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Before the Computer: IBM, NCR, Burroughs, and Remington Rand and the Industry They Created, 1865-1956

Before the Computer: IBM, NCR, Burroughs, and Remington Rand and the Industry They Created, 1865-1956

James W. Cortada
Copyright Date: 1993
Edition: REV - Revised
Pages: 400
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  • Book Info
    Before the Computer: IBM, NCR, Burroughs, and Remington Rand and the Industry They Created, 1865-1956
    Book Description:

    Before the Computerfully explores the data processing industry in the United States from its nineteenth-century inception down to the period when the computer became its primary tool. As James Cortada describes what was once called the "office appliance industry," he challenges our view of the digital computer as a revolutionary technology. Cortada interprets reliance on computers as a development within an important segment of the American economy that was earlier represented largely by such instruments as typewriters, tabulating machines, adding machines, and calculators. He also describes how many of the practices of the office appliance industry evolved into those of the computer world. Drawing on previously unavailable industry archives, the author adds to our understanding of IBM's early history and offers short corporate histories of firms that include NCR, Burroughs, and Remington Rand. Focusing on the United States but also including comparative material on Europe and Asia, Before the Computer will be a unique source of knowledge about the companies that built office equipment and their enormous impact on economic life.

    Originally published in 1993.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-7276-3
    Subjects: Economics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Figures
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. List of Tables
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  6. Preface
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  7. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xxi-xxii)

    • 1 From Opportunities to Typewriters
      (pp. 3-24)

      Before computers were available, mechanical aids for computing and managing data existed. These products represented a broad range of mechanisms that supported data input (typewriters and tabulating machines), calculation (adding machines and calculators), communications (telegraph and telephone), and dozens of other devices to increase the ability of office and manufacturing personnel to manage their firms more effectively, to increase control over their jobs, and to improve their ability to make better decisions. All of these tools were in use before 1900 and collectively constituted a recognizable part of the American business scene by the 1920s—five decades before the first...

    • 2 Adding and Calculating Machines
      (pp. 25-43)

      The introduction of these new types of machines as commercially viable products, either almost simultaneously with the typewriter or rapidly within a few years, added a whole new dimension to mechanical handling of information. Their arrival gave considerable definition to the emerging office equipment industry. They made possible more sophisticated data handling than that afforded by a typewriter. Yet these machines were close enough to the typewriter in the kind of manufacturing, marketing, and distribution required, and, in some instances, in price to make them logical cohabitants of the new market or at least attractive “add-ons” for companies already in...

    • 3 Hollerith and the Development of Punched Card Tabulation
      (pp. 44-63)

      A third leg in the data-processing industry, and the one that most clearly originated in its modern form within the United States, was the punched card tabulating business. It is also the early source of data processing most cited by those who write about the infant days of the computer business.¹ Although it developed in response to specific needs to gather and manipulate large volumes of numerical and, later, alphabetic data, its development occurred concurrently and as part of a more complicated response to industrialized society’s requirements for aids to calculation.

      Thus in concert with the typewriter and the adding...

    • 4 Cash Registers and the National Cash Register Company
      (pp. 64-78)

      Cash registers represented a unique element of the office appliance industry. Just because of the sheer volume of machines built, it was a major line of equipment. It was, perhaps, the most visible of all such hardware because one did not have to work in an office or for an insurance or railroad company to see one in use; increasingly, a person simply had to walk into a store. No symbol of engineering marvels at work at so humble a level appeared more obvious than the cash register supplanting the cash drawer. Its penetration across the economies of the United...

    • 5 Rudiments of an Industry Identified
      (pp. 79-88)

      Defining the elements of an industry is at best fraught with controversy because no two students of an economic sector may agree. Differences are especially evident when an industry is in embryonic stages, in which it obviously lacks clear definition, or if it has not been defined before. The office appliance world reflects both conditions. Between the 1870s and the early 1920s, it was a conglomerate of office equipment vendors who initially operated in different market segments—cash registers, typewriters, adding machines, and so forth—with little identification with each other. That some shared related technologies did not mean that...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)

    • 6 Economic Conditions and the Role of Standardization
      (pp. 91-104)

      Use of mechanized data processing expanded enormously between the two world wars, particularly in the United States, along the lines established before 1917. The role of punched card equipment eventually became more significant than that of other data-handling technologies. By the end of the 1920s, that portion of the office appliance market most concerned with information-handling hardware was dominated by that technology. In short, an important aspect of the story of complex information processing in the 1920s and 1930s revolved around cards and closely related equipment known as accounting machines and “systems.” Acceptance of and reliance upon mechanical aids came...

    • 7 Products, Practices, and Prices
      (pp. 105-127)

      The kinds of products made, the way they were sold, and the terms and prices shed considerable light on how and why users received them. The cycle of events that culminated in the use of technology always began with interaction between customers and vendors. A look at the business from that perspective suggests the daily rhythm of activities that turned the potentials of specific technologies into tangible realities. Legal problems frequently complicated matters for vendors; therefore, the role of litigation must be understood, particularly that which involved the U.S. government. Ultimately, the accumulation of millions of individual manufacturing, marketing, and...

    • 8 Commercial and Scientific Applications of Punched Card Machines
      (pp. 128-136)

      Despite a massive body of contemporary literature on the subject, no aspect of the history of twentieth-century computing is less understood than the uses to which computers, tabulating equipment, and calculators were put. This corpus of published material (mostly articles) was usually written by users of such technologies, explaining what they did with the equipment and why. However, most were published in industry-specific journals or in other publications that were not widely distributed. After only a quick glance at the material, one begins to sense that the office appliance industry was not just populated with vendors but also with users,...

