My Early Computer History in the 1960's

by

Owen Picton

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I graduated from Midland College in May, took a two week cruise on Lake Michigan with the Navy Reserve and then went to work as a computer programmer for a Data Processing Department of a a large insurance company during the summer of 1960. This is how I remember the early days of computer processing..

I was a good fast computer programmer. I would code the program as fast as possible. There are always things one does not know, which takes more research. For me , it was faster to code something in even if you did not know it, then modify or tear it out in the future when one knows more.

The Data Processing Department was started three years before when the company purchased an IBM 705 computer and now just had purchased an additional used IBM 705 computer. The Data Processing Department was made up of two parts. One part was for programming and the other part was the machine room which physically had and run the computers. I was in the programming part. Most of the department personal were men who had served in the military during World War II. They were older, serious and did a good job. I considered some World War II heroes. During morning and afternoon coffee brakes and at lunch time many of the men would play poker for penny's , nickels and dimes. I did not smoke but the rule was that men could smoke at their desk but women where not allowed to smoke at their desk. Women could only smoke in the bathroom. Security was different. One could go in or out any door without seeing a security guard. One person sold a rifle and brought it into the building. He gave the rifle to another person buying it, who took it to his car. All without being questioned or stopped. A final introduction story which I heard many years later. When the first computer programmers were hired, they believed they would program everything need in a year or two and would need to lay off or transfer all the computers programmers to another job after everything was programmed.

The IBM 705 computer had 40,000 positions of memory which had been wired by hand, produced enough heat to heat five houses, was as big as a small house, all data was stored on magnetic tape, had no operating system (we had to write our own magnetic tape machine operating instructions); had no multiplication or division instruction (we had to add numbers together to multiply or subtract numbers to divide), all adding or subtracting was done in registers, the computer was set on a raised floor (this is where the computer operators the rumor had it, kept there Playboy magazines) and had a big air cooling system. The IBM 705 computer was the only computer that did not have an operating system.

The computer operation instructions were keypunched onto 80 character IBM cards and loaded onto magnetic tape. This was the method of entering the operating instructions until about 1980. The first computer operation instructions was a machine language called IBM705 Autocoder. By the time of the IBM 360 computer, COBOL was used as the programming language. The magnetic tape would first hold about a 100 or 200 characters per inch but this kept quickly improving. Data was first key punched and also loaded from cards onto magnetic tape. The IBM 705 computer would read the magnetic tapes and first the computer operating instructions into memory. Then the computer would execute the instructions and process the data plus produce a magnetic tape to be placed on a printer. The printing was done by a slow slave like printer which used end like wires to form the different letters. The magnetic tape reels would eventually have a copy sent to a salt mine in Kansas as a backup.

One time they took a picture for a TV show as the tape was in high speed rewind. It caused the tape drive to snap the tape because when the tape drive sensed light it normally indicated that the tape was at the end of the reel and brake the reel to a quick stop,


Our next computer was an IBM 1401, then the IBM 7080 computer and then the IBM 360 computer. They were all main frame computers. The IBM 705 computer used vacuum tubes and all the rest used transistors. The IBM Personal Computer did not come out until about 1983.

Below are some of the computer projects I worked on:

Boot-strap Print Program on IBM Card

As I remember it some IBM 1401 had 4,000 positions of memory and others had up to 16,000 positions of memory. The IBM 1401 was used mainly as a slave printer. One would take a tape print reel from a main frame computer and mount it on a tape drive of the IBM 1401. I wrote a boot-strap print program that fit on an 80 character IBM card. One would load and execute the card and it had all the instructions for the IBM 1401 to print the magnetic tape reel. Other companies stole and used this card.

Emulate an IBM 7080 Computer

The company was considering purchasing an IBM 360 computer but first they wanted to make sure that the IBM 360 computer could emulate an IBM 7080 computer. I was the one they assigned to set up this test. I collected the IBM 7080 computer programs and data necessary to make this test. Myself and 3 or 4 people over me scheduled time on an IBM 360 computer at the Social Security Administration at Baltimore, Maryland. We all flew there, ran the tests without difficulty and returned home. Then they purchased an IBM 360 computer.


Zip Code Creation

I was involved in the creation of the zip code now used by the US post office. I was a computer programmer and system analyst in the early 1960's and worked for a large insurance company that was a large user of the US mail. The US post office came to us and wanted our assistance and input in helping them create what they were calling a zip code. I was the only one assigned to this project. This is how I remember the experience and do not know how much impact I had on the creation but I think some because the result was what I suggested.

I started by looking at the address lines in the mailing record. The city and state of our address line was twenty characters long. So I suggested abbreviating the city to only 13 letters, state to two letters and then this would allow space for a five position zip code. There was much discussion on abbreviating the city to only 13 letters. The post office adopted this idea for city, state and zip code. The problem was my company did not take the time to convert the addresses. The post office even provided us a computerize conversion file to assist us in the conversion.

This waiting period went on for a year until the post office set a mandatory conversion date. One had to also use the street addresses and city and state addresses with the conversion file to make the conversion on the computer. The large resulting file had to manually be checked to make sure that the conversion was made correctly. This was a big effort, but I was not involved in the conversion. The two position state letter assigned by the post office for our company was NB for Nebraska. After a while (maybe a year) the post office realized that the post office in Canada also assigned the two position state letter NB for New Brunswick. So the US post office changed our two position state letter from NB to NE for Nebraska.

I often wonder what minor effects the continued use of my zip code suggestions has had on the world. It is like a butterfly fluttering through the woods a million years ago. If the butterfly had fluttered one way it would have affected history one way or if it fluttered another way, history would be completely different.

I Wrote the First Computer Medicare Program in the World


The US government passed the Medicare law and it was scheduled to become law on I think July 1. My company had the contact to handle Medicare claims for several states. What was need was to write a computer program to process, audit and create checks for payment of Medicare claims. Someone in my company had already designed and created the record layouts for the Medicare System. I was the only one assigned to code the computer program and given only about two months to code it. We process the first Medicare claim on about Jul;y 5th and printed the check. One other company printed a Medicare check manually before we did but our computer system was the first to do it by computer. This is how I wrote the first Medicare processing computer program in the world.

IBM Building in Chicago Bombed

In about 1975, I had a weeks computer class in the IBM Building in downtown Chicago. About a week after I completed the class, a bomber set off a bomb in the lobby of the IBM Building. As I remember about five people were killed. I am blessed this did not happen when I was there.

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Last Modified October 2022

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