The Persistence Of Established Technology

Computer History Vignettes

By Bob Bemer

"POET" is another acronym I made up, like "COBOL", "CODASYL", and some others not suitable for family reading. I had to have some way of explaining several scenarios where people refused to use new and better technology. It covers laziness, mental blocks, resistance to newness, etc.

I have given elsewhere the example of the genesis of the IBM 7070. More will be accumulated here, and readers with other good examples are invited to submit them. To begin:

Persistence of the IBM 604 Electronic Calculator

I had used mechanical calculators as early as 1941, during World War II. but my first introduction to computers programmed by other than your head and hands was at the RAND Corporation in the Spring of 1949.

We progressed greatly from the 5-additions-per-second mechanical IBM 601 when they brought us the first IBM 604 (electronic) to be delivered to a customer. I'll never forget it, for it was with the aid of this machine that I discovered the binary system (NO - of course they didn't teach it in school in those days).

I was working on the graveyard shift, without a supervisor, which gave me a little latitude. I opened up the side racks, and saw some lights. I punched a card in the 1-position, fed it in, and noticed another little light come on. A 2-punch lit the one below that. A 3-punch lit both of them! You can't imagine the effect this had on me, all alone. Of course a 4-punch turned them both off, and lit the light below.

That first 604 had only 20 program steps, in a wireable plugboard. The next 604 came with 60 steps, and that's the one I was fixing to take an 8-digit square root of an 8-digit number when a visitor came in about 8 A.M. and asked what I was doing. And a famous asker he was -- Dr. John von Neumann, credited pretty much with the invention of stored programming, until we discovered after the war that Germany's Konrad Zuse had beaten him to it! Note that this was in 1950.

Then in 1968 my new boss Logan Cowles moved to the General Electric plant at Bridgeport, CT. I was forced to go along to teach him the computer business. Facilities were scarce, and I had occasion to use punch card lists again. Inquiries led me to the tab room of the Wire and Cable Department. While there I noted with astonishment an old IBM 604 chunking away. I said to the manager "My God, man, that machine is 18 years old!" But he replied "No it isn't, we just got it last year"!

Send me your experiences with the POET Effect. We'll publish, with credits.

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