Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Vintage Technolog Book Club: King of the Seven Dwarfs

The computers that dominate vintage computing are the ones that loomed large in our youth; Apple //, Commodore 64, Timex Sinclair, TI 99/4a. Much like typewriters, these old machines exert a romantic pull. Collectors call these classic computers, but like any technological advancement, the home computers of the late 70s and early 80s represent just a single point in the continuum of computing. 

The book that I just finished has nothing to do with this classical age of computing, but calls back to an earlier mythical time iron giants. Homer R. Oldfield's King of the Seven Dwarfs chronicles the haphazard and lurching attempt by General Electric to become the number two computer manufacturer and a real source of competition to IBM. Who willingly seeks out second place? GE.

What's up with the Seven Dwarves? It's a reference to IBM (Snow White) and the seven other major computer manufacturers at the time: Burroughs, UNIVAC, NCR, Honeywell, RCA, and General Electric.

Fig 1.Ralph Cordiner

In the mid 1950s, under the direction of General Electric president Ralph Cordiner, General Electric was the platonic idea of a modern American technology conglomerate. GE's research laboratory had just created artificial diamonds and GE products were everywhere; radios, televisions, kitchen appliances. However, GE was not involved in computers. They made vacuum tubes used in all the great computers of the era, but they were a manufacturing company. IBM was the best computer (and marketing) company in the world. In Cordiner's mind GE would never compete with IBM in the office equipment business.

Fig 2. ERMA 

Oldfield 's book begins the story with his personal involvement in entering a bid for Bank of America's ERMA computer system. The ERMA (Electronic Recording Machine, Accounting) system was developed by Stanford Research Institute for the Bank of America starting in the early 50s as an attempt to modernize and computerize check sorting and account reconciliation. It was a significant project with an equally significant computer attached. 24 separate companies entered bids to build this machine and the contracted 32 identical systems installed in branches of BofA across the country. Oldfield devotes a significant portion of the book to this part of the GE story because the antipathy that Cordiner felt toward business computing made the development of this product a minor miracle.

Oldfield recounts this history from his personal experience, but adopts the role of a third person limited narrator. This hackneyed attempt at literary distance is hard to read. Additionally, the dialogue that Oldfield uses to progress the historical account is cliched and sometimes painfully embarassing. The dramatization in dialogue and narration diminishes when Oldfield leaves departs GE. Interestingly, the pulls of his family and especially his wife's mental health, is a compelling secondary plot that would make for an interesting novel set agains the high-technology of the sun-belt.

What Oldfield lacks in literary skill, he more than makes up for with content. The depth of knowledge is significant and the book drives into the personalities and decisions that caused GE to become a computer history also-ran. 

My fascination with this book comes from the local color. GE, early on, decided to place the headquarters for the Computer Department in Phoenix. In 1956 computer experts and hopefuls crossed the nation to arrive in Phoenix. GE's investment in computers in Arizona was significant and made no lasting impact on the landscape of this city. You would think that the only early competitor to IBM would merit some historical remembrance. The manner of GE's entry and abrupt exit of the computer market (being sold to Bull in 1970) turned the GE office parks scattered across the valley into Honeywells and Bulls.

A post like this wouldn't be complete without a few artifacts that I have been able to scrounge up. Being the spiritual home of the GE Computer Department, you might still find hints and faded references to the company. One such example is this token form the 1961 Computer Department National Sales Meeting held at the Superstition Ho in Apache Junction. 

The event is surprisingly well-documented including pictures and a special opening by Ronald Reagan and a lovely set of yearbook-style photos of the entire Computer Department (including the father of director Steven Spielberg).

The last object is perhaps my favorite:

I can imagine that on the last day of work Kathy (The name written in sharpie on the bottom) decided to slip this three-hole punch into her box of belongings and left GE for good. Was it in the 1970s when GE Phoenix was taken over by Bull? Was it her favorite three-hole punch? Why the orange? Can you believe this isn't the first one of these I've seen around here?

In the end, I do not regret reading this book. There aren't many of these primary source documents left in the world of early computing history especially about a company that failed so spectacularly. However, this story hardly ends there. There's Datanet and Dartmouth and Basic and Multics and Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie and Unix and...