"Build it and they will come": NO-1968 (24)

An idea whose time has come?

Just as I was getting ready to quit IBM to work for myself, I was eating lunch with a veteran New Jersey-based computer guy named Frank Seiter. I told him about an idea I had for a set of subroutines that would allow the user to add, subtract, multiply, or divide any two numbers of any length and any precision. 

Not many people know this, but computers cannot count much past two billion

For example, these subroutines would be able to multiply one number with 123 digits by another number with 207 digits, providing the exact answer, with no rounding, which would contain either 229 digits or 330 digits. Computers are limited to about nine digits of precision with the top precise number that can be stored being 2,147,483,647.

Frank was confident he could sell a program that could count and calculate duotrigintillions

Frank assured me he could sell these routines to universities and other high-level scientific or technology researchers. We signed a contract. He would pay for the computer time on an IBM System 360 for me to design, program, and test the routines. Then he would sell them and we would split the money 50-50. I designed a name for these routines: EPSILON (Extended Precision Subroutines in Limits of N).

It took me four months to "teach" computers how to calculate numbers with unlimited precision

It took me four months to learn FORTRAN, to write, and then to debug the programs. I spent many hours, often late at night so that the computer time didn’t cost so much. I was refining my knowledge of FORTRAN, learning how to read computer dumps, and developing the four subroutines one-by-one. A few times I swore that the FORTRAN compiler had a bug, only later to discover that an error in my programming was forcing the computer into an endless loop. I tackled adding and subtracting first and then moved on to multiplication and division.

I was often in the zone

The computer center broadcast many popular songs over speakers to keep the computer operators happy. One of the songs I loved to hear was, “Those Were The Days” by Mary Hopkin. Often I was in the flow, loving the feeling of how my mind was working.

Beware of confidence

After it was all finished, including writing up the documentation of how to use the routines, it was Frank’s job to sell it. After a few months of waiting somewhat impatiently, Frank informed me that he had not been able to sell it to anybody and that he was giving up. I learned that even someone who seems to be a confident salesperson may not be so, at least with something they never sold before.

EPSILON bites the dust

I’d hadn’t been so careful in spending the money that I had saved up working for IBM. For example, I spent money on private Fred Astaire dancing lessons, hoping it would help me get a girlfriend. I knew that I had to get a client who would pay me for smaller projects, at least for the time being. EPSILON bit the dust.