Computer History Vignettes

By Bob Bemer

Income Tax Background

Upon a return from Europe, my secretary called me at home to advise that the IRS wanted money, and that they were threatening to attach my house and cars. I obtained the data and, working backward, found that the IRS had not noticed a minus sign on one entry (I learned from this to put such in parentheses, as the IRS does not seem to accept standard arithmetic notation).

Then I fired off a letter to Datamation re this foulup. I asked who would be responsible if I died of a heart attack due to this mistake. The letter was published.

Very soon after I received a call from the IRS saying that I was to be subjected to a home audit. When the auditor arrived, I asked him how I had happened to be selected for such an audit (I suspected they might have been ticked off by my letter in a national magazine). But no, the man said I had been selected at random by a computer program. I then asked the purpose, to which he answered "as basis for a computer program".

I then asked "Do you mean to tell me that I, a computer programmer, have been selected by a computer program, to provide analysis for a computer program to detect fraud/errors?" That seemed like a lot of coincidence.

The auditor failed, though. I had claimed 1/6 of the house area for my office, as requested by GE and Honeywell. After an hour with a tape measure, he gave up.

I remembered that well, and eventually it played its part in the impeachment of President Nixon.


In 1969 I was appointed Program Chairman for the 1970 ACM National Computer Conference. Feeling that the time was ripe to take a sweeping overall look at the effect of computers upon our lives, I proposed a National Computer Year for 1970, along the pattern of the International Geophysical Year (and a half).

To me it was quite obvious that the world was rushing into computer subservience without knowing what they were doing, why they were doing it, or what the likely impacts would be if they didn't stop, look, and listen.

Recent problems with the Year 2000 make a concise example of the dangers, and indeed one of my cherished goals for the NCY was to get the 1970 ISO standard for writing of dates into general usage.

I enumerated the goals in [1] as:

ACM President Walter Carlson supported me. We held a meeting in New York with representatives of many national technical societies, and eventually some 86 societies pledged support. There were two stumbling blocks. Jean Sammet, of the ACM Council, insisted that it was not possible to mount such an effort in such a short time, and her feelings swayed other computer groups. The second obstruction was President Nixon's refusal of endorsement (or maybe it just never got to his consciousness in those peculiar days).

(From here on the headings are by time line.)

1969 November

I completed building of my 2 Moon Mountain Trail house in Phoenix, with 25 twisted pairs of phone lines coming up because Dr. Ed David, in charge of the PicturePhone project at Bell Labs, said he would get me the first PicturePhone in Arizona as a test [2].

My first attempts to get a Presidential Proclamation for a National Computer Year were via President Nixon's current Science Advisor, Dr. Lee DuBridge, former President of Cal Tech. I was very interested when he told me that my father was his high school math teacher (as he was mine, too, even though he was the superintendent). He wrote me that he liked the idea, but was unsure of applying Presidential mass to it.

Then, partway through the effort, DuBridge was succeeded by Dr. David. A compatriot of David at Bell labs told me that he (David) was the 143rd person asked if they wanted to be Nixon's Science Advisor. At least 142 scientists had decided previously against this honor. The story goes further that when Ed went to meet Nixon at the White House, the President asked if he could fix a problem with his television set. I never got the PicturePhone.

1970 Spring

My organization for ACM 70 was in sectors. Chairman for the Communications Sector had been Ed David, but the demands of his new office made him bow out, replaced by John Auwaerter, V.P. of Engineering at the Teletype Corporation. One of our meetings was held at my Phoenix home, remembered best for my falling in my own pool completely dressed, perfectly sober.

1970 Aug 31

ACM 70 was held, in New York City. It was very different from all previous ACM conferences. No technical papers, just discussions about the use of the computer in various disciplines. Thus no typical proceedings. But I spent the next year and more making, from transcriptions that I edited tightly, a book of sorts. The peculiar title "Computers and Crisis" came from F. Gordon Smith, then Executive Director of the ACM, and his sidekick George Capsis, both former IBM employees. The New York Times Sunday Book Review of 1971 September 05 gave the book a pretty glowing 14 column-inches of review.

