Enter the maze

Writing together: Clarence 'Skip' Ellis

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

Back in 1956, Clarence Ellis started his career at the very bottom of the computer industry. He was given a job, at the age of 15, as a "computer operator" ... because he was the only applicant. He was also told that under no circumstances should he touch the computer! Its lucky for all of us he got the job, though! He went on to develop ideas that have made computers easier for everyone to use. Working at a computer was once a lonely endeavour: one person, on one computer, doing one job. Clarence Ellis changed that. He pioneered ways for people to use computers together effectively.

The graveyard shift

The company Clarence first worked for had a new computer. Just like all computers back then, it was the size of a room. He worked the graveyard shift and his duties were more those of a nightwatchman than a computer operator. It could have been a dead-end job, but it gave him lots of spare time and, more importantly, access to all the computer's manuals ... so he read them ... over and over again. He didn't need to touch the computer to learn how to use it!

Saving the day

His studying paid dividends. Only a few months after he started, the company had a potential disaster on its hands. They ran out of punch cards. Back then punch cards were used to store both data. They used patterns of holes and non-holes as a way to store numbers as binary in a away a computer could read them. Without punchcards the computer could not work!

It had to though, because the payroll program had to run before the night was out. If it didn't then no-one would be paid that month. Because he had studied the manuals in detail, and more so than anyone else, Clarence was the only person who could work out how to reuse old punch cards. The problem was that the computer used a system called 'parity checking' to spot mistakes. In its simplest form parity checking of a punch card involves adding an extra binary digit (an extra hole or no-hole) on the end of each number. This is done in a way that ensures that the number of holes is even. If there is an even number of holes already, the extra digit is left as a non-hole. If, on the other hand there is an odd number of holes, a hole is punched as the extra digit. That extra binary digit isn't part of the number. It's just there so the computer can check if the number has been corrupted. If a hole was accidentally or otherwise turned into a non-hole (or vice versa), then this would show up. It would mean there was now an odd number of holes. Special circuitry in the computer would spot this and spit out the card, rejecting it. Clarence knew how to switch that circuitry off. That meant they could change the numbers on the cards by adding new holes without them being rejected.

After that success he was allowed to become a real operator and was relied on to troubleshoot whenever there were problems. His career was up and running.

Clicking icons

He later worked at Xerox Parc, a massively influential research centre. He was part of the team that invented graphical user interfaces (GUIs). With GUIs Xerox Parc completely transformed the way we used computers. Instead of typing obscure and hard to remember commands, they introduced the now standard ideas, of windows, icons, dragging and dropping, using a mouse, and more. Clarence, himself, has been credited with inventing the idea of clicking on an icon to run a program.

Writing Together

Two people writing one document : Image from pixabay.com REF 3196481

As if that wasn't enough of an impact, he went on to help make groupware a reality: software that supports people working together. His focus was on software that let people write a document together. With Simon Gibbs he developed a crucial algorithm called Operational Transformation. It allows people to edit the same document at the same time without it becoming hopelessly muddled. This is actually very challenging. You have to ensure that two (or more) people can change the text at exactly the same time, and even at the same place, without each ending up with a different version of the document.

The actual document sits on a server computer. It must make sure that its copy is always the same as the ones everyone is individually editing. When people type changes into their local copy, the master is sent messages informing it of the actions they performed. The trouble is the order that those messages arrive can change what happens. Clarence's operational transformation algorithm solved this by changing the commands from each person into ones that work consistently whatever order they are applied. It is the transformed operation that is the one that is applied to the master. That master version is the version everyone then sees as their local copy. Ultimately everyone sees the same version. This algorithm is at the core of programs like Google Docs that have ensured collaborative editing of documents is now commonplace.

Clarence Ellis started his career with a lonely job. By the end of his career he had helped ensure that writing on a computer at least no longer needs to be a lonely affair.

This article funded by ...

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