Return to A Short Biography

Official GE Computer Department Alumni web site :-))
2005 Mini GE-Reunion near Silicon Valley ;-))
A GE-225 computer is found.
A GE-210 promotional movie

General Electric Computer Department
from the bottom up
1961 through 1965

by Ed Thelen
Updates

General Electric Computer Department. - I was there January 1961 to January 1966
What promise!! - what happened??

Contents:

Introduction
Warning - This monologue/tirade of G.E. sounds like a crotchety old man discussing archaic computing equipment. Well, I sounded the same when "IBM cards" were in and I was a new daddy instead of a grandpop.

In the glory days of computing - before the current standardization on the Intel 80486 architecture and Microsoft Windows - life was interesting. Any company that wanted a stock price surge announced it was getting into the computer business, hired a computer architect and some engineers that wanted to do something different, produced a computer that functioned, provided some EOM peripherals, sold a few systems, realized life was tough, and sold its computer operation for "pennies on the dollar". (And often the stock price jumped then also ;-))

Also - anyone who could spell the first four letters of "Computer" could get a good paying interesting job ;-))

Now you have to be able to talk "tail recursion", "stack frame", "memory leak" and other odd topics :-((

- and if you can't program in the language of the month, C++, JAVA, PYTHON, Lua ... , forget it.

U.S. Computing Environment (ecology ;-) in 1960, in brief
1951,
March 31
The first UNIVAC was delivered to the United States Census Bureau * * Soon "UNIVAC" and "Computer" were used interchangeably.
This jarred the data processing giant IBM, which regarded the Census Bureau as its private domain - Then Prudential Life ordered a UNIVAC and IBM began to scramble.
1953,
April 7
IBM formally unveiled to the public the 701 Electronic Data Processing Machines. * *
... ...
1960 Now, there were *
- Snow White (IBM) - (with a broad line of successful computing products)
and
- the Seven Dwarfs (SperryRandUNIVAC having stumbled badly)
General Electric, RCA, Burroughs, SperryRandUnivac, Honeywell, and so on
GE had the deepest pockets ( very handy ;-))
- but unknown to most, the lowest corporate commitment - it was a boot-leg project


From a high level perspective, "Top-Down", I suggest:
And I wish to contribute
G.E. Marginalized by the IBM 360

However, I did not get to view the world from the top down,
- I am a bottom-upper, and have a perspective as to
  • why the G.E. field maintenance costs were so high.
    - It is easy to argue that there was 1.5 field engineers per G.E. 225 computer site
    - - and 0.3 IBM Customer Engineers (CEs) per equivalent IBM 1401
  • and why GE Computer Department had almost *NO* repeat customers!
    - (G.E.'s only repeat customer seems to have been the U.S. Army at Huntsville,
    - - happy enough with their paper tape GE-225 system to order more.
    - - Their 225 was used as a high speed data logger for Saturn rocket development,
    - - not a business machine application.)
    - A second customer did reorder, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce
    - A third customer did reorder, Virginia National Bank

Rudderless Post Adolescent - me -

I had already:
  • wandered for a career choice at the University of Minnesota for 4 years,
  •     - chemistry, physics, psychology, pre-pre-med ;-)) ...
  •     - partially supporting myself as dormitory janitor, cracker truck loader
  • spent 3 years as a Nike radar/computer techie in the U.S. Army
  • spent 6 months at Minneapolis Honeywell as a gyro technician
  • an engineer there said he was from Milwaukee School of Engineering MSOE
  •     - He liked the combination of theoretical and practical, ( I like practical ;-))
  • spent 2.5 years at MSOE (I had taken some engineering at U. of M.)
  • midway through MSOE:
  •     - At age 27, and in college and feeling time-a-wasting, had suddenly flown to Minneapolis, proposed to my girl friend of 2 years - who started to cry. She said that she didn't love me - but I would be interesting. I figured two reasonable rural folks could work things out and we got married. :-))
    - - and we now had one kid. :-))
  •     - I was hooked on computers having blown away part of my senior year on the school's LGP-30.
  • Yes - you are listening to a guy who took about 7 years to get a Bachelor's Degree.

I'm a new engineer - off to G.E.

I graduated from Milwaukee School of Engineering at the end of the fall quarter 1960.

After the Army, I had worked for 6 months at Honeywell's Aero Division, Minneapolis,, and had an engineering job offer from them. However, I wanted to work for the Honeywell Computer Division. That division was interested, but couldn't offer me a job because Aero Division had given me a job offer and corporate policy ... blaa blaa blaa

So I settled for my second choice, GE Computer Department, after talking with some folks at Johnson & Johnson of Racine Wisconsin who were maintaining the NCR-304 installed there. The NCR-304 was built under contract by GE Computer Department after GE had built the ERMA computers for Bank of America. The folks said that the water was fine, jump in :-))

Wife and I were almost dead broke at graduation. We had both worked to supplement the GI Bill. We had $100 from selling off much of our 2nd hand furniture at the end of college - but did not have enough money to rent a trailer and drive to Phoenix to the new job. I hated to ask my mother for the money - then a $200 graduation gift showed up from my Aunt Marion - and we (wife and 1st son Edward) rented a trailer and got from Milwaukee to Phoenix on that ;-)) (Gas was say $0.35/gallon and the tires were OK :-))


Phoenix & Computer School :-))

In Phoenix all I had to say was that I worked for G.E. and had instant credit everywhere. I even rented a house using the good name of G.E. - no deposit, no 1st month, no nothing.
(This was before credit cards and that wonderful form of instant money.) As you can imagine, there wasn't much surplus left after the 1st pay check arrived. I was making $7,000 per year as a new engineer and in hog heaven! More than my father (an elected county official) had ever made!

I had been hired to do field maintenance on the GE-210 [promotional movie], the successor to the ERMA (above) but now G.E. was advising that joining the new GE-225 effort was a good thing to do. So I did. Our class of about 35 budding field engineers was given 6 months of very good schooling. I was in tune with the principle instructor - everything he said was just the right thing - at the right time - just like "good music". I soaked it up - delightedly. Everything he said seemed to resonate in my head.
I had one other experience like that - Dr. Frier, a physics lecturer at the University of Minnesota. A wonderful experience. I had aced the good Doctor's physics classes and did well in GE-225 school.

There was no Assembly Language assembler working when we started GE-225 class - we had to hand assemble our example and test programs ourselves. I was appalled - but was advised that a proper assembler would be available - real soon now - and in a month or so it did arrive.

The six months went quickly, learning CPU, core memory, the inter-unit protocol and hardware, Anelex printer & GE Printer Controller, Ampex tape drives & GE Tape Controller, Elliott card reader - oh that sick puppy -, and were advised that the IBM 514 card punch leased from IBM was so reliable that there was no need for maintenance or a maintenance contract (true!).


OK - what is a GE-225?


GE-225System Picture
For computer affectionatos, the machine was all transistors, except for 2D21 thyratrons in the tape units. The CPU had a 20 bit word, 8 K word (24 K character) memory with 21 microsecond cycle time with 3 core based index registers. (This is effectively 20,000 times slower than your PC and with about 10,000 times less memory. And about 4,000 times more expensive to buy in adjusted dollars.) You could buy a 16 K word memory. More system details at GE-225 Operator's Manual and BRL publication, 4 page customer handout - 759 KByte .pdf, GE-225 System Manual - CPB-98A date 7/61 - 10.5 MByte .pdf

It, like most transistor computers was very reliable - maybe 1 transistor failed in two months. Typical GE-225 circuit cards It was a competitive mid-speed computer at the time. The killers were the poor to horrible peripherals.