Other rave reviews came from the Journal of the British Computer Society, and from the magazine Nature.

1972 January

The White House had sponsored, perhaps as a cheap Computer Year, COSATI, the Council on Scientific and Technical Information, as a project of the White House Office of Science and Technology. My Honeywell boss, Dr. John Weil, was a member. He who had assigned me to revitalize and publish the Honeywell Computer Journal.

COSATI was to issue a report, but they were poorly funded for it. I made a proposal to Dr. John Farmakides of the National Science Foundation that the Honeywell Computer Journal would photocompose the COSATI Report, publish it in hard copy in the Journal itself, and supply our fiche to NSF for them to publish and distribute in that form. (We always published the Journal in fiche form as well, tucked in a pocket on the inside back cover).

We did our part, and awaited approval from Farmakides to publish in our own Journal. There ensued months of stalling by Farmakides. We would call in desperation, but somehow he always escaped from his office before the secretary could ring through!

The U.S. Government had a very bad effect upon our publishing schedule!

Monday 1973 Mar 19

I had flown to Washington on Sunday, staying at the Georgetown Inn.

Monday I was at the Library of Congress for a meeting of ISO TC46/4/1 (Working Group on Character Sets for Automated Documentation). During a break I went to the National Science Foundation offices to see Eugene Pronko re the COSATI Report. The President's Science Advisor had been transferred (?). Pronko, as NSF Secretary, was holding down the fort.

Pronko admitted to me that one John Dean III had been holding up the report, because of its Chapter 6 - "Protection of Proprietary Rights", but he thought he could get it for me. He said the copy was in Austin with Dr. Mike Duggan.

Mike, a longtime friend of mine via the ACM, was also a member of the COSATI committee. I called Duggan from Pronko's office to arrange for me to fly home to Phoenix via Austin and pick up the report next night. All seemed OK, so back to the meeting at the Library of Congress.

That night I stayed with Ernest C. Baynard, Chief of Staff for the U. S. Congress Government Activities Committee (chaired by Jack Brooks, TX, who also served as second in command to Peter Rodino on the House Judiciary Committee impeachment hearings for President Nixon).

Tuesday 1973 Mar 20

To the Library of Congress again, where I received a call from Duggan to say that he had a business meeting that night, and couldn't meet me.

Very strange. Today when I see movies of criminal activities in the White House I am always reminded of that underhanded power demonstrated to me then. I said "To hell with it", went to Dulles and back to Phoenix.

Wednesday 1973 Mar 21

Nixon: "Your cover is broken?"
John Dean III: "That's right". Ref [3] p. 153

Friday 1973 Mar 23

Reporters converge on John Dean III. Ref [3]

Monday 1973 Mar 26

I receive a phone call from Dr. John Farmakides -- "Come and get it!" A. R. Shriver flies to Washington, picks up the copy from Farmakides without a hitch, and returns the next day.

Reporting These Events

The next day, Mar 27, I wrote a summary report [4] about this to my superior Dr. John Weil:

"We have been negotiating with John Farmakides for the release of this (COSATI) report even prior to my letter to him of 1972 Oct 19.

I have never been treated to such a contradictory melange of 'yes, we'd be glad to, but my partner won't let me'. Often, 'just one more phone call and it's set' would work for two weeks. I tried desperately in Washington last week, seeing Gene Pronko of NSF; I even offered to fly back to Phoenix by way of Austin and pick up everything from Mike Duggan. But even then, Duggan suddenly discovered he had a business meeting that night (after confirming on the phone he would meet me). And then there were the numerous times that Dick (Shriver) or I would call, assuming he (Farmakides) was in (as the secretary asked for our name), to suddenly discover he was in a meeting and would call back, which never happened.

Yesterday morning I received a miraculous phone call from John Farmakides. He had the last versions, and we should pick them up to set, while awaiting the final clearances through the COSATI staff. We jumped.

