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Chapter 2 - Background

2.14 Preconditions

At the onset of World War II, the computer existed only as theory, a few large scale calculators and a number of disconnected research efforts. By the end of the war, a computer had been built, albeit too late to aid the war effort, and a community of organizations and individuals committed to advancing the state-of-the-art had been formed. Strangely, this all happened with minimal impact from those firms such as IBM, Remington Rand, Burroughs or NCR, whose products shared the same history of ideas as did computers and who would in the future be the first to dominate the commercialization of computers.

The ideas the designers of the early computers began with were neither new nor complete, and best found their expression in the products sold by firms of the office machinery market-structure. The two most influential bodies of ideas were those of calculating machines and computing engines.

During the seventeenth century. Blaise Pascal created the first calculating machine and Gottfried Leibnitz developed the first logic of computing devices and then reduced them to practice. Their investigations led to the technologies embedded in a range of calculating machines such as adding machines, calculators, and cash registers.

In 1833, Charles Babbage,motivated to calculate better astronomical tables, designed a steam-driven machine he claimed mechanized thought.1 He was to innovate the “difference engine” and the “analytical engine.” The latter used a form of punched cards to control difference procedures.2

Then in 1890, these ideas were reduced to a new, radical product – the tabulating machine – by Herman Hollerith. Hollerith had written his doctoral dissertation about tabulating machines. While working at the U. S. Census Office he designed and built the first tabulating machine which electrically read data in on punched cards.3 In 1896, Hollerith formed the Tabulating Machine Company (TMC) to pursue commercial sales – the first one to the New York Central Railroad.

In 1911, Hollerith merged his company with four other measurement and information equipment manufacturers to form the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (C-T-R).4 In 1914, in the wake of a monopoly suit by the Justice Department, Thomas J. Watson left National Cash Register to become general manager of C-T-R. A year later he became president. C-T-R changed its name to International Business Machines (IBM) in 1924.5

Accounting Machine Corporation (AMC) served as IBM’s principal rival. AMC, as well, owes its beginnings to the U. S. Government. In 1905, the Census Bureau contracted to buy needed tabulating machines from James Powers and his start-up AMC, instead of Hollerith. AMC’s technological edge, however, could not overcome IBM’s many other advantages, and in 1927, AMC sought a merger into Remington Rand with several other office machine companies. The two companies dominated the tabulating market – IBM with both electrical and mechanical machines, and Remington Rand with solely mechanical ones. In the 1930’s IBM gained an eight-to-one advantage6 over Remington Rand largely by being the primary supplier of tabulating machines to the rapidly expanding U.S. Government under President Roosevelt and the New Deal Congress.

The recognized need for machines to perform scientific calculations prompted the civic-minded Watson and IBM to fund the development of the first computer in the world in 1939. The Mark I, designed by Professor Howard Aiken of Harvard University, was not electronic. Watson Jr. described it as “pretty much two tons of IBM tabulating machines synchronized on a single axis.”7 IBM gave the Mark I to Harvard in 1944.

When World War II created the need for better “calculating” machines to make and break encryption codes as well as to calculate ballistic trajectories, the U. S. Government would draw on these ideas and efforts in building the world’s first computer. Even so, computational considerations remained on the periphery of strategic action. Then in 1949, the Soviet Union detonated an atomic bomb. The United States could no longer rely solely on mass production to ensure its security.8 Information, and with it the computer, became the source of competitive advantage and victory.

  • [1]

    Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine, “Fire in the Valley,” Osborne/McGraw-Hill 1984, p. 3

  • [2]

    Nelson, p. 164

  • [3]

    Nelson, p. 9

  • [4]

    Yates., p.23

  • [5]

    Watson Jr., p. 149

  • [6]


  • [7]

    Watson Jr.,

  • [8]

    David A. Hounshell, “From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932,” John Hopkins University Press 1984, p. 13