GE-235System Picture
Here is a GE-235 System Manual.
A GE-235 was a code and peripheral compatible three times faster re-implementation of the 225 with faster, more compact logic.
A real GE 225 exists :-))

There is a GE-2xx family price/performance chart in BitSavers in GE_Computer_History_1950s.pdf

"Scans" of many 225 documents exist on Bit Savers ... GE-2xx

currently (Aug 2010) including
- CPB-247C_GE-200-SeriesOperationManual_Nov66.pdf
- CPB-252B_GE-225_PgmgRef_Jun66.pdf
- CPB-252_GE-225_PgmrRef_Oct63.pdf
- CPB-267_GE-235-SystemManual_1963.pdf
- CPB-325A_AuxArithUnit_Mar65.pdf
- CPB-1455_GE-200_Series_Time-Sharing_Operating_System_Ref_Sep67.pdf
- GE_Time-Sharing_Activities_Jun67.pdf

A comment on a G.E 2xx architectural "detail", by Grant Saviers
My experience with a GE 215 or 205 (I forget the model number) was interesting and indicative of GE's future in the computer industry.

A graduate course I was taking required a project on the EE dept. GE/EAI hybrid computer. A really ugly concoction of scaling and programming issues. I'll never forget the sign hanging on the GE console: "Please do not divide by negative integers as it hangs the computer so badly you will need to do a power on/off reset." It then listed the code in FORTRAN II to check for negative divisors and to get the right sign on the result. That code needed to be inserted before every divide operation.

Fortunately, neither GE nor hybrid computing went much further.

Grant

I propose that almost anyone can make a functional computer from commercially available parts. Heck, my "youngest" son made and demoed this. Well, OK - the really high end requires a genius like Seymour Cray. And OK, cost effectiveness and maintainability require some due diligence. But usually, bright normal people assemble existing tinker-toys and get the collection to work at an acceptable speed.

*HOWEVER* I also propose that creating effective, reliable, easy to use peripherals is not so easy nor so common.


We're Off to Fix Computers ... :-))

OK - time to go to work :-)) Myself and two good friends were sent to G.E. Meter Department at Somersworth, New Hampshire to install and maintain their coming GE-225. Before leaving Phoenix, a personnel person handed out the expense forms and detailed their use. When we sent these forms back to Phoenix, we were told the forms were out of date and to fill out the new forms. Shades of Dilbert. !! How can Scott Adams get it so right?

Very pregnant wife and I rented a charming little white painted house in a rural setting overlooking a lake / farm pond. AH - YES, I forgot to tell you that for some years I seemly arraigned the family life so that there would be a major move just before/after birth of a new baby. So Carl (our second child) was born as we were unloading the trucks and placing the equipment and connecting the cables and ... I wanted to be at the computer so that I would be aware, and not hopelessly left out of the computer scene. I drove the wife to the Dover, New Hampshire hospital then split for the computer installation. Heck, that was more interesting than standing around watch others chain smoke. For years there were family repercussions about my priorities !!

For a few months we three good friend computer mechanics were doing the work of one, (even better than the government - no office politics).


AH - Air Conditioning for the computer. !! The GE-225 was a forced air cooled computer, air flowing from bottom to top, to get the heat out. An installation had two choices

  1. Raised floor with cooled air pumped under the raised floor, up through holes in the floor, through the computer, and out into the room. (Highly recommended, used at about 95% of the sites. Among other things, the cables could go under the raised floor and be safe.)
  2. Fans in the bottom of the computer cabinets blowing air up through the computer, out into the room. (Reluctantly OK)
Our Somersworth installation had chosen the under the raised floor option. When we turned on the computer, it worked for a while, then quit - Charlie Winters (a very savvy guy) quickly determined the computer cabinets were very warm, and turned off power. We couldn't get the cabinets cooled properly !! Charlie soon discovered that the air conditioning had been improperly connected - no air flow was possible from the air condition system to under the floor!! When that was fixed, the computer worked much better.

Jim ... was not nearly so savvy :-(( One day he reported that the printer could barely advance paper. It turned out that he had gotten tired of the steel in the printer's electromagnetic friction clutch squealing, and had oiled it, causing the clutch to have almost zero torque :-(( - It is surprising how clean you have to get steel to get adequate friction. We had to clean the oil from that clutch several time. :-((


During that time, the summer of 1962, the district manager said I should go to the Anelex printer company in Boston to learn what I could of the manufacture and testing of the printer mechanisms GE was buying. Anelex, was a/the major maker of drum printers. GE designed the printer hammer drivers and control electronics for the printers GE supplied. http://www.ed-thelen.org/EarlyGE-Computers.html#Anelex

I showed up and was given an Anelex escort - whose role was to keep me from doing exactly what I was supposed to do - spy on Anelex - . I'm sure that my district manager, and who ever else in GE, hoped for a more complete report than I was able to submit :-(( Even at that time the Anelex employees thought Anelex was in a death spiral - If you really screwed up, Anelex "kicked you up stairs" - there were reputed to be 23 "Senior Vice Presidents" at Anelex by then.


After a few months of the easy life, three friends doing the work of one, the district manager said that I should go to Allentown, PA to talk with a customer about to get a new GE-225 and see how site preparations were coming.

So I took the family car to Air Products Inc. in Trexlertown, near Allentown (about 400 miles away) and met Carroll Claitor. Carroll wanted to know EVERYTHING, and I slowly realized that I was being interviewed. Apparently I passed.

Returning to New Hampshire, I ran out of money, and arrived home smelly (no money for motel), hungry (no money for food), and only fumes in the gas tank. I did keep one dime for an emergency phone call if required. - again- this was before credit cards -

It slowly dawned on me that I would be leaving our happy little group of field engineers and going it alone. I told the district manager that I wanted to stay in Dover, but the district manager said that was not an option. Charlie Winters was going to stay in Dover, I was going to Allentown, Pa., and Jim ? was going to Norfolk, VA. :-(( Another move - however, this time no late term pregnancy. - not enough time.


Life on a General Electric Computer Department G.E. 225 site

Air Products, Trexlertown, PA

Part of this is being written in response to a request by Arvinder Singh Bawa, an Air Products employee, for images of GE-225 and Carroll Claitor, the manager of scientific computer at Air Products. I offer this little history of my minor part of the history of computing at Air Products, and Carroll Claitor.

The G.E. 225 computer site at Air Products Inc. in Trexlertown, PA was "typical" or "average" - although the Auxiliary Arithmetic Unit was not common. Air Products ordered:
  • A G.E. 225 computer with 8 K 20 bit words of 21 microsecond memory
    - 3 connected refrigerator sized cabinets with operator's panel and print out typewriter.
  • An Elliott Brothers card reader, 400 per minute
  • An IBM 514 Card Punch, about 60 per minute
  • An Auxiliary Arithmetic Unit - for hardware floating point - in 2 connected refrigerator sized cabinets
    40 bit floating operations took 1 to 3 milliseconds.
  • Four Ampex tape drives - density 200 bits/inch - state of the art at the time.
  • A tape controller in a refrigerator size cabinet
  • An Anelex drum type printer - 900 lines/minute, 120 columns wide
  • A printer controller in a refrigerator size cabinet
  • A paper tape reader, not the one seen in the sales brochures
  • A service contract which included Service Manuals, Schematic diagrams, test programs in deck form, and a plentiful supplies of spare computer cards, transistors, nuts&bolts, hand tools, soldering equipment, Tektronix oscilloscope, ... for the G.E. Field Engineer (me ;-)
  • Backordered - a paper tape punch and controller.
A GE computer is found. w/ pictures

Air Products had prepared a in a nice room with white raised floor and acoustic hanging ceiling. There were no glass walls for VIPs ;-)) The printer, printer controller, and card punch were in a side room also on raised floor with no door - for reduced noise for the operators.

