical fields.

Abbate:

In the seventies?

Kircher:

Yes; maybe in the late seventies, especially. And for a while, I was the only woman Staff Member in L Division.

Abbate:

What’s “L?”

Kircher:

It was “laser.”

This didn’t last very long; they hired a few more in. But that was kind of interesting, because, you know, they were trying. And Wally, in fact, said one day, “You know, if I find a woman in physics who is fairly good, I’d be glad to hire her, just because we need more women.”

Abbate:

Were they going to colleges and recruiting? Or how were they trying?

Kircher:

I don’t know. They didn’t tell me.

Abbate:

They didn’t ask you to . . .

Kircher:

They didn’t ask me to help, either. But I wasn’t “one of the boys” and I wasn’t “one of the girls.” Because most of the women were secretaries or had similar jobs, and most of the men did not—now, I’m not trying to say they didn’t give me any respect; I’m trying to say I never was all that comfortable socializing with them. I’m probably just too old for it. But the younger women may have had a different sort of relationship.

Abbate:

Well, did you ever feel as a woman that that was an obstacle?

Kircher:

No, just an occasional awkwardness.

[pause to change discs in recorder]

[DISC 2]

Abbate:

Okay, we’re back. You were just saying something about Marge Devaney.

Kircher:

I think you have her on your list.

Abbate:

Yes.

Kircher:

Yes, well, she was doing lovely things with that high-speed printer, because she was not about to quit. And I wasn’t bothering, because I was. And when I was about to retire, I had a new IBM PC in my office, and I never really learned how to do much with it, because I was about to retire. You know, they weren’t all that hard to get, but you request one from the lab, and six months later it may show up! That was ridiculous, because by then it was too late for me. Of course, somebody else got it; it didn’t go to waste, but I got very annoyed at Procurement on that one!

Abbate:

Why was that?

Kircher:

I don’t know! They said, “Oh, we have to put the orders all in together,” or something; I don’t remember. That may be what they said. It may be they said, “There aren’t any available.” Who knows? But it was frustrating.

Abbate:

Do you have a computer now?

Kircher:

No! Maybe one of these days; they’re so much more user-friendly now. When I retired: why get a computer? I’m not going to crunch numbers. The Internet? Yes, it was in existence then, but it wasn’t widespread.

Abbate:

This was in the late ‘80’s or something?

Kircher:

Yes.

Abbate:

Were you using it at Los Alamos?

Kircher:

I think so; because I was in communication, at least once, with a man who was working in DC, and that certainly sounds like Internet to me.

Abbate:

What did you think of it?

Kircher:

I didn’t realize what it was, until just recently! [laughs.] I had reason to talk to him, and so I talked to him.

Abbate:

Were you already using email internally in the Lab?

Kircher:

No. I was emailing the CCF. “Will you put on this tape or that tape” or something; and I remember someone messaging back and saying, “If you want a whole bunch of tapes, list them all, because then I won’t have to go back to the tape storage every time!” You know, that kind of thing. So yes: communication that was useful, but only to CCF. I could only talk to the operator at that time, as far as I know, so it was a miscellaneous person.

Attending Conferences

Abbate:

Did you do any work outside the lab for Los Alamos? Did they send you anywhere?

Kircher:

Well, I went to a couple of conferences, but I wasn’t on Detached Duty, or “TDY,” as the military would say.

Abbate:

TDY?

Kircher:

“Temporary DutY.” I finally found out that’s what it stands for.

Abbate:

What were those conferences like?

Kircher:

Much more useful than I expected. I went to San Francisco thinking it was at least half a boondoggle. Wally had said, “If you find a conference you want to go to, I’ll sign off on it.” So I thought, “All right. This sounds interesting,” and it was rather useful.

It was just before the disks came into use, so one of the things that a lot of people at the conference were talking about was the difficulty of keeping copyrighted software from being stolen.

Abbate:

Now, when was this?

Kircher:

I don’t remember.

Abbate:

This was in the seventies?

Kircher:

No, it was probably in the eighties, the early eighties. And not long after that, things started showing up on read-only disks, which helped with that problem—which of course meant everybody had to get a new computer that had a disk drive, or hitch a disk drive on their computer. And yes: I cannot give you any specifics now, but I did get more out of it than I thought I would. It was interesting listening to and talking to people who were doing computer work somewhere else. You know, it’s easy to get very narrow-minded in any place where you work.

Abbate:

And then you went to another conference?

Kircher:

Oh, a little one here in Albuquerque about office management. At that point, Wally had retired, and he wasn’t getting me much to do, and I was doing some office-type work: not secretarial work; I don’t do that; but office management–type work.

Reflection on Time at Los Alamos

Abbate:

Was there any promotion path from programming? Did you have to go into management to move up?

Kircher:

I don’t know, because I really wasn’t in that track. That’s something Marge could be more helpful on. Mary, I think, ended up somewhere else, but Marge, I think, was in the CCF.

Abbate:

So you were just looking for something interesting to do.

Kircher:

Yes. I wanted something to do; I wanted some money; and I hadn’t thought of it at the time, but I wanted some retirement!

Abbate:

But you found them to be a good employer.

