You’ve got mail . . . maybe

Email. Something we take for granted. In these Covid-19 lockdown days, where would be without email to keep in touch with family and friends? In fact, for many, working from home without access to emails would not be an option.

And what about Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Zoom, and all the other messaging apps?

Bob Zeigler

Yet it’s not so long ago that none of us had access to any of these. How things have changed over the past 40 years, even just the last decade.

My former colleague and IRRI Director General Bob Zeigler often said that we were living through three revolutions: in telecommunications, computing, and molecular biology. It was the combination of these three that allowed scientists to collaborate world-wide in real time, using the ‘new’ computing power to handle the vast amounts of data that molecular biology was generating.

That wasn’t so . . . not so long ago.

When, in 1976, the Director General of the International Potato Center (CIP), Dr Richard Sawyer, asked me to set up a satellite research program in Costa Rica (at a regional center, CATIE, in Turrialba) the only ways we had to communicate with HQ in Lima were ‘snail mail’, telephone, or Telex. Even making a phone call was difficult. I had to book an international call to Peru at least a day ahead.

Margaret Hamilton in 1969, standing next to listings of the software she and her MIT team produced for the Apollo project.

There were no personal computers. Even hand-held calculators were a novelty. I remember one scientist at CATIE, soil scientist Warren Forsythe, proudly showing off a newfangled—and basic—electronic calculator (addition, subtraction, division, multiplication functions only) that he’d recently spent more than USD400 on (that’s about USD1800 today!). They almost give them away nowadays. There’s more processing power in your basic smartphone than took the first astronauts to the Moon.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Southampton in the late 1960s we used either logarithmic tables (log tables) or a hand-cranked calculating machine like the one shown below. I’m not sure if I remember nowadays how to use log tables. I never did master the slide rule.

The first computer I ever saw was at a major steelworks (Ravenscraig I think it was, at Motherwell, just south of Glasgow) where my eldest brother Martin was a computer engineer. He took me along one afternoon when he had access to the computer (an ICL mainframe if memory serves me right) for routine maintenance.

He showed me how paper tapes were used to run routines. Paper tape? I can’t remember the last time I saw that.

Completing an honours ecology project for my undergraduate dissertation in 1970, I used the university’s mainframe computer to complete a type of vegetation analysis known as Association Analysis.  Ecologist Joyce Lambert was my supervisor, and she and former head of the Department of Botany, Professor Bill Williams, were pioneers in the use of computers and quantitative methods in ecology [1]. I encoded my data on punched cards, with the help of one of the graduate students, John Barr (studying for a PhD in numerical taxonomy).

When I moved to Birmingham in 1970 (to study for the one year MSc course on plant genetic resources) there was a short module on data management, taught by Brian Kershaw, a programmer in the university’s Computer Centre. He developed the computer programs to sort and collate data, and print maps, for A Computer-Mapped Flora: A Study of The County of Warwickshire [2] published in 1971, and the first of its kind. His MSc module was more about basic programming than data management per se and not, in my opinion, very helpful, or enlightening. Things changed once we had access to personal computers over a decade later.

IBM launched its first personal computer (PC) in August 1981, just a few months after I had returned to the UK and joined the faculty of the University of Birmingham. My memory is fuzzy. We must have had one of these in our lab in the Department of Plant Biology (School of Biological Sciences). I can remember that we used 5¼ inch floppy disks, but also installed an 8 inch disk reader. MS-DOS was the operating system.

It wasn’t until one of my colleagues, plant physiologist Dr Digby Idle secured a grant to purchase half a dozen Apple Macintosh computers that we had access to personal computers, mainly for teaching. They certainly revolutionized the teaching of data management to MSc students by my colleague Dr Brian Ford-Lloyd.

Staff were sometimes allowed to take a machine home for weekend. My young daughters Hannah and Philippa had great fun exploring a couple of the games (rudimentary by today’s standards) that came with each computer.

Personal computing really took off, however, once Alan Sugar released the first IBM clones under the Amstrad brand in the 1980s. I bought several machines for my lab. We were still using the university’s mainframe computer for analysis of large data sets. It wasn’t until the end of the 1980s that PCs began to have the power to carry out some of these same analyses.

I even purchased an Amstrad for home use. It had twin 5¼ inch floppy disk drives, each with a capacity of about 500 Kb if I’m not mistaken. But then I installed a 32 MB hard drive, and then we were really cooking! There was no internet of course, and no WiFi. But connected to a dot matrix printer (are they around any more?), and using a word processing package called PFS First Choice. By today’s standards it wasn’t sophisticated at all, but it was convenient for home use [3].

We even took that Amstrad to the Philippines in 1991 and used it for a couple of years. I found it at the back of a cupboard 19 years later when we were packing to return to the UK.

But I digress. Back to emails.

I don’t really remember when we started to use email in a rather simple way at the university during the 1980s. Even after I had moved to IRRI in July 1991 I had to ‘fight’ to have a PC on my desk. Again I’m not certain when email was routinely used at the institute.

But by the time I had moved from the Genetic Resources Center to become Director for Program Planning and Communications (DPPC) in May 2001, email was well established as the most convenient and regularly used method of communication among staff at IRRI, and with external collaborators and donors. In fact, as I set up the DPPC Office much of what we achieved was based on a systematic use and filing of emails in lieu of communication through hard copies.

I’m the sort of person who attends to all incoming correspondence—memos, letters, emails—more or less straight away, deciding whether to respond immediately or taking a decision to put that to one side for a response later on. At the very least, I tried to send an acknowledgment that someone’s communication has been received. Being in a senior management position, I felt it was really important to keep on top of emails and the like, because without a response, the sender might not be able to move ahead without a decision from me. Even if that meant working through 10s if not 100s of emails a day. I never liked the grass to grow beneath my feet, so to speak.

But communication by email was both a blessing and a curse as far as project management was concerned. Because emails could be sent instantaneously, more or less, it was possible to send off project reports, or even funding requests, right up to any deadline, not having to prepare several weeks ahead for ‘snail mail’ delivery.

However, the use of emails also made some donors (like USAID, for example) somewhat dysfunctional. Knowing that we would be able to send replies in by email, they would often make demands of us for information, reports, or whatever, just before their deadline, without understanding that we also needed appropriate lead time to compile and prepare the information requested. The transmission by email was just a bonus.

But there’s no doubt that how we used email in DPPC, straight to our donor contacts, greatly enhanced fund-raising capability at IRRI.

I still look forward to receiving emails from family and friends. For many years I have used Fastmail as my platform of choice, although I do keep a Gmail address as a backup. And, for most of my continuing business and utility contacts, emails are the preferred method of communication. It’s always a pleasure when an unexpected email drops into my mailbox especially from someone I haven’t heard from for some time.

Yes, I’ve got mail . . .


[1] Williams, WT and JM Lambert, 1960. Multivariate methods in plant ecology: the use of an electronic digital computer for Association-Analysis. Journal of Ecology, 48: 689-710.

[2] Cadbury, DA, JG Hawkes and RC Readett, 1971. A Computer-Mapped Flora: A Study of The County of Warwickshire. Academic Press, London and New York.

[3] After I’d published this story yesterday (4 May 2020) a friend reminded me of the word processing software we used in the 1980s: WordStar, written for the CP/M operating system. It was generally replaced by WordPerfect, a package I never got to grips with. I became really quite proficient in the use of WordStar. Who can forget all those formatting tools for bold, underlining, and italics, etc?