We unloaded the cabinets and boxes from a padded furniture van and took them up the freight elevator to the second floor - the engineering area. (The first floor was for business, and had an IBM 1401 system for business purposes.)

A small room off the main room , with door, also on raised floor for convenience, contained the Field Engineer's supplies from G.E. (above) and work bench, various cabinets, shelves, ... The customer was responsible for supplying a desk and chair.

I bolted the cabinets together, connected the interconnects and cables, and in a few days the computing system passed all its diagnostic tests and was running customer assemblies and production runs. (The customer had access to some East Coast G.E. computer site during the order and installation period to enable a rapid start of productive programs.)

Emulating the LGP-30 computers being replaced
Part of the contract was that the GE-225 run, in emulation mode, the programs currently being run on the two LGP-30 computers now doing the inhouse scientific computing. About two days after the system was delivered to Air Products, a GE Applications Engineer arrived.

Introducing Ruben Munz - business suit, cowboy boots, no hat, full of bounce, and ready to test his LGP-30 emulation in the real world. He would read in his emulation routine via the card reader, start reading the paper tape containing the LGP-30 program and data, and look for the result on the line printer. There was a persistent error on one tape.

A particular paper tape frame was reading one bit incorrectly. The LGP-30 used pins to sense holes (10 characters per second) and we used a photo reader (much faster, maybe 60 characters per second) but the yellow paper tape was apparently translucent enough to cause this problem. We decided to leave the paper tape gain adjustments as specified, and had Air Products repunch the paper tapes into black paper tape stock. The emulation system now worked flawlessly and quickly.

In 15 minutes, the GE-225 running emulation mode, with floating point subroutine calls trapped to go to the AAU, could do a full night's production of the two little LGP-30s. (I felt slightly bad about that because I had played too extensively with my college's LGP-30 in my senior year. It was a fun machine :-))

This customer, Carroll Claitor, readily accepted the fact that the machine was working as advertised - he was developing software and running production runs most of every day - and (after a visit by salesman Bill Peak) started paying rent or whatever.

With in a week, the two cute LGP-30s that our system replaced were gone to no one knew where.

Real world engineering computing
So - what did Air Products want a "scientific computer" for anyway? This computer was not just a prestige item to show customers, Air Products was a hard working, competitive (against the larger, well financed Linde Air Reduction) firm, wishing to grow and prosper. Air Products was in the business of producing compressed and liquefied gasses from air for medical and industrial purposes. (They also had an active helium program.)
   - Liquid nitrogen for cooling things,
   - liquid and compressed oxygen for burning things and iron,
   - argon, neon & krypton I presume,
   - and liquid helium, hydrogen and oxygen for the booming defense and space efforts.
Air Products was in an expanding industry, knew it, and was eager for lower costs, sharper pricing, and more market share ;-))

Several computational things could help their business:

  1. designing more efficient, less costly heat exchangers for liquefying air
  2. designing efficient, economical fractionating columns (bubble towers) for separating the various air components
  3. "CPM" (Critical Path Method) to aid planning and ordering/construction scheduling of new Air Products factories to contain/utilize the above production tools - the GE-225 apparently had a good package as many customers went the GE data centers to run their problems. The walls in engineering were papered with paper of events in time sequence, when to order or start what, what had to be complete before which could begin that installation, ... Some of the diagrams were at least 30 feet long, with red lines (critical paths), green lines, changes, ...
  4. A useful version of "Linear Programming" using the newly developed "Simplex Method" of optimizing production was available. Inputting production and equipment and cost constraints, the program developed an optimal cost or production solution.
The first two above were standard engineering challenges and there were FORTRAN packages and locally developed software to help optimize the designs.

Items 3 and 4 (above) sold many GE machines to engineering customers. Due to memory constraints, 4 tape drives were mandatory for solution of practical sized problems.

How to play at work ;-))
So, this was my site. For the first time I was alone - in the Army Nike Ajax missile battery there were several technicians able to do what I was trained to do. Now I was solely responsible. If I did well, (superior up-time percentage) good things - I was delighted :-))

Fortunately the equipment was moderately reliable. The customer used the machine from about 7:30 AM towards 6 at night. There was no time clock on the machine - he could use it 24/7 if he wished, but he was paying for one shift Field Engineering coverage. Soon I was on the machine all night, programming, my all time favorite hobby, and was on call but asleep during the day. The customer was agreeable with this schedule as I lived about 10 minutes away and could be rolling in my car 5 minutes after the beginning of a call. A side benefit to the customer was that the equipment was well exercised and I retained/increased my knowledge of it continually. He also got free weekend coverage as I was around to play then also. I remember asking the customer if I could have a particular weekend off call to visit New York :-|

If the peripheral equipment around the computer, such as the card reader and the tape units, had been reliable, life would have been even better. I could have played at work even more ;-)) But my techie life was good :-))

Remote diagnosis down to the slot
As part of my effort to provide superior up-time, I printed out a label for each card location, and scotch taped the label onto the card in that slot. This helped return the machine to a known state if someone got into swapping cards chasing a problem. So I was again made aware of the location of the adder in the 225. (Each card in the adder handled two bits and carries in that not dense discrete logic.) There were 10 cards to implement the 20 bit adder.

About a week later, the customer supervisor called me at home saying "bit 13 in your adder does not work". (Did I say the staff was SHARP?). Like a fireman hearing the gong I was awake trying to remember where the components of that adder were. So I told the supervisor where to find what kind of card in my spares, and where to replace the card. In a few minutes he reported and all was just fine again, the new card worked just fine. Like a good Plains Indian Warrior, I had counted coup - had bragging rights ;-)) I also was SHARP !!

Others noticed that my site (Air Products) had a higher uptime than most. (This was honest up-time, not some negotiated deal.) And folks were aware that the computational chief - Carroll Claitor - was no push over - Soon my supervisor (Bob Kessler) heard that my tape diagnostics were finding weakness that the regular tape tests did not find. If your tape system passed my tape servo test, customer runs were not likely to fail from a misadjusted tape servo damper. I handed out other exercise routines that helped test the incoming reels of tape from GE and locate bad spots before they interfered with customer runs. (GE was getting really poorly manufactured tape, "warranting" that it would work, and customers were having a lot of trouble with the stuff.) I got to travel our district (eastern Pennsylvania) to help install sites and help if there was trouble.

Tit for Tat - Hot Stuff - well, maybe -
One night I was playing at programming and the machine failed - it would not even run any standard diagnostic programs, but would pass all the little tests I would put in via the front panel switches. I was stumped !! About 2 AM I started to get seriously worried - I had no clue - no new ideas - this was not good - and the customer was coming in about 7:30 AM and expected a working machine !!

I had a friend servicing the GE Missile and Space Site in King of Prussia, PA, just north of Philadelphia - about 50 miles away - I had helped install his machine. I called his home, waking him up, and I think I offered him my first born child if he would come right away and bail me out. He came anyway. About 3:30 AM he shows up and looks at my machine - and about five minutes later announced that the bit 8 carry in the program counter was not getting into bit 9. A quick card change fixed the problem, and back to home and bed he went.
I was humiliated !!! How could I ever live this down??

Fate lends a hand -
Not three weeks later, I get a call from my supervisor asking if it was convenient for me to got down to King of Prussia to help with a disabled Mag Tape Controller. The site was down hard - the customer HAD to have the tape system working - of course.

So, hat in hand, ready to eat humble pie, I went 50 miles to help my King of Prussia friend - and would you believe? Just watching the tape controller lights I figured out the problem - in say 10 minutes - can you believe that??
Sometimes the fates are kind !!

