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Engineering grad was an Internet pioneer

Floyd Johnston, pictured with wife Dolores, was a recent University of Denver graduate with a BS in electrical engineering and an MA in mathematics when IBM hired him in 1952. Photo courtesy of Floyd Johnston

Floyd Johnston is an exception to a rule.

While nearly all young Americans are now Internet users, a recent poll found that only about 4 in 10 seniors travel the electronic superhighway.

But Johnston, 89, first plugged in decades before Generation Y came along, even before the birth of the World Wide Web.

Johnston (BS ’48, MA ’51) was a recent University of Denver graduate with a BS in electrical engineering and an MA in mathematics when IBM hired him in 1952. It was the dawn of the computer age for scientific and general business use, and Johnston joined a group tasked with developing programs for the company’s first large computer, which was to go to the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

He found out quickly he had a lot to learn.

“Floyd, I’m really sorry, but we don’t need your math. We need your programming,” Johnston said he was told.

“Boy, was I confused!” he wrote later in a collection of remembrances. “I knew nothing about programming. No class in my college career had prepared me for anything like this.”

It took him a while, but once he caught on to the calculator’s binary language and octal translation and grasped the physics of the cathode ray tube hardware, he began to have fun.

“We were free to do any type of software we could think of,” Johnston said recently. “There was no pushing at IBM to come up with something new.”

But of course, “innovation that matters” is an IBM core value, and problem solving is its mission.

One early accomplishment for Johnston was the simplification of a fundamental but involved programming task. Early computer programs were “written” on data cards as a series of hole punches and spaces left unpunched. Each step of a program required its own punch card. Johnston took this multistep process as a challenge, developing a one-card load system that was widely used by businesses throughout the country.

Eventually Johnston joined the sales team as a technical adviser, working to understand client needs and design the programs to address them. From his first assignment in upstate New York, he, his wife and two young sons crossed the country for Johnston’s new position in Albuquerque, N.M., to work directly with the people at Los Alamos.

“I worked with mathematicians, physicists, accounting people and engineers. … I could generally speak their language, even though I was far from understanding their problems,” he wrote.

Johnston worked developing computer simulations to help clients avoid problems before they occurred, including a dam project on the Rio Grande.

Further assignments had the Johnstons, now including a third son, on the move again, to Los Angeles, back to Albuquerque, again to California, then to Boulder, Colo.

“There’s a lot of kidding about IBM, that it stands for ‘I been moved,’” Johnston jokes.

It was during the Boulder assignment that Johnston bought one of the first IBM personal computers and set it up in the basement of his home.

“IBM paid for a special telephone line so I could use my PC to work directly on our large system in the plant,” Johnston wrote. “My computer would telephone the (company) computer, give my security number and hang up. Then the computer at the plant would call my PC, and I would be using my PC as a terminal to the main computer. This was great!”

Johnston finished his career in Boulder, retiring in 1987 after three-and-a-half decades with IBM. He and his wife, Dolores, whom he met on his first day as an undergraduate in 1946, continue their traveling ways now for pleasure. They spent a year on the road in the Southwest in a travel trailer, then finally settled in Belen, N.M. They also made two trips to Hawaii and one to Alaska and took a cruise in the Caribbean. Now, as Floyd is nearing his 89th birthday, the Johnstons stick close to home.

Floyd still uses his home computer for Web applications, downloads and email. And he enjoys making DVDs, with images and music, for friends.

He looks back on his groundbreaking career with fondness.

“It was a great 35 years,” he wrote. “I never had a dull assignment. I would be happy to do it over again.”

How many people can say that?

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