Why it is necessary to learn industrial history.
By: Tim Bryce – Columnist News Talk Florida
Through my columns I occasionally write something related to American history. I do this because I believe young people are losing their sense of history and are doomed to repeat mistakes we’ve made in the past. The same is true in industrial history, in my case the computer field. To illustrate, a few years ago I inherited my father’s UNIVAC Zippo lighter. I always admired it; it was small, sleek, and had an impressive UNIVAC logo engraved on it. I believe he got it back in the early 1960’s.
As an aside, my father was one of the first fifty computer programmers in the United States, starting back in 1954 when he worked on the UNIVAC I at the US Bureau of Census. I also have his original programming book from 1954 and template (and photos), along with some print wheels from the first high speed printer, a UNIVAC I magnetic tape (made of metal), and some plugboards. However, it was the small lighter he carried which I fancied.
Nonetheless, I was recently at a meeting where I met a gentleman, approximately 40 years of age, who is also actively engaged in the computer business. I pulled him aside and proudly showed him the lighter. He looked at it with a blank stare and said, “What is a UNIVAC?” I was thunderstruck by the comment. Even though it represented the first commercial computer, he had no idea of what it was, nor seemed to care.
It occurred to me there is no sense of industrial history anymore. Through my father and my own personal experiences, I have a deep sense of history for my craft, but I must be an anomaly. Some time ago I wrote a paper entitled, “A Short History of Systems Development, (Click here to read) the hopes of recording some of these historical milestones. It was well received, but I fear students are not learning such lessons from the college professors, or simply do not care.
I also recently met with some high school students interested in a career in computing. Their sense of history only goes as far back as Microsoft, Apple, and the Internet. Most were knowledgeable with the C and C++ programming languages, but little else. I then asked them if they knew what a 4GL was; a handful knew. I next asked what a 1GL, 2GL, or 3GL was. None knew. I explained it as:
1GL – First Generation Language – programming in machine language.
2GL – Second Generation Language – Assembly language.
3GL – Third Generation Language – procedural languages such as COBOL, Fortran, PL/1, C and C++.
4GL – Fourth Generation Language – interpreters/specification driven tools to produce code.
I then went into a dissertation of how and why these languages were invented. As an aside, the 3GL, was based on a manual procedural language derived from Broadway scripts (invented by Les Matthies, “The Dean of Systems”). When the Navy’s Admiral Grace Hopper developed COBOL (COmmon Business Oriented Language), she used Les Matthies’ “playscript” technique and automated it. COBOL was then emulated and simplified by ensuing programming languages. We also discussed the premise behind the JAVA language (“Write once, run everywhere”).
I next asked if they were familiar with the various DBMS models (Data Base Management Systems). Again, none knew anything about them. I then went on to explain the differences between the Hierarchical Model (e.g., IBM’s IMS and D-BOMP), the CODASYL Network Model (e.g., IDS, TOTAL, IDMS, and ADABAS), the Relational model (used by most computers today, e.g., DB2 and ORACLE), and the Object Oriented Model which is slowly gaining in acceptance. More importantly, I explained why the DBMS was invented. A large amount of the credit goes to Charles Bachman of GE/Honeywell where he invented IDS to implement Bill of Materials processing (BOMP) in manufacturing.
My point to the young students, and to you, is that it is important to study the past so we do not replicate the same mistakes. This is what craftsmen do regardless of the industry. Regretfully, I see little of this in business anymore, particularly in the computer field. It is difficult to innovate and invent without a sense of such history. Considerable time and effort is wasted as a result.
As to UNIVAC itself (UNIVersal Automatic Computer), the computer was invented by the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation which became a division of the Remington Rand corporation. Remington was acquired by the Sperry Rand corporation and dubbed the computer division, Sperry Univac, then just UNIVAC. In 1986, the company merged with Burroughs Corporation, another maker of mainframe computers, to become UNISYS.
I think I will continue to carry my father’s UNIVAC lighter in case I run into more people involved with the computer business. It’s quite a conversational piece.
One last bit of trivia, who were the “BUNCH” competing with IBM in the mainframe wars of yesteryear? Answer: Burroughs, UNIVAC, NCR, CDC, and Honeywell. Where are they now?
Keep the Faith!