In any case, any time I think I'm HOT STUFF, I try to remember the above story.

Hot Stuff, An Air Conditioning story
Background:
This generation of medium size and large size computers were (in general) cooled by air blown up through the circuit cards, ideally from below the raised floor - the computers ideally resting on a raised floor that had slightly pressurized cooling air. Other arrangements could be ordered, bottom mounted cooling fans and so forth.

And why air conditioning? Primarily for the punched cards used for input and sometimes output. If the humidity was too high (wet) the cards were limp and tended to warp. If the humidity was too low (dry) the cards tended to warp another way. If a box of cards was highly humid, you aged or rested the card boxes for several hours/days in the new environment.

This was especially important with the GE card reader made by Elliott Brothers of England. The cards leaving the read station flew edgewise through the air in the output hopper, hit the other end, and were expected to fall flatly down as the next card came flying by just above it. Any warpage or other problem and you had an output hopper jam with cards out of order, or you could get the cards out of order with out a jam :-|

So - air conditioning was for:
    1) the data/IBM/Hollerith cards, most important
    2) cooling the circuit cards, *my* (germanium) transistors, and other equipment
    3) cooling the operators so they didn't drip sweat onto the data cards.
    4) cooling the room for any visiting VIPs
    5) other, including employee/contractor/support comfort

Now the Air Products GE Computer Room Air Conditioner story
Air Products had a proper raised floor and good layout. The air conditioner and fan was on the roof, just above our second floor location, properly designed, installed and operating - for once "no sweat" ;-))

But after a few months, I started taking Saturday morning calls, my machine was broken. I would rush in - and find the room quite warm, and no air blowing through the cabinets to cool *my* transistors. !!
For superior up-time, *MY* (germanium) transistors *WILL* stay cool!!!

The first time no one could figure the access to the roof to turn on the air conditioner.
Nothing to do but tell everyone to go home.

The following Monday I/we got roof access figured out, and I put a sign on the switch to leave the GE Computer Room air conditioner on all the time.

The next Saturday I took an identical call. I rushed in an up to the roof. (A friendly janitor had let me duplicate his key. ;-) There was the air conditioning switch, sign removed, in the OFF position.

So the following Monday Carroll Claitor wrote a note to all suspect groups that the GE Computer Room air conditioner was to be left running except in the case of emergency. And I taped on a larger RED sign on the switch.

The following Saturday I took an identical call. I rushed in an up to the roof. That switch was OFF again, and my sign crumpled and discarded near by. - OK, - TWO can play this game!! I turned ON the switch, got my handy hack saw and sawed off the switch handle with the switch in the ON position.

As you might guess, the next Monday there was a certain amount of tenseness - One maintenance group had complained that I had no right to saw off "their" switch handle!!

The situation was resolved by moving the Air Conditioner switch to the entrance of the GE Computer Room, near the light switch.
    - Turn it ON when you come in to start the computer,
    - OFF if you turn off the machine to go home. :-))
- Building Maintenance was happy about the reduced electric cost,
- Engineering Computations or what ever was happy with more access to their computer,
- and so was I :-))

Hot Stuff, Temperature and Voltage Operating Margins, the techie view point
Business types talk of Operating Margins as some difference between production cost and selling price.

Techie types talk of Operating Margins as the difference between normal conditions and conditions of temperature, voltage, illumination, vibration, ... that cause a device to not perform properly.

To help assure superior up-time, I wanted my Operating Margins to be a wide as practical. If the nominal air temperature was say 70 degrees, I wanted the machine to be fully functional over the normal air temperatures given by the air conditioner as it cycles ON and OFF. So, every month or so I would (at night) slowly lower the thermostat set-point until something failed, fix that something, then lower again, ... until I reach about 50 degrees. Then I would play the temperature game again on the up side until satisfactory performance at about 90 degrees. (There were thermistors near our core memory stacks to sense/cause modification of drive currents to cope with temperature changes, and they worked well :-))

Then I would play with the voltage regulators on the power supplies through say +- 10 percent.

With plenty of Operating Margin, I was confident of helping provide Superior Up-Time ;-))

Hot Stuff, Card alignment and other Operating Margins
This section is written in complete and hopeless frustration with some people trying to keep card readers at a restoration working.

There are a number of marginal conditions that are easily checked (if you make the correct tools).

(IBM) Card hole alignment
One marginal condition is the ability to read cards with holes slightly mis-aligned to the left or right.
It is easy to make (horizontal) alignment card test decks. The input hopper of an IBM 514 reproducing punch is easily shifted (say 1/3 hole width) left or right so that reproduced decks have their holes shifted that amount. You can make your own test tools :-))

A properly aligned card reader should be able to read both the left and right shifted test decks, if not make it so - and you will have a more robust card reader :-))
It seemed unnecessary (and more difficult) to shift the test deck holes up and down.

Magnetic Tape Servo Test
As mentioned all to frequently in these pages, the Magnetic Tape Drives from Ampex were designed for (and apparently satisfactory at) low duty cycle instrument recording. In data processing service, they failed a lot and needed frequent repairs and upgrades.

One of the failure modes was the servo system controlling the motors torquing the reels could seem to oscillate causing problems with inter-record gaps and other defects. There was only one available adjustment - the hole size of an air dashpot - and no obvious way to check its adjustment. The system wouldn't work well if the hole was wide open nor if it was completely closed - but no way to verify if other openings were close to optimum :-((

I made a diagnostic that wrote and then read wildly varying tape record lengths, with random pauses up to half a second. This caused the servo arms to swing wildly, and if the dash pot damper was not "optimum" to strike the stops - causing stretched tape and/or improper width inter-record gaps on the tape which would cause read errors during the test. Trials of opening and closing the dashpot air hole could cause the test to "pass" and the Mag Tape Drive more robust.


I took my test decks with me when ever I was sent to install or trouble shoot some system in the Eastern Region. (Also a small tape known to be compatible with IBM tape drives.)

Who cares, its Christmas Break Headquarters types
The scientific computer staff at Air Products was really SHARP. One day I got a call that my Auxiliary Arithmetic Unit was malfunctioning. I raced in to find the supervisor (Ray ??) with a production run case that failed numerically. The supervisor had already entered in a test case into the machine with the front panel switches and the AAU clearly failed in the floating point multiply with these inputs. I ran the GE supplied diagnostic deck, with its test cases and there was no detected error. But clearly the customer's floating point numbers (with exponents near the limit of allowable range, one very large, one very small) did not multiply correctly. I added a test case card to the test deck with the customer parameters and the proper answer (in octal), and now this enhanced test also detected the problem.

I swapped and checked the logic cards for weakness. Boards seemed to be working as designed. I checked the wiring in the exponent area, seemed to be proper, no missing or mislocated wires that I could find. I felt stuck - and did not want to get into the design of the AAU - I called my supervisor then Phoenix. (I called Phoenix a lot - ) Phoenix engineering would look at it. Several days and several phone calls later Phoenix said they could duplicate the symptoms, and there was indeed a design problem.

The back ordered paper tape punch and logic had just arrived, and I wanted to get that up and running and on revenue quickly. And I really didn't want to reverse engineer that AAU - let the guys who designed it do that.

The paper tape punch logic turned out to:
    - -not well match the wiring in the chassis they sent me
    - - be a work in progress, not complete, outputs to nowhere, inputs from nowhere.
I spent my "Christmas Break" re-designing and reimplementing that controller. The unit and punch passed the diagnostics before the customer returned the first week of January :-))

Back to the faulty Auxiliary Arithmetic Unit - Then there was long wait - two week Christmas break for Phoenix. Of course I was getting pressure from Carroll Claitor - why shouldn't he call my AAU "DOWN" since it was capable of supplying bad answers - shades of the Pentium Problem floating point problem many years later - . My self and the salesman and the district manager waffled and weaved - we wanted to stay on revenue, the machine was working as designed, ... Our life was interesting - Carroll probably got some concession from the district manager.