Kircher:

The Lab? Yes, mostly. I found it better than my husband John did. He had more trouble with special nuclear material—uranium—and trying to keep records of it. I didn’t have to worry about that sort of thing. I had my little niche in life, and I just kept it!

Abbate:

Do you have any advice for young women who are thinking about going into computing today?

Kircher:

Study logic. That’s almost more worthwhile than mathematics. But the more math you know, the better. Well, no; I shouldn’t say that, because, the kind of programming I did is a very rare thing. Not many people do scientific programming. Not many people program equations. There’s not that much demand for it. But logic, yes; because you have to have a feeling for how a program flows—even if you don’t do a flow diagram, because they were really a waste of time, mostly. They never came out right! [laughs.]

Abbate:

What do you mean?

Kircher:

Oh, well, you’d do this beautiful flow diagram about how everything works—and you’d leave something out, or you’d have a path going the wrong way, or you’d just end up not doing what you thought you were going to! Yes. There’s a lot of last-minute stuff in programming, and debugging!

Abbate:

Were there sort of little tricks you had to learn to make things come out the way you wanted?

Kircher:

I don’t think so. I don’t know what you would consider a trick.

Abbate:

Well, some people have told me about memory management things, trying to squeeze as much in as possible, or ways of . . .

Kircher:

Oh, okay. Yes, well, when you had 1024 words, you had to be very, very careful of how you did everything. We had a program that took ten words for dumping everything onto a tape. That had to be done with great economy! But yes; you had to be conscious of memory. Of course, now you don’t worry about that. That’s the big turnaround! Then, programming was the important thing, and the hardware was minimal; you had as much as they could get you, which wasn’t much. But now, you have so much memory that you don’t have to worry about being economical and being careful, really. You look at those programs that are available, the software, and that stuff takes up millions of words! One summer, we had a gal from Socorro, a student at New Mexico Tech, and she was doing a program for us, and she did a beautiful programming job. It was on a computer that was available because the machinery it was going to run hadn’t been assembled yet. She was taking up almost the whole machine—and it was a good-sized machine—because that’s how she did it! She had not learned to be economical at all. And we, of course, always in our local computers were somewhat economical, because they were going to be dedicated to a particular task, and you wanted to do it with some dispatch; so you didn’t want it to be this incredibly large, complicated program that took forever to run. It would be a waste of time.

Abbate:

Were you worried about speed? If you had huge numbers of calculations to do, were you trying to make the programs faster?

Kircher:

You’d go to the Cray! [both laugh.] You tried to be efficient, yes; but if you had a big program and it would take lots of calculations, you went to a faster machine.

Abbate:

What made a really good program? Or a good programmer, maybe?

Kircher:

I don’t know. I have no idea! A good program is one that does what you want it to do. A good programmer? Someone who can think with probably more organization than I can, so that they don’t make quite so many mistakes. But someone who can see the forest as well as the trees.

Abbate:

Did you check each other’s work?

Kircher:

Once in a while. I think we started out, way back when, checking each other’s work; and it didn’t work. I’m not sure why. I think because there was enough ability to do things more than one way that one person’s style was too unlike another person’s. I can vaguely remember looking at other people’s programs and thinking, “What is that all about?” You know, it doesn’t make sense to me. But then later on, when everyone was using a language like FORTRAN, it was much easier to look at somebody else’s program. There was more organization.

Abbate:

Interesting.

Now, I guess you weren’t working in big programming teams, so maybe this never happened: Was there any attempt to sort of systematize the way people programmed? Or encourage more standardization?

Kircher:

Probably. Not where I was, though. We started out pretty much doing it on our own, and I ended up doing it on my own.

Abbate:

Would you do anything differently, if you were going to do it again?

Kircher:

Probably—but I don’t know quite what, or how. [laughs.]

Abbate:

Well, I admire someone who can say that!

Kircher:

It certainly wasn’t a magnificent course from A to Z.

Abbate:

But it sounds like you ended up where you wanted to be.

Kircher:

Yes, just about.

Abbate:

Had a career and a family.

Kircher:

Yes. And now I’m doing other things, which I probably never thought I’d do—but who knows?

Abbate:

Did any of your children go into computing?

Kircher:

No. None of them are especially interested, in fact, in math. The one who was the most interested, and started out, then ended up with schizophrenia, so she has no chance. But they all at least are not afraid of numbers!

Abbate:

I mean, with two parents in math and science . . . None of them went into science either?

Kircher:

One of our daughters is a geologist. However, right now she’s an at-home mother—which is very interesting nowadays. You know, it’s not easy to do; and yet what is the big thing now? Home schooling! And if you’re home-schooling somebody, you can’t work outside the home.

Abbate:

No. That is your job.

Kircher:

Yes! I find that amusing.

Abbate:

So she’s doing that?

Kircher:

No; she’s thinking about it, but she is not at this time. I hope she doesn’t, because although she could do a fine job, I think that home schooling is a bad idea, in most cases.

Abbate:

I don’t know if I’ve missed any highlights of your career.

Kircher:

Good heavens, I doubt it! You’ve got an awful lot of stuff.

Abbate:

Well, thank you very much for talking with me!

Kircher:

You’re welcome! I hope you have an interesting time.

Abbate:

I’m sure I will.