IBM - Power of the Printed Word

Computer History Vignettes

By Bob Bemer

For most of my professional life I have been appreciative of the great power that the printed (and now "Web-displayed") word has. This is the story of my sudden conversion to this viewpoint.

In March of 1958, Marilyn Kaytor, Food Editor for Look Magazine, asked IBM to compute some diets. Two new cereals had just been introduced -- Special K and Hi Pro. The idea was to use a cup or so for each meal, adding other foods so that a minimum of nutrition was met while holding the calories under a maximum.

I was asked to program it for the IBM 705, but Look kept adding new requirements (e.g., "We would like to have a calculation for 50 days") until I knew I could not finish the program in time. I took to figuring diets out by hand during my 2+ hours of daily train ride, aided by my wife, receptionist at IBM World Headquarters.

Six diets were needed. Only five came without great difficulty. I got the sixth only by using parsley for all three meals! The magnetic tape was dummied up with diets, and the printouts duly appeared in a summer issue of Look Magazine as "New 5-Day Crash diet", accompanied by a picture that included the first shot of whiskey ever to appear officially on IBM premises. The pictures were taken at the IBM 705 console in the large glassed display room fronting Madison Avenue at 59th Street.

705 diets

(When they dismantled the display on the console, the shotglass was empty. It may have been the first whiskey ever consumed within IBM World Headquarters. I'm sure nobody saw me.)

That November I was sitting at the bar of the Palmer House, a Chicago hotel, when an elderly lady near me asked what sort of work I did.

Computers being very new to the general public then, this was always a difficult question. So I tried to explain by mentioning the Look diet. She said "Oh, I went on that diet, and it was great".

I asked how she liked the parsley. She replied "After a while you get to love it!"

Thus I learned, and never forgot, the power of the printed word! How many thousands of citizens did I trick into eating parsley?

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