IBM - HiJinks at Very Staid Companies

Computer History Vignettes

By Bob Bemer

Early Programmers at Point Mugu

Programmers by definition are perverse.

In the very early days, the Navy had at Point Mugu in California a computer named RAYDAC (designed by Dick Bloch, of whom more later at GE in Phoenix), but more commonly called "The White Elephant". It was a big monster, and one could walk inside it.

The task was to compute trajectories for shell fire. When the program neared completion, it was noted that the range was given in miles. This wouldn't do for the Navy, and the programmers were ordered to put the ranges in nautical miles.

Back they came the next day, with range (as ordered) indeed in nautical miles, but with altitude in "negative fathoms"!

Early Word Processing(?) at Marquardt

In 1953 my computer installation at Marquardt Aircraft had an IBM 607 and a CPC (Card-Programmed Calculator). We did a lot of data reduction on ramjet engine test beds. This required the services of many keypunchers, mostly girls. You must remember that these were big machines, and required a lot of stable power. If that was interrupted, you could not keep on running on batteries like a PC can. So the machine room, right in the center of the building, had power supplied by a motor-generator unit.

The calculating units in both computers were over five feet tall, about two feet wide, and three to four feet deep. The arithmetic unit had two groups of tube assemblies driving driving display banks of neon tubes four deep, to represent 1, 2, 4, and 8. The groups were named Factor Storage and General Storage. Any or all of the neons could be switched on, if you knew how to trick the machine.

We had one Dave Hemmes as a programmer/operator, whom I had acquired somehow from the RAND Corporation. In my entire life I have never seen anyone that was such a character. And he did know how to trick it.

One day all the power in the building went off except for the MG in the machine room, which was driving the little flashing neons merrily. Otherwise, complete darkness. Dave Hemmes punched a special card, wired a board quickly, and soon had the 607 doing a special operation -- namely, spelling out two words -- one in Factor Storage and one in General Storage. Blinking 100 times a minute, at card reader speed. The second word was "YOU"; the first word started with "F".

It was a little fast, so Hemmes put in a delay wire to cut it to 50 times a minute. Then he called in all the keypunch girls to see how beautiful the little flashing lights were in the darkness. They agreed, and duly exclaimed about it until gradually they began to get the message. "What's that?", they cried in horror.

Dave's reply -- "Why, that's a calculated insult".

Hemmes Impressing the US Air Force

Somehow the Air Force, a major Marquardt customer, wanted to film the computer operation we ran for them. The only thing moving and photogenic was the printer, which always ran at top speed of 150 lines per minute.

Everything seemed to be going well until Hemmes strolled into camera view, peering over the answers, and thumbing an abacus as though to check the results.

Hemmes in Leisure Hours

Dave loved to go hunting rabbits, and he was a very sporting type. That is, he didn't just stand in one place and fire. He ran after the rabbits, firing as he ran. Gave them a better chance, he said.

He invited me to go with him one weekend, but I had committed to a party fishing boat on the far side of Catalina Island. There the Captain announced that we might catch "jungle bunny", but would not explain what he meant. "You'll know it when you see it", he said. Sure enough, I caught a large one. Turned out to be a variety of sheepshead, in stark red, white and black bands. I kept it.

I didn't see Dave when I returned, but there was a paper sack on my doorstep. In it was a dead rabbit. Suspicious as always of Dave, I checked the back of the neck, finding a big lump. Tularemia!

It remained only to get even. I got a 9" square cake pan, put the fish head in it, filled it with plaster, inscribed it "To My Friend Dave". A coat or two of spray lacquer, and off to his house. He was much embarrassed at my turning the other cheek, and apologized.

He closed the garage door, and we went into his house to get some beer to celebrate. Apparently he had no need to go into the garage for several days. When he did, his nose found my embalming job to be very temporary!

Hemmes at IBM

When I decided to do the FORTRANSIT product at IBM [1. 2], a major problem was the wiring board the 650 used for input/output -- reading and punching. We needed alphabetic input for the FORTRAN statements, and the IBM sales types wanted to sell a special version of the 650 for just that. I wanted the broadest possible usage of FORTRAN, and did not want to have users turned off by higher costs. What I needed was a board wiring whiz.

Hemmes was the obvious choice among my acquaintances. He had worked for me at Marquardt Aircraft, and then followed me to Lockheed, Missiles and Space Division, where he was when I thought of him, But I had a hard time persuading him to move to New York, He was really just a California boy.

After we finished that project we moved into plusher quarters at 425 Park Avenue in New York City. Forget which floor, but Dr. Charles deCarlo, who headed the Applied Science Department, had the office at one far end, to the left facing the avenue. My office was at the very opposite end. I guess I reported to deCarlo, for he had to approve my first trip abroad, to the ICIP Conference in Paris in the summer of 1959. But I also sort of worked for John McPherson, engineering-type Vice President with roving portfolio. We were so busy that I did not have time to get confused by this.

Our group was far enough removed physically from deCarlo that they thought they had a license for pranks. Among them were:

All this must have been beneficial, for the computer business today owes a large debt to what we created under these zany conditions. How about half of COBOL, via Commercial Translator, for example? And ASCII?


  1. R.W.Bemer, "Nearly 650 memories of the 650",
    Annals of the History of Computing 8, No. 1, 66-69, 1986 Jan
  2. D.A.Hemmes, "FORTRANSIT Recollections",
    Annals of the History of Computing 8, No. 1, 70-73, 1986 Jan

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