Geek Summer

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PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Frank

On a humid Saturday afternoon in late June of 1978, a dark blue gas guzzler glides up to a dormitory at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, N.Y. It deposits Steve, a bright high school junior from Fair Lawn, N.J., and a big trunk stuffed with jeans and rock-concert T-shirts. He looks around at the odd mix of industrial architecture, abandoned factory buildings, and manicured lawns and wonders what people do for fun in such a place.

Along with 150 other high school students, Steve will be taking courses and getting a taste of what college is like. His concern, amid this congregation of elite teenage scientific precocity, is that he may not manage to find someone whose idea of fun doesn’t necessarily involve an HP programmable calculator.

Those fears are allayed a few days later, when he meets Glenn, from Stratford, Conn. They have been sent to RPI for much the same reasons other kids are sent to military academies—so that they may learn esoteric but possibly useful things in a structured environment, away from bad influences, where they will undoubtedly be too busy to get into trouble.

Over the next three months the two are inseparable. They play racquetball and swim. They listen to countless radio broadcasts of Gerry Rafferty’s ”Baker Street” and the Cars’ ”Just What I Needed.” They fly 45-rpm records off the roof of RPI’s Jonsson Engineering Center. They learn how to program the IBM System/370 mainframe computer in FORTRAN 77, using punch cards. They find parallels between William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness . They have adventures and misadventures involving beer, Schedule I controlled substances, and illegal fireworks, including an episode involving all three that nearly gets them kicked out of the program and their RPI credits revoked. (So much for the ”too busy to get into trouble” theory.)

A year later, Steve goes off to Princeton to major in chemistry and Glenn to Brown for electrical engineering. They keep up a steady stream of letters and occasional visits, during one of which, in Providence, R.I., in 1980, Steve decides to transfer to Brown, from which they both graduate in 1983 [see photo].

After college, Glenn goes on to work in science and technology journalism, winding up twice at IEEE Spectrum . He still works there today. Steve goes to Harvard Law School, staying on in Boston to work as a patent attorney by day and a writer by night. His first novel, The Uncertainty Principle , published in 1997, contains several scenes that uncannily resemble actual events at RPI in the summer of 1978. His most recent magazine article, ” The Death of Business-Method Patents,” appears in this issue.

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