FINALLY - A few days after Phoenix came back from Christmas break, I was able to locate the ECO (Engineering Change Order) - in Phoenix. It was on some jerk's desk. It had arrived on his desk before Christmas break, but he saw no need to expedite anything - so he left it there over Christmas break - and what is the big hurry anyway - and why are you being rude? Anyway I got the guy with a bad case of headquartersitis to tell me the wiring changes over the phone with a promise to mail it to me ASAP.

I put the wiring changes into the AAU and all was happiness - except my festering hatred of HeadQuarters types.

The above type of story was repeated over and over again - There was the tape unit relay problem - Oh - my head hurts -

The mis-used relay caused fits

All up and down the east coast, people were reporting occasional Mag Tape controller faults. Very long story - no clues - service people and customers were having trouble. Many tape runs were very long - say the sort of the records on a complete reel of tape - might take 6 hours. If in that time, you got an unrecoverable tape error or got a Mag Tape controller fault - you got to start all over again. You could spend all night starting all over again. - I figured that I lost 2 weeks of my life on this problem. Life was HELL. Eyeballing the scopes, where were these brief faults coming from that causes so much grief??
I found out later that a friend of mine, C.T. Winter, had taken spare logic cards, plugged them into unused slots in the Mag Tape controller, wired them up, and tried to trap the source of the problem. Whether this was involved with the solution I do not know - Wish I had thought of it.
Constant complaints to Phoenix - no help. Then we all got parcels in the mail - unannounced - new power relays to be inserted in the tape *drives* - the problem was that some contacts used to signal to the controller that the tape drive was powered up were power type contacts, designed to make/break high voltage and current. The replacement relays solved the problem by using wiping signal type contacts that were not so corrosion/vibration sensitive. Nobody told us that a solution to our nightmare had been found and that a fix was on the way - the complaining phone calls were handled by a different group than the fixing group - the left hand and the right hand.

Carroll Claitor stated on several occasions that he didn't understand how such a small organization (GE Computer had maybe 4,000 people) could be so bumbling and inept.

Possibly Scott Adams says it best here

Turf War vs IBM 1401 operation downstairs
The GE-225 was working well enough. Since Air Products could use it 24/7 with no increase in price, there was plenty of free spare capacity just waiting. The IBM 1401 down stairs was metered, use it more than 8 hours/day and you paid for an extra shift. Carroll Claitor pressured management to let his department do some of the work normally performed by the business group down stairs. OK - try the ?weekly? invoicing run.

The GE-225 had a reasonable COBOL compiler. Work began to run the IBM 1401 business tapes to generate the Invoicing printout.

Soon we were doing short trial runs on normal paper then on samples of three part paper (with carbon paper in between). Our Anelex printer did about as well on multipart paper as the IBM 1403 printer downstairs. The hammer impacts did smear the characters a bit, and cause slightly discolored rectangles of carbon - but that was state of the art - and satisfactory.

The only real trouble was the way the Anelex printer sensed "out of paper". We got around that by taping the four boxes of multipart forms end to end into one continuous form, four boxes long.

The acid test - a live run, went well enough, and Carroll Claitor had a foot in the door of the 1401 operation downstairs. Then I went to Disk File school and transferred to a new site in Ellwood City, PA - and missed more Air Products excitement.

My impression of Carroll Claitor - Manager of Air Products ?scientific computing?
A truly memorable, quite unique character. Looked very similar to Barry Goldwater, Arizona Senator and presidential candidate. I don't remember him ever joking, he was unhurried serious. There was a very unique flavor of "we spin nothing here" aspect to him. He was the complete opposite of your used car salesman or (which politician to pick on - ) say Bill Clinton. You look at Bill Clinton, and you know he will hustle you, and you also know that he knows that you know, and he is going to do it anyway.

There was a level of Buddha-like calmness in Carroll that was unusual, unique. Yes, the world is imperfect, yes there are problems, and yes we can analyze and deal with them - we shall overcome. I never heard Carroll tell a joke, tell anything approaching a falsehood - there was a calm, forward looking, no nonsense, inevitable pressure.

The computing staff reflected Carroll's image - no jokes, no intentional distortions of reality, solid Germanic work ethic, due diligence, calm confident pressure forward.

In the internal battles for turf in Air Products, Carroll had competitors who said interesting things. The thread was that some ?founder? of Air Products had rescued Carroll (an engineering graduate of ?Harvard?) from the literal gutter, brushed him off, and gave Carroll this present position. At the time I dismissed the rumor as silly/vicious - but how does one get a Buddha-like calm in our turbulent world? Has one gone through much worse? has known a bottom? survived? and is confident of better things?

The only other person I have known that seemed to have that same quality of deep calm force was Helmut Mach, the Control Data salesman in Germany that developed a major computer order from Volkswagen. The word about Helmut was that he had been captured by the Soviets in the battle of Stalingrad, survived the horrible German/Soviet conditions, and as a captive of the Soviets until 10 years after the war had varnished/polished furniture in factories for the upper Communist Party members. Of the 250 thousand Germans captured at Stalingrad, about 13,000 (one in twenty) survived to eventually return to Germany. Helmut had that same calm, forward looking, no nonsense, inevitable pressure.

Postscript:

  1. After I left Air Products for the Ellwood City site, I heard that Carroll Claitor got the GE Philadelphia district manager to replace me with three people.
  2. I understand that Carroll Claitor got an IBM 360 (? Mod 65 ??) in the mid 1960's rather than the GE 235 upgrade our district manager wanted to sell him. Maybe Carroll won his battle with Data Processing downstairs and took over more than the invoicing runs ;-))


A Year at Elwood City

a U.S.Steel town - made seamless drawn steel "tubes" - high quality pipes to you.
Iron pipes for houses are made by over-lapping sheet metal, and are weaker.
Elwood City, an hour's drive north of Pittsburgh, PA sounds drab - it was -

We rented a house from the worst kind of electrical "do-it-yourselfer". We lived in reasonable fear that it would burn down or collapse during the year we lived there. Much of the wiring seemed to be extension cords.

Then I and the new staff of programmers were given a tour of the tube works -
The Discovery Channel series "How Things Are Made" could get a great segment there - if the plant still exists. The 1 ft. x 2 ft. x 8 ft. slabs of steel have about 1/2 inch of their outsides removed with oxy/acetylene cutting torches in a wonderfully fiery exhibition of flying sparks. This is to remove surface cracks and imperfections from previous stresses. Then the slabs get heated to red hot and go through a machine that torments the metal by crossed rolls at 45 degrees to the slab. If done correctly, the now much longer round bar has a hole down the center of its length. The tube has rather uncertain dimensions and so is pulled through dies and mandrels into the customer specifications. Working the steel makes it hard, so there is re-heating and annealing between the different stages of drawing.

This processing forms much stronger more uniform pipe that the process for house water pipe (before copper took over ;-)) The final uses were boiler tubes, oil well drill tubes, and other high strength applications.