In a way it was an odd day all around. Just that very morning one John Dean III appeared, from newspaper reports, to have his cover in the Watergate Case blown by James McCord, Jr., who supplied information to both Judge Sirica and Senator Ervin's committee. One does recall the coincidence that last August John Dean III personally held up the release of at least one of the seven sections in the COSATI Report."

1973 Dec 08

News Report: Nixon releases Federal Tax returns for 1969-1972. Will agree to a ruling by the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation. [3], p. 869. Remember this committee, I'll be mentioning it later!

A Certain Vengeance

Up to this point an Ernest C. Baynard had been Staff Director for Congressman Jack Brooks's Government Activities Committee. Via the business I transacted with him in pleasure, we became very close friends. I have more to say about him elsewhere on this site.

During this flap Baynard retired. Dick Jones (formerly assistant) became the Staff Director. It was pretty critical. You will remember Brooks' position on the House Judiciary Committee which was preparing for the possible impeachment of President Nixon.

I had read with interest the articles about the IRS employee who blew the whistle in the Fall of 1973 about Nixon's tax returns. So one morning I called Dick Jones to ask if they were checking anything except real estate in Florida. He laughed, for a lot of attention was paid to Nixon's relations with "Bebe" Rebozo of that state.

I told Dick about that computerized audit program, saying that it was identical at all IRS sites. I suggested taking the figures on Nixon's two returns, as reported in Time Magazine, and asking the IRS to run a dummy return through that audit program, with real estate deductions identical to those of Nixon. And when the report came out, to ask "Now, gentlemen, when this message came from the computer about Mr. Nixon's return, what did you do?"

Jones said "My God!" He thought it a great idea, but later he informed me that when they took it to the Joint Committee on Taxation, which then made that request of the IRS -- Guess what? -- the IRS turned them down! Snubbed both houses of the Congress!

So we find in [6], page 338, that "Two additional articles" (of impeachment), accusing Nixon of illegally bombing Cambodia and of committing tax fraud, were rejected by votes of 26 to 12".

1974 Apr 03

White House says Nixon will pay $432,787.13 in back taxes to the IRS. [3], p. 876

1974 Apr 15

Time Magazine has a cover story [5] called "Nixon's Tax Scandal". The inside story is called "Many Unhappy Returns"! It has a large box on page 14 about the neglect of IRS employees when that same computer program kicked out President Nixon's return for 1971. I have often wondered how the investigative reporters for Time Magazine found their lead?

My Conclusion

The committee knew that the IRS was an Executive Branch body that Nixon could control in many aspects. but I'd bet it all that the tax fraud the IRS declined to corroborate was on the minds of many members of the Judiciary Committee, as well as the refusal itself.

With that, I felt I had some satisfaction from Nixon for refusing to sign a proclamation for the National Computer Year I had set my heart on, and believed was so crucial to the country. Now that we have passed through the Y2K crisis, I feel more justified than ever. But the question will always be on my mind -- would the Y2K crisis have been avoidable if National Computer Year had been a reality?


  1. R.W.Bemer, "Computers and our society", NordData, Copenhagen,
    1973 Aug, Honeywell Computer J. 8, No. 1, 49-54, 1974
    -- Reprinted in Jurimetric J., 1974 Fall, 43-55
    -- Reprinted (translated to German by Prof. Heinz Zemanek) as
       "über den computer in unserer Gesellschaft",
       Elektronische Rechenanlagen 19, 167-172, 1977 Aug
    -- Republished as "The frictional interface between computers and society",
       Computers and People, 14-19, 1975 Jan
    -- Computing Reviews 29244
    -- Computer Abstracts 77-2514
  2. R.W.Bemer, "Working on Moon Mountain",
    Reader's Forum, Datamation, 1984 Sep 16, 173-176
  3. "The White House Transcripts", Bantam Books, 1974 May
  4. Bemer's trip report to Dr. John Weil (COSATI member), 1973 March 27:
    (Council On Scientific And Technical Information)
  5. TIME magazine, 1974 Apr 15, Cover story & pp. 10-17
  6. "The Final Days", Woodward & Bernstein, Avon Books, 1976
  7. Honeywell expense account of R. W. Bemer, 1973 Mar 18-20
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