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WWII Vet, One of the First Computer Science Faculty, Shares Story

Photo by Jessica Olsen

Norman Wright has boxes—a lot of boxes. They hold countless records of history about BYU, computer science, and WWII.

“It turns out I have been around for a long time, from the very beginning of computing. That’s my claim to fame,” BYU alum Norman Wright joked.

It’s a bit of an understatement considering the 91-year-old’s historical role in the development of computer applications at BYU. He was also one of the first BYU computer science faculty and ran one of BYU’s first computer labs.

He still likes to tell his joke about the Apple II computers from BYU’s early computer lab.

“Computers are very, very old, you see, because Adam had a computer. Eve had an apple, and Adam had an Apple II,” he said.

But being a computer science professor at BYU for thirty years was never part of Wright’s original plan, partly because the position wasn’t around when he was in college but also because he had other things on his mind—like World War II.

Wright was a junior in high school when Pearl Harbor was attacked. The announcement of Pearl Harbor changed his life as it had for so many others.

“I had little idea about what that was going to do to me,” he said.

He enlisted in 1943 and qualified to become a high-speed radio operator, coding up to forty-five words per minute in Morse code.

During his final training and just before he was about to go to Europe, the war in Europe ended. His unit was reorganized, and he shipped off to California to become a high-speed morse-code radio operator for the Navy. Just as his unit was about to go to Japan, the war ended, and Wright was discharged in 1946.

He then served an LDS mission in the Northwestern State Mission. The mission covered all of Oregon, Washington, Northern Idaho, Western Montana, British Columbia, and Alaska.

After his mission, Wright graduated from BYU in mathematics. He then worked for General Electric, and there he met Dr. Gary Carlson, who began a computer research center at BYU. In 1963, Wright joined Carlson’s team and began teaching computer science classes before there was even a computer science department. Over the years, computer science changed drastically.

“I constantly had to be learning,” Wright said. “I have boxes for some of the manuals in the beginning when we first started teaching. I’ve never gotten rid of them.”

Along with his boxes of manuals are boxes of student-registration punch cards with the foreboding phrase “End of the Punch Card Era” stamped on each. The cards come from a punch-card system Wright helped create when he first came to BYU. The system would revolutionize the way students registered for classes.

Norman Wright kept punch cards from his days as a computer science professor. He helped develop the early punch card applications for student registration. (Photo by Cassie Prettyman).

Wright explained students would go down to the Smith Fieldhouse and find the colleges and classes they wished to register for. Each class came with a punch card, and each student would have five to six punch cards. The cards would then go into a computer for processing.

“We implemented that system,” Wright said. “They’d pick up their class cards, and then when we had them all together, we would have a hundred thousand class cards.”

Newer systems later replaced the punch card, but Wright has kept the yellowed-with-age class cards.

Shortly before he retired in 1993, the department chair asked Wright if he would record and report how many students he had taught during a ten-year period, only a third of the time he taught at BYU.

“I had taught over thirteen thousand students during that ten years. I used to teach classes of two hundred students, all of them anxious to learn about computers,” Wright said.

Wright still lives in Provo and still has boxes of WWII photos, outdated computer manuals, and class-registration punch cards—mementos of his legacy.