Look How Far We’ve Come

[My Grandfather + an IBM computer]



Passover; Brooklyn. 1947.

He raises a glass to the table. Over the napkin rustling and knuckle cracking and chair rocking, he begins to say the kiddish over the wine.


This is my family. From left to right: Eric and Rhoda, the middle kids, twins. Sabrina, my mother. Ira, the youngest brother.

In 1967, around the same time that the photo above was taken, my grandfather, Jordan Polly, would land his first job as a computer programmer.

https://soundcloud.com/robin-miller-219811191/grandpa-1

Macy’s Charge Account processing consisted of five sub-systems and he was assigned to re-write the one called “Regiment.” Its function was to validate the data in all financial transactions so that redundant verification was not needed by other programs. He read and re-read the COBOL manual, pouring over the foreign language. By 1968 he was fluent — then, he began to code.

The world was on the brink of revolutionizing how we communicate with each other and the world around us. Yet, the energy and excitement was completely contained, bursting only from those who understood the technology and were building the language, proving it could work so that the rest of us could eventually take it, and run.


My mom likes the tell the story of when she went to the World Fair in 1964 and saw the prototype of a “videophone” — an invention that seemed like it belonged in the Jetsons. My grandfather remembers a similar feeling in relation to the media that we have today:

https://soundcloud.com/robin-miller-219811191/gpa1

When I followed up with him later, I asked him if he could have ever imagined that we would come this technologically far, so incredibly fast. Immediately, he replied, “No, never.”

In the 80's, my Grandfather overheard a fellow programmer speaking about Intel’s plan to put the entire mainframe operating system onto one single chip. At the time, this seemed unfathomable. How could Intel squeeze this massive piece of machinery onto one single chip?

Eric, 1971. Learning COBOL on an IBM-360 mainframe at Macy’s.

Grandpa Jordan often hosts our Hannukah family gathering — we all squeeze into the two bedroom apartment that my mom grew up in and in which my grandpa still lives. At some point in the evening, when the smell of latkes begins to lull the crew to a calm, everyone plops themselves down in one spot, sinking into the couch in a post food stupor.

When this time comes, I sneak away to my grandpa’s office, to this day, one of my favorite rooms in the world. It’s brimming with stuff , but it’s not cluttered. It’s a mix of old and new: a desktop computer sitting next to his Rolleiflex camera from the 50's. I run my fingers over his records and typewriter and photo albums and phonograph and ham radio, connecting to a more tangible past, a world that my millennial brain can barely recall.

the apt.