Four Score and Seven Years Ago

Today, August 5, has a number of interesting anniversaries in the world of technology and government. In 1858 the first transatlantic telegraph cable was completed, allowing President James Buchanan and Queen Victoria to share congratulatory messages the following week. (Unfortunately within a month the cable had broken down for good.)  The first quasar (“quasi-stellar astronomical radio object”) was discovered on Aug. 5, 1962. And exactly one year later the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed on August 5, 1963, between the U.S., U.S.S.R., and Great Britain.

But one important date I’d like to commemorate was a bit different: eighty-seven years ago today, on August 5, 1923, my father was born, in Greensboro, North Carolina. Happy Birthday, Dad!

There’s a shorthand way of telling my father’s life-history which fits with the theme of technological advance: he graduated from college (his beloved N.C. State) as an early recipient of a B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering; he worked for decades for a growing company interested in adopting new technologies to drive its business; and he capped his career as Corporate Vice President for Research and Development at a Fortune 300 company.

But that misses the fun he had along the way, and the close-up view he had of innovation. He was an early adopter, even before college. (I like to think I get that from him.)  So I thought I’d illustrate a couple of vignettes I’ve heard over the years of his interaction with computers along the way, simply to portray the thrust of radical change that has paced along during the course of one man’s life.

Big Blue and Blue Jeans

As a teenager in Greensboro, my father went to work for a small but growing local company: Blue Bell, Inc. Blue Bell was known for making one product: Wrangler Jeans. In the 1930s, there hadn’t yet been a “denim revolution” and the popularity of blue jeans was not global – they were a regional product still associated with rural and agricultural markets. Rodeo cowboys were the company’s spokesmen.  My father started as an office-boy with the company but as a bright kid took on some new duties. Blue Bell had both shop-floor work to do – turning massive rolls of denim cloth into cut and sewn clothing, and the company had back-office work to do as well – a payroll to meet and accounting tasks to perform.

In the first waves of data-processing automation, the biggest player was one still familiar today: IBM. It had prospered with government work at its inception helping automate the U.S. Census tabulation in 1890 and 1900, under its original name, the Tabulating Company. With a new name it had chosen in 1924, International Business Machines eventually renewed that leading role with government during FDR’s New Deal, winning a large 1935 contract to automate the record-keeping and calculations required to run the new Social Security system – a massive contract for its day.  So it’s understandable that the first “computer” bought and used by my dad’s little Blue Bell company to address its twin needs (shop-floor and back-office) was a 1930s IBM Tabulating Machine, from the famous 400 series.

Wired plug board for an IBM 402 Accounting Machine

This was the era of punchcards. From my dad, remembering his  business-computing experience as an eighteen-year-old: “We used an IBM tabulator, and the programming was done by wiring instructions into a board, and the board fit on the end of the machine, you locked it in and then the machine read it. This was 1940, ’41, ’42. We had it set up doing accounting tasks, keeping records of cloth inventories, cloth usage, all of that was converted to reports that the Accounting department used to pay for cloth. And it kept a record of how many thousands of yards were cut, the rate of cloth utilization. But at that point, it wasn’t that sophisticated. It couldn’t handle actual orders. And one big thing was, you couldn’t program the IBM machine to start or stop by itself – you had your program, and you locked in the board, and then you had your stacks of trays of cards, and then you had to run all those cards through the machine, feed them in, hit the start button, and then keep feeding them in. You couldn’t let it run out of cards, or it would ‘total’ – and stop! So to keep it from running out of cards, which was vital, we needed a number 2 guy, a night guy – and that was my job for a while. I had to stay up all night and keep the machine fed, and make sure it didn’t run out of cards.”

Norden Bomb Sight mounted in a B-17

Bottle Baby Crew, 1945. Pilot Jake Shepherd, front row, second from left.

Then came war. My father volunteered for the Army Air Corps’ Aviation Cadet program and in 1944 was commissioned a Second Lieutenant. As a smart guy with a knack for handling advanced machinery, he was put into four-engine bombers, flying both the B-24 and B-17 aircraft with a couple dozen missions over Germany, mainly in his B-17 known as “Bottle Baby” of the 401st Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force. As the pilot, he relied on his navigator, his gunners, his bombardier, and his Norden Bomb Sight, the revolutionary and secret technology so prized by the Army Air Corps.

After the end of the war, my father was a Captain in the Air Force Reserve, and a newly-minted G.I. Bill college student, attending N.C. State until graduation in 1949. But he always kept in touch with his friends at Blue Bell, and it was back to the blue jeans and embryonic computing environment once he graduated from college.

He benefited from developments going on in California. We think of the last twenty years as the heyday of Silicon Valley and the advance of the computer industry. The 1950s were actually a boom period in the Valley, with IBM and its Almaden lab at the center of an exciting pace of innovation. It was at Almaden that the computer hard-disk was invented, and around its revolutionary storage capacity IBM built a new generation of computers with revolutionary capabilities.  And Blue Bell joined thousands of other companies across the country buying an IBM 350 RAMAC, “Random Access Method of Accounting and Control” introduced in 1956 as the first computer to use a moving-head storage hard-disk drive. Steven Levy has immortalized it as “the hard drive that changed the world.” My father really enjoyed the RAMACs, with their multiple disks stacked up vertically – each one capable of holding a whopping 5 megabytes of data! But they were the last vacuum-tube computers IBM ever sold.

Within just a few years there was a new, even more revolutionary IBM line sweeping industry and bringing faster speed, greater storage, and more powerful computational processing to business customers: the revolutionary 1400-series and the world’s “first true business computer,” the IBM 1401.  It was launched the year my mom and dad had me, in 1959.  Last year on its own fiftieth birthday, IBM released a wonderful film that captures the excitement of the 1401 team and its accomplishments:

My father’s career became more managerial over the years and less technical, even when running R&D for Blue Bell. The great “jeans wars” of the ’70s drove his company to success, with Levi and Wrangler battling globally as sales exploded.  But I know that the same spirit driving his decades-long, hands-on involvement in cutting-edge technologies of his day was intrinsic to American growth and progress throughout the twentieth century, and to American preeminence even today with my generation and those younger than me all following in the footsteps of enterprise pioneers like my dad. That same spirit certainly has been the motivation behind Microsoft’s formation and growth, and so many startups since.

I’ll sum up by saying that I see a lot of my father’s character in the text accompanying that IBM video above. It characterizes the team that built the 1401 “as IBMs version of the original Mercury astronauts. They were a team that thrived on challenge. They were driven by curiosity. They were devoted to meaningful innovation. And they aimed high – they wanted to change the world.”

That’s a wonderful image for all early computer users, who’ve invested time and brilliance to learn through early adoption.  I’m personally fortunate and grateful that I had a great role model to emulate.

My 87-year-old pop is just as active on the Web today; you can find him on LinkedIn or Facebook (Jacob N. Shepherd), where I think he marvels at the trivial use we make of enormous amounts of web-scale cloud computing. But then, all I have to do is remind him of the time when I was seven and he took me into the computer room at work, sat me down, and had the programmers show me how to instruct an IBM 360 to use its mainframe power to plot and print a 3-foot Snoopy from Peanuts :)

Happy Birthday to my dad, a pioneering computer nerd.

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One Response

  1. Thanks for a great article Lewis…..you remember some things that I have forgotten, but it is all very much the way it happened….some of the systems we developed at Blue Bell and at Quality Mills were of great interest to IBM and they flew me from NC to their headquarters in New York in their private airplane on several occasions where I gave detailed talks about our use of the latest IBM equipment….some of which was very ground breaking.

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