The reason U.S.Steel wanted our computer was to enable a U.S.Steel calling salesman, with prospective order, to determine a delivery schedule - which required determining the schedules of the draw benches with the dies and mandrels - Whew - got that ?? (see DataNet-15 below)
  • The programmers were to learn steel tube scheduling from the existing human schedulers, and automate their efforts - to put them out of work - Yeah - good luck - isn't that fun? -

  • I had just completed a 2 week Mass Random Access Storage (hard disk drive to you) class, in Chicago, with out seeing one of the new machines. One of the strange things about the 1000 pound 34 million character machine was that the bit rate to/from the read/write heads was faster than the electronics of the existing circuit set - so you would direct one bit to one shift register, the next bit to the next shift register, while the first shift register was shifting, then back to the first again - back and forth until the bit stream was complete :-|

  • I had to self-train on a DataNet 15, a new communication cabinet which could interface (send and receive) to with 15 teletypes (but one at a time). The teletypes were installed in U.S. Steel district sales offices and connected to the DataNet 15 via AT&T 103A modems.

So - the machinery arrived, with the usual problems of installing it into the second story of some pre-World War I building with a barely adequate elevator and power. Then we found the air condition folks had decided that if the computer room air needed warming, they would blow live steam into the air stream - that does indeed work if you are steel, not humans trying to handle cards that warp on sudden humidity changes. Life was interesting :-|

  • Anyway I got the equipment up and running just fine
  • And got the steel company to revise the heating system for more uniform humidity !!

My life was OK, I made some changes to reduce the audible noise from the tapes, and electrical noise from the fancy paper tape reader/punch unit.
OH Yes - that console style paper tape reader punch!

A nice feature of the GE-225 was that it could do Input/Output (I/O) operations in parallel.
You could issue a read tape command, print command, then compute for a while until an I/O completion interrupt operation complete arrived. This parallelism was a big speed advantage if you (or the compiler) knew how to take advantage of it. Part of the deal was double buffering. Say you were printing a lot. After filling Buffer A, you issued a command to print Buffer A, and went to work filling Buffer B. When you were done filling Buffer B, if the print command for Buffer A was complete, command print Buffer B and go fill buffer A, - this greatly speeded operations. Remember that we had a memory cycle time of 21 microseconds, maybe 1000 times slower than today's computers.
HOWEVER !! If we were doing paper tape operations, we could not do magnetic tape operations reliably :-(( what was the problem??? I found that there was LARGE amount of electrical noise during paper tape operations. If you plugged on your oscilloscope, you would see large ( 50 volt ) voltage spikes just looking at ground !!! What in the world ???
I traced the noise to noise suppression circuits in the paper tape console !!!
This circuit was in the GE Paper Tape Read/Punch Console. Depending on the phase of the hot wire when reading paper tape closed the switch, a large positive or negative spike could be sent to the chassis, raising or lowering its voltage relative to other things due to inductance. I sniped the lead to the capacitor, and the problem went away.
After a few months, everyone in Eastern Region received by air freight a heavy package which contained
    - maybe 100 feet of one inch wide copper braided flat cable
    - about the same length of heavy plastic sleeve, capable of holding the above cable
    - a number of lugs capable of clamping the the above cable and being bolted to the aluminum cabinets
    - drills, screws, bolts, ...
    - instructions to install a "Star Grounding System" with the GE-225 in the center.
We were not told why, but I figured it was to solve the electrical spike problem I had solved by sniping the capacitor wires above.

The programmers and operators had to learn to tenderly operate the Elliot Card Reader (it tended to shuffle cards). The programmers were late and getting later, the people who were supposed to teach them steel draw scheduling (and later be fired?) were none too happy either. The whole place and all the steel people seemed old, tired, out of date, gray, sad, ... The only excitement was when the hard driving, unpleasant, lead programmer's wife committed suicide.

I was made aware of an odd "fact" - people far from a situation often have too much to say about it.

The wife and I liked to play "party" bridge - not SERIOUS bridge. We fell in with a group which had started out as the "board of directors" of a local Sunday School. As club members, we were entitled to vote on the Sunday School policy - but we did not go to that church nor Sunday school -

Governments (ours included) seems to follow the same idea - people with no clue have the power -

An ex-Phoenix classmate, Bob House, had his hands full with the GE bank system at the Pittsburgh Nation Bank. He had more mag tape units, mag tape usage, and at least three big high speed document handlers. I seemed to be there, visiting/helping him and his crew almost weekly.

Fred Beazer e-mailed in Sept 2010

>     hot stuff in those days.
> Working in that environment was actually fun
> for a bunch of us young guys fresh out of high school.    

I responded -
OH I BET !!
    Every now and then I had to go from my 225 site
      in Elwood City down to Pittsburgh National Bank -
   That bank had a fat, red faced guy supervising
      a gang of bright-eyed, sharp, bushy tailed high school graduates -
   They each spent 4 hours/day operating the equipment,
           and 4/hours/day programming the equipment.

   They got real sharp on
         - checkpoint/restart
         - error recovery
         - informative operator messages
         - optimizing operations, ie doing something useful
                   during tape rewinds, etc.
         - helping reconciliation with useful reports, ...
     They got Pittsburgh National Bank into the
            transit banking business a full year before
            the professional IBM programmers at Mellon Bank.
         and were damn proud of it, and felt adequately rewarded ;-))

My goodness, I did get around !! While in Elwood City:

  • I helped install a GE system at Westinghouse in Wilmerding, just east of Pittsburgh,
  • I helped install a site at GE Appliances in Louisville - The GE system was replacing an IBM something which had a RAMAC (1000 pound) disk drive, which I watched working.

    GE Louisville made refrigerators - lots of them - In the warehouse, the fork lift operators were rated on their numbers of "hits" and "drops" (of refrigerators they were handling). The fewer the better - imagine dropping a pallet of refrigerators. There was a very large sign on the wall with the total "hits" and "drops", with numbers in the range of 10 to 100 -

  • Pittsburgh Public Schools - the truck driver had not collected a local helper (I figured the driver pocketed the money intended for the helper). The Superintendent of Schools helped us unload the truck :-((
There was one trip to up-state New York somewhere -
The customer was having trouble with a GE Disk - Several experts were there from Phoenix - the symptom reported was that there was a little "hole" in one sector of one disk where information went in but did not come out correctly sometimes :-|
    - but there was no parity error reported and the Disk Diagnostic Test reported no errors.
    - I was able to demonstrate my first day that the suspect sector was "good"
    - the wave forms coming off that sector were in fact the "random numbers" that I had written to it -

One of the experts from Phoenix from Phoenix was Sherbie Gangwere, who had written the diagnostic program for the disk. His diagnostic was in fact correctly checking that sector.

Later that day, Sherbie determined that if you ran a memory "zero setter" before the the customer program that was failing - there were no errors !!
    - some variable was not being initialized by the customer's program.
It wasn't the disk after all !! Sherbie appears later in this saga, and may have been helpful/responsible for my transfer to Phoenix.

Added to the usual site repair and maintenance load was the rumor that disks were indeed beginning to "crash" - the flying heads would quit flying and grind off the iron oxide recording material of the disks. Soon the head itself would be destroyed.
A group from Phoenix came by to disassemble "my" disk file, and apply auto wax to the disks before re-assembling it. That was supposed to "fix" the problem. We were soon advised that we must clean the flying heads of the disk file system weekly, as the wax would build up on the heads and cause crashes. (Seems the wax idea was not so good !!)

Folks now days, with hard disks that have disk that hardly ever crash don't appreciate the vast improvement that IBM "Winchester" technology later made !!

Tape test and diagnostic programs, which I had written while in Allentown, PA were being passed around Eastern Region to help keep the troublesome tape system running better. The official test programs from Phoenix were not stringent enough. The authors had not faced real field problems.

