IBM - Why I left for UNIVAC

(or "More Than Loyalty is Needed")

Computer History Vignettes

By Bob Bemer

My story revolves about one T. Vincent Learson, IBM Vice President in the days of the 360, and my wife Marion, who started out as receptionist for IBM World Headquarters at 590 Madison Avenue, New York City. Later he was advanced to Chairman of the Board of IBM.

I first became aware of the august Vin Learson when my wife used the nickname of "Pinchy" for him. Seems that no matter how staid and respectable (even stodgy) a corporation IBM was, whenever Learson got into an elevator with no occupant other than my wife he couldn't resist pinching her in an inappropriate place.

Fast forward -- after my ASCII work, and appointment as IBM Director of Programming Standards, reporting to Bill Andrus, IBM Director of Standards, who reported to Learson.

Somewhere around the beginning of 1962, my wife Marion and I were both working in White Plains, NY. We drove to work from our home in Weston, CT, in a blue Volkswagen beetle with openable top. One day Learson happened to be in White Plains, and needed a ride to the railroad station. Rather than take a taxi, he asked Marion to drive him. In the basement garage the top had to be opened, as Learson was a very tall man.

My wife reported that, after settling in, Learson put a hand on her knee and asked "Is there anything I can do for you, honey?" Marion, one of the brashest, replied "Yes, give my husband a raise". A startled Learson asked "Your husband? Who's your husband?" Her reply was "You know - Bob Bemer - he works for you".

It wasn't much more than a week later that Learson moved me out as IBM Director of Programming Standards and shipped me off to Research. Andrus said later that the reason Learson gave to him was that I was giving the store away by cooperating too much with ANSI efforts on ASCII. I was of a different opinion. I thought it was because of the affair in the basement.

Research was not my thing, although I reported (along with John Backus) to Dr. Herman Goldstine, the Director. UNIVAC was looking to replace Dr. Werner W. Leutert (who had been my successor at Lockheed Missiles!), and the story of my unwilling displacement (IBMers called it "the penalty box") had gotten to them.

I had gotten to know Dr. Chuan Chu through X3.4 standardization activities for programming languages. Apparently UNIVAC delegated him to approach me, but when he called me I had to laugh a bit as I told him that I knew he had feelers out at IBM for a position!

This made it embarrassing for Chu to argue that I should join UNIVAC, so Bill Lonergan took over. I liked him very much, and he persuaded me to accept the position of Director of Systems Programming for UNIVAC, reporting to him. Part of my reasons for accepting was that IBM would not give any technical people the real management of large programming efforts. I thought it ought to be like hospitals, where the doctors (technicians) were in command, and bean counters did their thing.

Another reason may have been that I was purely miffed at Learson for ordering the IBM 360 to use EBCDIC code, even though my latest work at IBM had been on ASCII, which the 360's primary code was to have been ( See the P-bit story).

Having agreed to be hired, I was taken to see Dr. Louis Rader at an office on Park Avenue. I also liked him tremendously. A fantastic person. So he and I both started officially for UNIVAC (he as President, and Lonergan's boss) on 1962 April 01.

There arose a most difficult situation for Marion, then working in White Plains as secretary to the head of all IBM Customer Engineering. (Johnnie Croyle was one of three reporting to her boss, running the Western Region, and we later met him as a fine friend in Phoenix, where he was in charge of Field Engineering for the G.E. Computer Division).

My defection caused her to lose this rather important position, for nobody at IBM could believe that she and I could keep our company loyalties separate from our marriage. She was placed at a remote desk, given very little to do, shunned overtly, and finally had to resign because of the pressures. It was a mean thing that IBM did to her, for her loyalties up to then would probably have favored IBM over me, her husband! The only way she could have given me a business advantage was to talk in her sleep, and she didn't. This led to medical difficulties for her, and provided much ground for recrimination for the rest of our lives, even after I left UNIVAC.

I made my choice, and it led to a life just as interesting. But it nearly lost me an exceptional friend.

My original mentor at IBM was John McPherson, their "scientific" Vice President. Four months after joining UNIVAC there was an IFIP Congress meeting in Munich. McPherson was there, but would scarcely say hello to me. In the mind of this ultimate IBM loyalist I had let the company down.

It was not until ACM 70, when I asked John to participate (going to his office in the apple orchard), that I told him the real reason for my action was Learson himself. He was abashed at his conclusion, for we had been good friends otherwise.

And as a further sidelight, on FORTRAN Pioneer Day in Houston in June of 1982, we FORTRAN people had lunch in the Astrodome's private dining room for owners and such. I was at an end of a table, and Herman Goldstine (whom I had not seen since leaving IBM) was at my right. He told me that Vin Learson had made a special trip to IBM Research to cuss him (Goldstine) out for permitting me to abscond, as it were, to UNIVAC. Seems that Learson valued me enough so that he did not want a competitor to get my services.

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