Recalling IT's Birth

Congratulations on your article on Roddy Osborn, Joe Glickauf and computing at General Electric’s Appliance Park ["GE’s Appliance Park Still an IT Innovator," Cover Story, Jan. 29].

In the nearly 50 years since Roddy conceived the idea of putting a computer to work in the office, this is the first time I have seen any public recognition for him. It’s long overdue. I consider him the founder of modern office procedures.

When he hired me in April 1953 for the Automation Project, he said, “We have these big new factories under construction, being outfitted with the latest and best machine tools and equipment. We should try to do the same for the offices that support them.” No one else in the company publicly supported him, and many in GE privately derided the idea. Nevertheless, he was authorized the time and money recommended by his consultants.

That first budget was as reality-challenged as the promises of a contemporary dot-com start-up — programming for the payroll system and the materials control system to be complete in weeks. Once in production, checks would be handed to a paymaster 20 minutes after a new production schedule was approved. The four GE employees programming payroll were to be assisted by one or two Arthur Andersen consultants and one or two computer company programmers. The same pattern was set up for materials control. That was the start of Roddy’s troubles, but not the reason for his departure.

Our real-life payroll team started programming in the fall of 1953 and soon was augmented by additional freshly trained GE employees, Arthur Andersen consultants and Univac programmers until more than 30 persons were working on payroll. We went production on the Home Laundry Department payroll the first week in October 1954 and continued without missing a weekly payroll. Eventually, we produced 10,800 paychecks each week as departments were added when their factories went into production.

Joe Glickauf’s comments on runtime are a painful reminder of dependence on the first product of brand-new programmers. Good runtime for the 35 to 40 small programs needed for each week’s processing was about 44 hours. Counting debugging and reruns, the elapsed time was 60 to 80 hours. The rework mentioned by Joe reduced elapsed time substantially. A second rework reduced good time to 40 hours and further reduced elapsed time. Every week was an adventure.

Materials control went into production several months after payroll, followed by a monthly accounting system and a weekly report of sales from the wholesale level.

The payoff began immediately. Computerized payroll set a new high level in accuracy, reducing the number of adjustments. Payroll clerks had less to do and soon were assigned elsewhere.

A byproduct of payroll was a better record of production on the factory floor from the piecework tickets.

The payoff from materials control came in such things as a $1 million reduction in raw material inventory in the Home Laundry Department the first year and cancellation of an expansion to the materials storage area.

The payoff for the automation team came in a gag order from management: no more speeches at computer conferences. This stuff gave a competitive advantage that was not to be revealed.

Unfortunately, Roddy was gone by this time, undone in a pure bureaucratic play. The Cordiner top-to-bottom postwar reorganization eliminated staff at the division level. Many senior managers, Roddy included, had to accept transfer to a lower reporting level. Roddy had enjoyed an independence that wasn’t available under the new arrangement, and friction developed. The finale came when Roddy ordered paving for a small parking area near the computer room door for the convenience of our irregular schedules.

I still believe we were the first to produce a computer payroll. I was aware of the LEO project but heard nothing about a LEO payroll at that time. [Note: The Lyons Electronic Office, or LEO, was the first computer to run a payroll and the first to manage inventories. It did so three years earlier than GE Appliance Park for the West London catering firm of J. Lyons and Co.]

So the effort and schedule were grossly underestimated, but we got the product right the first time. At a time when major competitors were closing or merging, GE’s major appliance business stayed cost competitive and became stronger. Due largely to a new factory and a new technique for managing it.

With these thoughts running through my mind, I turned the page to find your article headlined “Wait for the Long-Delayed Itanium Continues.” Did we start a tradition?

John K. Swearingen

Napa, Calif.

(Former operations manager, Major Appliance Computer Center)

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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