I was getting tired of working in the field for GE - It was great for challenges, but made an absolute mess of family life. I started bitching at my boss and sending resumes.
    I even received an invitation to visit General Mills (the flour mill people) in Minneapolis.
    - Believe it or not, they wanted to get into the computer business also -

Then I got a phone call from Phoenix - would I like to work there?? I asked about getting clearance from my boss in Pittsburgh. The caller said that would be no problem, my Pittsburgh boss really didn't have a say in the matter. I was so tired of Elwood city and GE Field Service that I probably accepted right there, before checking with the wife. Maybe part of the motivation was to find and fire up the headquarters slugs. I had built up two years of resentment and irritation!!

The moving company was contacted and a replacement Field Engineer showed up. The last day I was there, the disk system crashed, horribly. We came in and there was iron oxide streaked in horizontal stripes across the windows of the disk system housing.

Fortunately the customer was yet depending on our system for doing business. They were running their scheduling in parallel - using both humans and computer - comparing the results. - I didn't stay to help fix/replace the disk - other people were coming. I was out of there. !!!


And 2.5 Years in Phoenix

HQ of GE Computer Department
just starting this section - Sept 2010 -
OK - I went to Phoenix, Head Quarters of GE Computer, after fixing and programming GE-225s for about 2.5 years - into the "Test and Diagnostics Software" group under Bob Decker. As someone from the field, with considerable knowledge and a few hard knocks, I was made welcome.

I went about (on my own time) looking for the knuckle heads that gave such shabby support to those of us in the field. Well - I was like a bull in a bull ring - really out of my element and relatively powerless against the existing forces who had seen and worked with irritated bulls before. Soon I was minding my own business. :-((

Life was good, the work was challenging and fun - and I was good at it. My boss and I got along just fine - we and our wives "double dated" quite a bit :-))

As Jackie Gleason was saying on TV "How Sweet It Is !!"

- Badges ;-))
- 625 Growing Pains
- from small acorns mighty oaks grow

Badges ;-))
It seems a fact of life that any Headquarters of say 15 or more people just has to be "up tight"

A little tale -
I was at GE Computer HQ in Phoenix, which was trying to compete with the IBM 1401 then the 360 - It was discovered that strangers and contractors were wandering about the building rather freely
- so we all got picture badges,
- and guards were placed at the doors to enforce -

Of course someone had to play,
and pasted a picture of Nikita Khrushchev http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikita_Khrushchev over the picture on his badge - The story is that he passed the guards unnoticed for several dayze until the giggling got too loud -

Then - of course an administration is forced, as human beings, to add further silliness :-((

I'm adding to this Phoenix section slowly as the pain wears off. Here is a little story.
625 Growing Pains
A tale among many of the development of the GE-6xx series (GE-625 at the time)

(Background: Only one prototype - to be shared by both Hardware and Software development.
- greatly slowing both - see only one prototype.)

Among other things, the 2 us memory on the development GE-625 was "unstable" - for months - would work well on the bench, not the machine.

After many unsuccessful "improvements" some very senior guy was called in to look at the problem.

He found the problem, and fixed it, in 2 hours.

The memory system was depending on the capacitors in the power supply to smooth out the voltage of the rapidly switching 30 ampere memory currents -
In the machine, the memory and power supply was separated by 6 feet, not say 2 feet on the test bench. This very senior guy connected a big capacitor across the power connections in the core memory by-passing the extra feet of (inductive) power wiring.
- A MIRACLE -- NO MORE MEMORY PROBLEMS

Not so sure the "Goode Olde Dayze" were so good after all. Sure were exciting :-| I think we sure earned our money !!!!!

I later found it could have been worse :-(( A story of the Philco S2000 was that the prototype was shipped as soon as it worked leaving no development system for Software. Philco was paying $1,000/day late delivery penalties to the customer, ( 1960 type dollars, a sr. engineer got $200/week ) and didn't have enough money for a cross development machine.

From small acorns mighty oaks grow :-|
Arizona is a land of open spaces, and ancient Indian history and artifacts.

Don Dove, not in our group, came around stating that we should take advantage of the environment and study the Indian archaeology of the area. Don Fry and I from Test and Diagnostics helped form a little archaeology club. If I recall correctly there were maybe 15 of us, mostly GE Computer Department employees. Of course clubs need organization. Being interested in money flow, I volunteered as treasurer ;-))

We started to study local Indians and their ancestors. Soon we heard that folks were going into the desert and digging up old Indian sites to find clay pots to sell - and really causing loss of history by rooting about like pigs.

We decided to get active to try to help save history by digging in a scientific way so the scholars could read our results and view the artifacts collected on an organized way. Someone found a land owner willing to let our club dig at a likely site on his land. We made some screens to help sift out artifacts from the surrounding earth. Someone had surveying equipment and expertise and we ?plotted? the area. Someone else had a private plane and volunteered to help make an areal survey of the ?plotted? area. I was the photographer, taking pictures out the window at the pilot banked sharply this way and that so I could "shoot" roughly downward. This adventure failed as the control markers of the plotting were too small to show up on the photographs. :-((


from Don Fry
Now that we were sufficiently scientific (I hope), we started to dig. Week end adventures for (most of) the family.

All went well for a month - until I found my first bone - a little fragment. Is that all there is ??
Maybe I was expecting a perfect skull ?? In any case, I quit digging, and I didn't run for re-election as treasurer.


from Don Fry
Don Fry, showing he can still knows how to shovel.

Over the years, Don Fry has mentioned that our little club was still alive and well, and under Don Dove's leadership had grown into the Arizona Archaeological Society. 50 years later, Don Fry is speaking at the 50 Years of Excellence anniversary :-))

So - how to tell a personal adventure without booooring you to tears or turn-off
- well - lets make a list for my focus and your possible selection

  • I got along well with my boss, Bob Decker,
  • His group ( and me) do diagnostics for the GE 225 series, DataNet 30, and GE-600 series.
    - I was not involved with the GE-400 series -
    - on the GE-645 I am responsible for diagnostics for the General I/O Controller - GIOC - and hear years later that I am a "Multician" - Multics overview from http://atacs.epfl.ch/fall07/slides/MulticsVM.pdf
  • I ooze into "TimeSharing" -
    • Bob's boss, "Jerry" Weiner, had been involved with supplying equipment for Dartmouth TimeSharing
          - a DataNet-30 for handling serial communications with 60 teletypes
          - - watching command streams for "SAVE", "RUN", etc
          - - placing and maintaining data on the shared "big" disk file
          - a GE-225 for compiling and execution `
          - - (not interpretive operation) GE-225 had 20 us memory cycle time
          - - watched shared disk common area on disk for commands,
          - - - not as bad as it sounds, shared area on one actuator, rotational latency only -
          - - returned program output to common area for DN-30 to output
    • After studying the above code, (mostly written by Dartmouth undergraduates)
         - I was to adopt the TimeSharing idea for GE Manufacturing
         - to support testing of peripherals
         - using little test programs written by the line test people
         - in a language called "OOPS" - Offline Operations Simulator
  • I had become dis-enchanted with GE's chances for success in computers
    • - GE Computer losing 100 million dollars per year
    • - GE Corporate refusing to either "do it right" or quit
    • - I didn't want to be in Phoenix when GE "shut the doors"
    • - - (GE didn't - sold it to Honeywell, which did shut the doors later)
  • So I quit at the same time as 8 friends
    - the others went to San Jose, California to start a software company
    - - they had a contract to write a time sharing system for IBM Western Region
    - - they offered me the job of writing the time sharing FORTRAN
    - but I went to IBM IBM Advanced System Development (Mohansic Labs), Yorktown Heights, NY
    - - likely a good thing ;-)) I had never written a compiler, and barely knew FORTRAN

G.E. 225 peripherals - listed in order of crappyness

- one = worst :-((

G.E. Computer Department was trying to sneak into the general purpose computer business - and it showed!
1.
The Elliott Card Reader/Shuffler
2. The tape drives were from Ampex.
3. Decca tape drives were imported from England.
4. Early Disk drives
5. Printers from Anelex
6. High Speed Card Reader


The Document Handler for handling checks was OK. Actually wonderful compared with the other peripherals.


