How Good Luck Led to My Software Career

Telephone Relay Switches

Have you thought about the role that luck (good and bad) has played in your life? While planning this blog I realized something I’d not seriously thought about before: in the two years between September 1953, when I was 15, and September 1955, I experienced a “perfect storm” of good luck that profoundly affected the rest of my professional life.

My father had a longtime friend who was on the Board of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. While we were on sabbatical in Europe, quite unexpectedly the friend offered my father a job at the museum (my first piece of good luck) which he accepted, so we returned home earlier than planned and immediately moved to Philadelphia. Knowing that the Philadelphia public schools at that time were quite poor, my father made it a condition of accepting the job that I be admitted to the Episcopal Academy, the best private school in the area. I was bumped to the top of a long waiting list and was admitted, (second piece of good luck). It was there that I met Robert Neathery, the physics teacher, who also worked at the Franklin Institute (a wonderful science museum in Philadelphia). He became my mentor, and through him I got a summer job at the Franklin Institute (third piece of good luck).

During tenth grade one event in particular ignited my interest in computers.  While browsing in a secondhand book store I came across a book on building logic circuits, the building blocks of all modern computers, from electrical relays (fourth piece of good luck). This shifted my focus from electronics to logic design.

That year someone told me about the scrap yard where the telephone company discarded their old equipment (fifth piece of good luck). There I was allowed to dig through the mud (literally) and unearth salvageable electrical relays, for which I paid 10¢ per pound. Multi-wire cables cost more, 15¢ per pound, because of the value of copper. Using these relays, and old pinball machine parts (also from the scrap yard), I built, among other things, a dial telephone intercom system for our house and a simple “electronic lock” that lit a light if you entered the correct key code. The electronic lock won third prize in the 1954 Franklin Institute science fair.

The sixth piece of good luck came from another friend of my father’s who worked at Bell  Labs. The presidents of the Bell telephone companies were scheduled to spend a day touring Bell Labs. Bell Labs went all out for this day, setting up special exhibits in many of the labs, scheduling a formal luncheon, and a hour-long presentation in the auditorium. My father’s friend arranged for me to tag along with this group.

When I arrived at Bell Labs the morning of the tour, I was told that at the last minute the presidents had been called to a meeting in New York. So the only people present for the full-day tour were me and another hanger-on, the wife of one of the presidents. Bell Labs decided that, since the tour was all set up and everything was ready, the two of us would be given the tour. So I had a personal, full-day tour of Bell Labs with presentations from a number of scientists. I’m sure that this tour had a lot to do with the fact that nine years later, after graduate school, I went to work for Bell Labs.

The seventh piece of good luck came from another friend of my father’s who owned Nuclear Electronics Corporation, a very small company that made medical electronic devices. The engineering department consisted of just two men. The chief engineer agreed to give me a summer job, so for two summers I apprenticed in the engineering department, working with state-of-the-art equipment.

In those two years in Philadelphia I went from learning about electronics to fairly competent in both electronics and logic design, with several accomplishments and many invaluable experiences. These experiences set me on the course that led directly to my 25 years at Bell Labs and my long involvement with UNIX.

The eighth piece of good luck involved the confluence of two events. At Episcopal all students took the SAT exam in eleventh grade, as a dry run for the “real” SAT exam in Senior year. That year Harvard decided, for the first time in years, to send a recruiter to Episcopal. The last Episcopal student to go to Harvard had been ten years before. On a whim I decided to attend the meeting, even though it was intended for Seniors. In the booklet the recruiter handed out there was, in small type, on the last page, the statement that for the first time Harvard was accepting applications from a few eleventh graders. Since I had already taken the SAT exam, I decided to apply, just for fun, with no expectation of getting in. I was accepted. So I went to Harvard after only two years of high school (since I skipped ninth grade). My years in college and graduate school are the subject of my next post, How I Learned to Love Unix. Incidentally, the next year three Seniors from my graduating class went to Harvard.

During my two years of high school I was not aware of anything extraordinary. Things happened and I took them for granted. Looking back, clearly these eight unexpected pieces of good luck profoundly influenced my choice of career and my subsequent work.

– Rudd Canaday (

– Start of blog: My adventures in software
– Previous post: A Reluctant Adventurer
– Next post: How I Learned to Love Unix

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