GE's Appliance Park: Cradle of business computing in the U.S.

The news that General Electric Co. (GE) plans to divest its century-old appliance business brought back memories of a 2001 story I wrote about GE's Appliance Park in Lexington, Ky. That's where the first electronic computer for business data processing in the U.S. was installed, in January 1954.

The computer, of course, was the 29,000-lb. Univac 1, with its 5,200 vacuum tubes. From my 2001 story:

GE got the eighth one off the assembly line of Remington Rand Inc., a predecessor of today's Unisys Corp.

For GE, the installation was directed by Roddy F. Osborn, a visionary who had the guts to buy a $1.2 million machine that had no programming tools and no track record in business. Today, we'd call Osborn the first corporate computer manager and champion of the original bleeding-edge IT project.

Programming the thing turned out to be a nightmare. For one thing, it had never been done before. There were no coding tools or manuals. Programs had to be written directly in machine language -- ones and zeroes -- plus a letter code for operations (A for add, S for subtract), plus an address identifying where the operation should be performed. This required three instructions just to multiply numbers. It made for slow programs that were painful to modify, the story noted (in an understatement).

The Univac was supposed to handle factory automation (e.g., materiel management and inventory control) as well as payroll for 10,000 employees at GE's Appliance Park. GE got the factory programs in usable condition by late 1955, but it took until late 1956 to get the ultra-complex payroll application in shape to handle the workload in a reasonable amount of time.

One result: Roddy Osborn was dismissed because of the problems (according to his contemporaries).

Eventually, the Univac saved GE millions of dollars by tracking and scheduling materials for the assembly line, reducing excess inventory and sharply reducing the need for payroll clerks.

But the first corporate IT manager in the U.S. took the fall for the project delays. 'Natch.


Note: My 2001 story isn't readily found on our Web site now, but it's available at Computerworld Australia: "GE's Appliance Park Still an IT Innovator." You may also like the sidebar about the first computer consultant: Joe Glickauf at Arthur Andersen.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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