Visit to Vi Smith in Bakersfield

I met Vi Smith in 1966 when I started work at Bell Labs. Vi had premature gray hair then, and she looks very much the same 40 years later! Vi was one of the pioneers that created the No. 1 Electronic Switching System (ESS).

This was THE beginning of the revolution that transformed the telephone network from electromechanical switching to computer switching. Features like call waiting, call forwarding, conference calling, etc., now so commonplace, were introduced on No. 1 ESS. This switching system also pioneered all of the basic recovery, auditing, reliability, and maintenance strategies & techniques used in the telephone industry.

Although it is an exaggeration, Modern telecommunications can be summarized in one sentence: Alexander Graham Bell, No. 1 ESS, and the Internet.

Vi, who had succeeded in a male dominated technical environment, was a legend for teaching the course on the No. 1 ESS programming language. In fact, it was a rite of passage for new employees, learning real-time programming, to take this course, and to master its exam questions on coding techniques.

Since computer memory was literally a million times more expensive then and computer processing power a mere fraction of today's home PC, new employees competed with each other, establishing informal pecking orders, not just to program correctly, but to do so in the absolute minimum number of instructions. While a good student might craft a solution in 9 instructions and a superior student in 7, glory was reserved to the one who could do it in 5.

Vi retired in 1988, and I visited her in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1989. This was my first visit in 17 years. I drove from Los Angeles, over scenic mountains to Bakersfield. Vi lives in a gated community, and continues to enjoy retirement. She is as sharp as ever. Within minutes, decades seemed to disappear talking to Vi. We enjoyed comparing notes on a variety of topics.

Vi's home Vi in Front Yard Vi's camera Closeup Vi's hands
Vi's Home Vi in her Front Yard Preparing Camera In her Favorite Chair Typical Vi Gesture