Sunday, October 26, 2008
Emerson Pugh: Building IBM (1995)
"The failure of many at the time - and perhaps even more today - to grasp the overarching significance of the use of magnetic tapes on UNIVAC is partly the result of an unfortunate misnomer: all electronic information processing machines are called computers even though they are seldom used for computing. Although ENIAC was the first large-scale electronic computer, it lacked the memory and storage facilities necessary for information processing. In contrast, UNIVAC and other electronic stored-program computers equpped with magnetic tape storage were effective information processing machines. Because they were also superior to computers of the ENIAC design for computing, ENIAC had no progeny." The many histories of IBM, like much work in computing history, tend to be caught up in praising the "vision" of inventors and corporate executives rather than provide a critical analysis of the field of commercial computing, investigate technical questions involved in the building and functioning of the machines, and closely observe the changing structure of the business. Pugh's book, drawing from his experience working for IBM and from the company's archives (which he was granted access to without restrictions) is the one exception, and nicely balances these concerns. He traces the history of IBM back to Herman Hollerith's invention of the punched card tabulator. In 1911, Hollerith's business merged with two others to form the Computing Tabulating Recording Company (CTR), and Thomas Watson Sr. was named president in 1915. CTR eventually changed its name to IBM and came to dominate the information processing industry. Pugh describes the company's success throughout the Great Depression and WW II (aided by leasing policies and the government's need for information processing equipment) as well as its belated entrance into the field of commercial computing. The final sections present IBM's "gamble" in leaping into the IBM 360 series of computers, which came to be the industry standard for decades. He interestingly points out that IBM failed to make its OS 360 operating system compatible with its smallest computers, and therefore was particularly weak in the low end of the computer market, which left it quite vulnerable during the personal computer revolution at the beginning of the 1980s. Focusing on a single business risks losing sight of the competitive field that business is situated within, but given IBM's clear dominance and leadership in the field, this is not a problem in the book, especially since Pugh takes the time to describe in detail the competition from companies such as Remington Rand, CDC, and Honeywell. For example, around 1930 IBM and Remington Rand each began to change the number of columns on the punched cards they produced, attempting to brand the cards and make each incompatible with the tabulating systems of the other company (recapitulated in the present by the incompatibility of Mac and Windows). An interesting fact is that Watson Sr. initially was determined not to allow IBM's machines to be called "computers," since he feared that term was associated with automation and job-loss. IBM's first computer the IBM 701 was called the Defense Calculator as a result. As the quote above illustrates, Pugh himself dislikes the term "computer" because it doesn't accurately identify the bulk information processing (and storing) that business computers are involved in.