Joel Runyon was working on his Mac at a coffee shop in Portland, when an older man sitting next to him asked him how he liked Apple. Resisting the temptation to politely return to his work, Joel engaged the guy in conversation…it turned out he was Russell Kirsch, who was lead designer of the first American stored-program computer (the SEAC) and was also a pioneer of computer image processing. Read about Joel’s conversation with Mr Kirsch at the link, and then read his followup post 7 things I learned from my encounter with Russell Kirsch.
Conversations with strangers can of course expose you to boringness (yes, it’s a word, I checked) and/or weirdness, but they can also often be interested or at least revealing. I was on an Air France flight back from Paris once…the aircraft had to be changed at the last minute and the new plane was not configured with First Class, so those who had reserved FC seats had to be satisfied with Business Class (which, in my experience at least, is nothing to complain about on Air France.) The guy sitting next to me was very, very upset that he didn’t get the First Class seating he had been counting on. In an attempt to get him to talk about something else, I asked him what he did for a living.
Turned out the guy was a professional Communist, on his way back from some kind of Communist meeting.
Here’s another interesting story about a chance conversation. In 2009, an American neurosurgeon overheard a conversation between two former Israel Air Force officers who were talking about flight simulation. He joined the conversation, and the eventual result was a collaboration that led to the founding of this company, which develops systems for surgery rehearsal.
Another interesting story of a chance conversation: see the second comment on this post at Tom Peters’ blog.
For those interested in the history of technology: Russell Kirsch’s SEAC, completed in early 1950, was built by the National Bureau of Standards for use of researchers and engineers who were chomping at the bit for computer capacity and were tired of waiting for more-ambitious planned machines such as EDVAC and UNIVAC. SEAC’s memory capacity was only 512 words (numbers or instructions), but it was applied to a wide range of problems, including lens design, tables for navigation, and design calculations for the hydrogen bomb. The computer also supported early digital imaging work, with the first digital image being a picture of Kirsch’s son.
More about the SEAC project here.