BULL General Electric in Paris --
Visitors in 1965-1966

Computer History Vignettes

By Bob Bemer

Following my stint at Univac, I followed my mentor Dr. Louis Rader to Bull General Electric, as he had need of loyalty and technical competence when GE purchased the components of both Compagnie Bull (Paris) and Olivetti (Milan and surrounding). Italy was easier -- they had no Charles de Gaulle to stir up dislike of Americans. So I was assigned to Paris, under Brainerd Fancher, a GE manager's manager with scant knowledge of the computer business, likeable though he was.

It proved to be a remarkable adventure and thorough re-education (not only in the language spoken). These are some of the happenings.

Meeting Aloft

On 1965 March 30 we flew to Paris to take up residence. TWA permitted some dogs at that time. We had two toy poodles, so we booked there. But only in the seats just behind the bulkhead. We were surprised to see a lady with a Yorkshire terrier on the starboard side of the aisle, but it led easily to conversation and introductions. Our dogs were Tuppence and Panda, and Mr. Wheeler belonged to Madame Monique Dargi, wife of an American businessman. She customarily spent half of the year in her apartment on the Avenue de la Grande Armee, and invited us to visit.

But before we had the chance to do so we received a postcard from her. The picture on it was the Chàteau Laville Haut-Brion and surrounding vineyards. On it she said to visit any time. If she wasn't there, the staff was always in residence.

This puzzled me. I knew enough about wines to recognize the name Haut-Brion as one of the world's best wines. So I called to tease a little, which bothered her, for she said it was all true. So she invited us again to her Paris apartment.

That was reached via the ubiquitous rickety wrought-iron elevator of much of Paris. At the door we were greeted by a maid in a Helen Hokinson type of apron (for you New Yorker fans). Inside we were served wine of that brand, with cookies; seated in a huge hall with rounded ceiling, where hung, in very smoky condition, the portraits of the ancestors. I capitulated, and we left with amity and a couple more bottles of the family wine, thinking not too much about it.

But in writing this memoir I thought about it, and exercised Google. For Chàteau Laville Haut-Brion there were some 1900 hits, with a little history. It seems that Madame Monique's family sold (as did some other famous vineyards of the vicinity), in 1983, their 9.1 acres to an American banker, and it is now a part of Domaine Clarence Dillon.

So what was the value of our parting gift? We drank it, of course. But today a bottle of the 1985 vintage retails for $395, the Web says. And a modest $695 for a 1975. That American banker is living better than I am, for sure!

A Co-Worker at Bull

One Jacques Pepin de Bonnerive held a substantive position in software at Bull when I arrived, having previously been in charge of building the software for the Gamma 3 and the Gamma 60. He and his wife took us, early in my time there, to dinner at a Cave on Ile St. Louis. I mentioned a difficulty my wife had in finding a place to have leather gloves cleaned.

A few days later, upon arriving home, I noticed a calling card on a silver salver in the foyer. Idly picking it up, I noticed the name "Comtesse de la Maizieres". Asking what the countess was there for, I got the answer that "No, it was just Jacques' sister, who came to help about the gloves and other shopping problems."

Of course that meant that Jacques was a count. Later, invited to dinner at his apartment, we also ascended another rickety wrought-iron elevator to get there. I had not thought the neighborhood to be that grand until he threw open a window and pointed across the street to the "Senat" building. Just like living directly across from the U. S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Mr. COBOL

A most welcome visitor was Charlie Phillips, of BEMA. He who directed CODASYL and did more than anyone to bring COBOL to fruition. This avowal gives me the opportunity to assert that it was more often management action, rather than technical prowess, that brought many great computer innovations to completion. Especially in the days when computers were not in everybody's bathroom.

Charlie's daughter and his aide Paul (?) accompanied him. From my apartment we went to dinner at Laperouse, which then made arguably the best Potage St. Germain (pea soup) in the world. They all agreed with that, so I ordered "another round". The waiter was fairly astonished.

My Parents

Having a son living in Paris affords a convenient stopover on the way to Salzburg for the music festival. And one of my father's former teachers (in his capacity of school superintendent) was Win Schuler, who owned a stable of prestigious restaurants in the U. S. Midwest. Schuler had made many trips to Europe for both supplies and restaurant knowledge. As he was one of my parents' best friends, he gave them a list of restaurateurs that he had notified of their coming.

My father did not wish to disappoint Schuler, so we ended up one evening at Ledoyen on the Champs Elysées. The management was pleased to give my mother a portion of a 105-year-old Armagnac (we could see the supply on racks above the dining area, and were assured of that age by seeing the bottles covered with a coat of hairy filaments like a caterpillar). Anyway, my mother declined, possibly from being Presbyterian. Fortunately I was not, and stopped the waiter before he could get away to drink it himself.

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