    • 9 International Trade in Punched Card Machines
      (pp. 137-143)

      The role of international trade in the 1920s and 1930s was crucial to the successful expansion of information-processing vendors. Such trade gave manufacturers broader views o f product requirements and a larger set of customers upon which to base their fortunes.

      Because the American economy nurtured the tabulating equipment market, it is easy to forget that demand for punched card products existed internationally since the early 1900s. That world market may have been uneven in size, but once exposed to such products, customers in many countries bought them. Nowhere was this so obvious as in Europe, where preconditions for marketing...

    • 10 The Great Depression in the United States
      (pp. 144-148)

      It is almost obligatory for historians of the interwar period to treat the Great Depression as a topic worthy at minimum of its own chapter, but in reality it represented a link between prosperous times and war days. The depression in the United States, which began at the end of the 1920s, remained intense until the mid-1930s and lingered until World War II presented a whole series of complications for the national economy that rippled with varying effects across each of its segments. The depression posed serious questions for economic historians, which have yet to be answered fully. On a...

    • 11 IBM and Powers/Remington Rand
      (pp. 149-157)

      In the interwar period, the history of tabulating equipment sales was dominated by IBM and Powers/Remington Rand. Where they simply well-run companies? Or, were they firms that happened to be at the right place at the right time? The same charge would be levied again in the 1980s against those selling microcomputers and software. What influence did demand, economic conditions, and the availability of technology have on these companies? How did they come to dominate the distribution of what, in hindsight, was a crucial technology? These questions strike at the very nature of the information-handling business of the 1930s and...

    • 12 Other Accounting Machines and Their Uses
      (pp. 158-170)

      The neat classification implied by IBM leasing tabulating machines, NCR offering cash registers, and other parties distributing typewriters breaks down when one looks at the market for adding machines, calculators, and other accounting equipment. Companies sold such machines with an enormous diversity of products to a wide variety of customers, both single users and in quantity to large firms. Companies in the office appliance industry were multidimensional in that some were fully integrated and vertical, building, selling, and maintaining a combination of products that ranged across many segments of the industry. Remington Rand was an example but so too was...

    • 13 Vendors, Practices, and Results
      (pp. 171-186)

      Daily activities of that portion of the office appliance industry most concerned with adding and calculating machines illustrates how vendors varied their responses to market conditions from those selling and servicing activities associated with tabulating and punched card machines. To examine how effective vendors of adding and calculating machines were and in what ways they responded to their customers adds insight into this industry. Effectiveness can be determined by measuring sales volumes and studying marketing practices. The market for cash registers was related also to this segment of the industry, and, thus, a look at NCR will round out the...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)

    • 14 Economics, Government Controls, and Applications
      (pp. 189-205)

      Nothing disturbs the routine of a nation’s economic life more or more quickly than a major war, and World War II was no exception. It disrupted lines of communication, altered patterns of distribution, and, at the source of goods and services, caused mining and manufacturing companies to focus on the military needs of a wartime economy. Economies of the entire world were bent to the needs of war. In the United States, the process of focusing the energy and capability of the economy to support war was directed by government agencies. They dictated the course of manufacturing and distribution in...

    • 15 The Role of Major Vendors, 1939–1946
      (pp. 206-221)

      The events of World War II presented a unique set of challenges and opportunities to all businesses in North America. Vendors in the proto-information-processing industry were not exempt from these new circumstances. The intensity of the economic focus on war-related activities far exceeded the experience of World War I. How they responded contributes to the economic history of the war. It also suggests further evidence of the growing dependence of the North American economy on information-handling technologies. Ultimately, delivery of equipment deemed useful for the war effort by major vendors was as important as the use to which they were...

    • 16 Industry Structure, Vendors, and Practices, 1945–1956
      (pp. 222-246)

      Rumblings of a new base of information processing technology, later to be seen in the form of computers, were only part of the forces of change evident in the old industry in the period 1945–1956. Other elements included the enormous economic strength of the United States following the war. That power directly influenced the industry by increasing demand for its products. It came in an era when automation appeared in ever-increasing and different forms in many sectors of the economy. White collar populations spelled growing demand for faster, more reliable products again. As in previous decades, a combination of...

    • 17 Business Volumes
      (pp. 247-263)

      World wide trade, sales, expenses, assets, and profits and losses are the terms used by managers of key suppliers to define characteristics of the office appliance industry. The data suggests how well the industry moved from a wartime to a peacetime economy, from one completely based on pre-World War II technologies to one moving toward reliance on computers. I begin the discussion of business volumes by presenting foreign trade data because volumes from outside the United States were rolled up into American attainments.

      American office equipment manufacturers responded to the end of war by restoring quickly prewar manufacturing and distribution...

  11. 18 Conclusion: The Roles of Marketing, Distribution, and Technology
    (pp. 264-288)

    The approach in this book has been to identify activities that defined the industry and to call out those that survived to characterize mechanical information processing through the decades. I chose the marketplace perspective. Regardless of decade or technology, product or participants, somebody developed and manufactured a product, sold it, often against competition, and then serviced it. Customers needed to control increasing amounts of information, bought and installed machines to get the job done, and used them until something better came along.

    Customers carried out these tasks for many decades before the arrival of the computer. Activities of both vendors...

  12. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 289-330)
  14. Index
    (pp. 331-344)