Can You Handle the Robot Test?

by Terrie Miller

Earlier this fall, the Google Labs Aptitude Test was revealed. It was interesting to see what kind of tests Google uses to evaluate job candidates.

Nancy and Steve.

Nancy (programmer mom) and Steve (tech writer son)

I was surprised to learn that my mother-in-law, Nancy Miller Robinson, got her chance to learn computer programming by virtue of her high score on a similar aptitude test in 1960. The "Robot Clerk Test" was administered by the US Census Bureau to interested Civil Service employees who had scored high on the Federal Service Entrance Exam. Those who scored high on the robot test were eligible to receive computer training and go on to better jobs in the Bureau as programmers, doing the work to process the data from the 1960 census. In the test, you have to write the instructions to make a robot clerk accomplish 5 tasks:

Assume that you have a robot "clerk" working for you. This clerk does not understand English but does have a limited language of his own. He works with a series of boxes and bins which are in front of him. The only spoken word which he can understand and respond to is the word "start". All other instructions to him must be written in his own limited language, in a form which he will accept and placed where he can find them.

To accomplish the tasks, you write instruction cards that the robot executes in order. The robot reads and executes the card in Bin 00, replaces the card in Bin 00, and then proceeds to Bin 01 to execute that instruction (but, of course, the card in Bin 00 has to direct the robot to put a card in Bin 01 in the first place). And if there's a bug in your program, the robot will throw a tantrum:

In the event the clerk proceeds to a bin which does not contain an instruction--or contains one which is not in an acceptable form--he will light a red light, destroy the cards in all the boxes and bins, and cease working.

The chance to get the computer training was a huge opportunity, especially for a single mom trying to raise three kids. Nancy says that she "didn't even know what a computer was", but knew it was a chance for a better job, and decided to take the test. She did very well on it, and was accepted into the training program and went on to a successful computer programming career.

The programming language they used was called "USE Compiler", an assembly language very close to machine language.  "We got very proficient in octal and in binary."  The computer they worked with had 16K (36-bit-words) memory and took up an entire wing of the Census Bureau which they dubbed "Memory Lane".

Nancy also tells of a Life magazine article at the time about this new careeer that claimed that, statistically, pregnant women made the best programmers.  The article also said that this new occupation, programming, tended to burn people out quickly and they would need to go somewhere for a rest because they identified so strongly with the machines.

Luckily, a copy of the robot test has survived -- but you'll have to come up with the answers yourself. I've created an HTML facsimile (with the addition of some navigation at the bottom of the pages). You'll probably want to print the pages; be sure the underlines appear on your printout (Safari on Mac OS X didn't print them, but Firefox did nicely). Start here, and have fun!, or jump to a particular section:

Nancy would love to hear from any of her coworkers at the census. You can reach her at