Ode To Gertie*
One winter's night in fifty-eight
The research board was sitting late
They'd dealt with matters grave and serious
In ways that were a bit imperious
For round their chairs, up to their hips
Were torn up pink promotion slips.
The junior member had the task
Of serving whiskey from a flask.
And also cleaning up the room,
A prospect that he viewed with gloom.
For it involved keeping the score
Of all the slips upon the floor.
"I wish" said he, with sudden heat,
"That all of you would lift your feet.
It's difficult to make a list
When someone's standing on your wrist.
We really should have a machine
To keep the record straight, I mean."
This chance remark caused them to think,
And after all had had a drink
The chairman said, "I like the scheme.
In fact I think we need a team
Of scientists to do this chore
I'm sure we could get by with four."
"The sort of thing that I propose,"
He said whilst scratching at his nose,
"Would add, subtract, perhaps collate.
Of course it should be solid state.
And could include that priceless gem,
The circuit called P N P N.
"I know the chap to head the thing(1)
An emigrant from Bristol ENG.
Whom we have lured to old EL.
In fact there's many more as well
Rot in the lab in dark despair.
They can't go home without the fare.
We'll use them all and others too.
Twill give them something else to do
'Sides sitting round cursing their fate.
There must be some can calculate
In floating point and excess six,
And similar computational tricks.
Thus a computing team was born.
In pain and travail and the scorn
Of other groups, who said of them
"They can't compete with IBM."
And self-styled wits inferred with caution,
"It's not a birth but an abortion."
Breakthroughs were made with verve and dash,
Despite the chronic lack of cash.
A register quite versatile
Constructed with infinite guile,
Would shift both left and right and do
A count by any power of two.
The ANDs and ORs were hard to grasp.
The adder was a vicious asp.
Addends and augends by the score
Were trampled in the work room floor.
And one poor soul went round the bend
Trying to dance a minuend.
Although one chap, the memory man(2);
Fled quickly to Saskatchewan.
Leaving behind a wiring scheme
That almost caused the rest to scream.
They buckled to and made it store
Ten two four words, magnetic core.
Another rather cunning knave(3),
Did secretly set out to save
His fare to England home and beauty,
Neglecting all the calls of duty.
And one night boarded a liner
Complete with wife and Morris Minor
A new recruit(4) filled up the gap.
A bluff and hearty jovial chap.
Whose hearty laugh and dainty tread
'Twas said would wake the very dead.
He built a unit that could spout,
Converted numbers in and out.
Despite the jeers and slights and sneers,
The work progressed for three whole years.
Until one day in sixty one
When finally the job was done.
And there before the scoffer's eyes
Was a computer, medium size.
Now that austerity's in force,
This great machine has run its course.
No longer needed by the board,
To count promotions and record
The increments given annually
To those who work at DRB.
Instead it can play Tick Tack Toe
Or Colonel Bogie, tremolo.
And will a birthday list compile,
For anyone who'll stay a while.
And as for those who come to gape.
It punches names in paper tape.
(1) - David Florida
(2) - Richard Cobbold
(3) - Ron Cretchley
(4) - George Lake
* It was always customary for the creators of a new computer to give the machine a unique name. The names were often impressive sounding acronyms like ENIAC, EDVAC, DEUCE, ILLIAC, UTEC, etc. Sometimes the acronyms were humourous stylistic variations of known names: JOHNNIAC, or MANIAC. Other times the names were colourful: Pegasus, Gemini, MUSE, Whirlwind, etc. Then there were always the unimaginative and utilitarian names given by certain industrial builders of computers in order to promote the company's name: IBM 650, IBM 360, UNIVAC II, etc. The engineers and scientists, at the big research laboratories, who were designing and building computer systems, often one of a kind machines, must have taken great delight in coming up with original names, or ingenious acronyms for their machines. It appears, however, that the computer being built by the DRTE group had never been given a name, at least officially. Apparently the name "Dirty Gertie, a phonetic play on DRTE, was heard to be whispered about. No one knows for sure who was to blame for this name. One person thinks that it might have been Florida who, once over coffee, was heard to pronounce the words in jest. Moody, though not remembering the name, believes that such a name must have come from one of the younger fellows. I suspect that it was an irreverent engineer, with a dislike for pretentious sounding names, who christened the machine "Dirty-Gertie". George Lake believes that the name was almost an anti-name. "Any time anybody sat down to try and think of a nickname for the DRTE computer, the thing that always popped right up was 'Dirty Gertie' and nobody wanted to call it that. That probably prevented us from ever finding a suitable name. I guess to the extent that it ever had a nickname, that was it. It was not used, it was a derogatory term, if you like (Lake,1985:15)
This poem was brought to my attention by George Lake. While he was going through his files looking for past documentation on the DRTE computer he found this poem tucked away in one of the publications. As one can see it describes in a very witty and creative manner the history of the computer. The poem was printed on the computer's Flexowriter. George Lake does not have any idea who the author might have been, neither do Cobbold, or Moody. The title was my (John Verdalas) own addition.