  1. The Elliott Card Reader/Shuffler - the shuffling was unintended !! 400 cards per minute

    The Elliot Card Reader/Shuffler
    click to enlarge

    Another picture and discussion.

    (image from http://www.retrobeep.com/computers/elliott/elliottPeripherals.htm )

    For the first two years, the only card reader option for G.E. 225 was the world's second worst card reader - from Elliott Brothers in England (Was there was a worse card reader? open to suggestions). After reading, the cards were ejected into the top of the output hopper (on the left) where they fell to the bottom for manual removal. If the cards were slightly warped you could get a shuffle, and/or a card jam, in the output hopper, and the cards would be out of order for the next operation or pass. There were other serious problems also - like filling the input hopper and emptying the output hopper and mechanical problems, but the above took the cake.

    G.E. added a thin piece of springy sheet metal about 3/4 inch x 6 inches to the output slot area, extending over into the output hopper on the left of the card reader, to try to deflect the cards down in good order. There was a little screw adjustment to position the springy metal to try increase its effectiveness. If you heard cards hitting each other or there was a card shuffle, you were advised to tweak the adjustment again.

    Different decks required different adjustments -
    And occasionally, the back end of the leading card would be hit by the front end of the following card, flipping the leading card over or causing an output hopper jam with cards in all orientations pressing up on the output hopper finger.

    This machine was a REALLY high maintenance item
    To help keep mine going, I disassembled it every other weekend and repacked the bearings of the rollers that moved the cards with thick axle grease - which seemed to give sufficient damping of the card moving system for more reliable operation - like not getting mixed up on which column it was reading. - There were two methods of determining which column of the card was being read by the photo cells.

    The first method was used for the columns near the leading (left) edge of the card, while the card was being pushed by a little pusher arm and before it reached the output rollers. There were slots in the arm that indicated the position of the pusher arm, and hopefully the position of the card - but if there was not enough grease to damp things, the play in the pusher arm would whack the card and the card would bounce off the leading edge and an earlier column (or part of a column) was being read than indicated by the pusher arm slots.

    The second method was a chopper wheel on the shaft of an output roller. Card column determination was transferred to a counter of the chopper wheel. Dust could collect in the slotted aluminum disk chopper wheel and confuse the column counter - regular cleaning helped reduce this problem

    There was a check for end of card - if the end of card (all photocells lit) was too early or too late a card read alarm triggered. This check worked fairly well. You of course needed to make programs that could stop, let the operator take the card out of the output hopper, place it at the start of the remaining deck, and signal the program to re-read the last card.

    This machine was easy to despise!!

    OH - good grief - I forgot - the only safe way to reload the input hopper or remove cards was to depress the HALT switch on the front panel, then when done with those chores, depress the START button. But some people recommended lowering the REPEAT INSTRUCTION switch to do card manipulations, then raise the switch to continue. This caused havoc to the results if there was an arithmetic instruction going at that time !!

    On the plus side, the Elliott card reader was evidently cheeep and not too bad if you only wanted to read one card. (Agreement)


    LaFarr Stuart claims the RCA card reader was worse - Who can tell? LaFarr had worked with IBM equipment and was hired into RCA as an expert. One day the RCA Computer Chief Engineer (with a background in communications) called LaFarr in and asked him what an acceptable error rate was for a card reader - how many errors per thousand cards. LaFarr said that no error was acceptable. The Chief Engineer thought LaFarr did not understand the question. LaFarr proposes the Chief Engineer did not understand the problem. You may contact LaFarr via http://www.zyvra.org/lafarr/.


  2. The tape drives were from Ampex. Rewritten and extended again - July 2007, October 2010

    Earliest drives, without pucker pockets

    detailed pictures of
    AMPEX TM-4 Tape Transports
    as used on the ICT 1301, Kent, England www.ict1301.co.uk
    Originally designed for light duty instrumentation recording service - they required a great deal of maintenance to keep serviceable in heavy duty business applications - such as sorts that can take hours of steady tape I/O - maybe 10 records/blocks per second - each record/block requiring a start and a stop - .

    One of the early symptoms that we were dealing with a light duty machine was the screw threads of the knobs that the operator twisted to mount a tape on the center spindle. After about 3 months of business use, with lots of tape mounting and unmounting, the threads wore and began stripping - making the tape drive unusable until a new nut in the center shaft, and new twist knob was installed. Soon a retrofit arrived, replacing the thread operation with a more robust levered handle. Lots of retrofits trying to convert a light duty easily aged drive to a more robust, low maintenance business data processing drive.

    Ampex didn't seem concerned that iron oxide is abrasive - the side tape guides were steel. After twenty to thirty hours of tape movement, the magnetic oxide on the magnetic tape cut grooves into the sides of the tape guides. The abraded groves shredded the sides of the tape.

    • Retrofit #1 was to permit the sides of the steel tape guides to rotate, hopefully evening the wear - didn't work as advertised.
    • Retrofit #2 replaced the sides of the tape guides with ceramic. That seemed to work for a while - but then long black threads of (I guess) melted/recooled mag tape began to plague folks - but I was leaving for a Headquarters software job - good luck folks!!

    Other quirks were, instead of tape vacuum columns (like IBM patented) these drives used vacuum "pucker pockets" to buffer the sudden starts and stops of the tape. The vacuum for the pucker pockets came from regular vacuum cleaner motors.

    • The vacuum cleaner motors were *NOISY*. There was no sound damping in the drive area - so being near four loaded tape units was like standing next to four vacuum cleaners - fatiguing!!

      Many people (including myself at both sites) bought extra vacuum cleaner hose and mounted the howling motors under the raised floor, which helped a lot. One fire marshal worried about motors under the raised floor, but I ignored his comment and he didn't press the point.

    • Each pucker pocket had slot to permit the vacuum action to work. These slots were very noisy as the air rushed in to fill the vacuum. Fortunately they were mounted in front of the drive main plate so the sound was largely muffled by the transparent plastic door.
    • The brushes on these motors lasted maybe 500 hours, then would start to arc destroying the commutator and causing the drive to fail - hard - like replace the vacuum motor. Of course you should add checking the length of the brushes to your monthly inspection - but there went another 15 minutes per tape drive.

    OH - YES :-| The tape drives were manufactured in temperate California, and shipped from temperate Arizona. The hardened glass of the pucker pockets was epoxied to steel hinges so the glass could be swung out for cleaning.

    • Unfortunately, the steel and the glass have quite different temperature coefficients of expansion - and if you received a system in a northern winter, the glass pucker pocket covers were usually cracked, and you had to send back to Phoenix for replacements.
    • If the weather stayed cold, the replacements also cracked in shipment.
    • So some regional CE or salesman would fly to Phoenix to hand carry a supply back to the cold region - say Wisconsin or Pennsylvania.

    Oh - how can I forget - tape drive head alignment -

    • As delivered from GE Phoenix, the heads were often misaligned so much that tape written on one drive could not be read on another drive. One of the things the installation crew would have to do is at least make all the drives on the site interoperable. Preferably, a customer tape from say an IBM system would be used as a reference if the GE system had to exchange tapes with other system. What slop!!

    Speaking of slop -

    • The tape supplied by GE in mid 1963 was so contaminated (little white surface particles, maybe 1/3 mm, maybe 1 per 5 feet) that the field people were well advised to write the tape from end to end (ignoring errors) several times before the customer used it. That way the stray particles left over from the manufacturing process would be (mostly) scraped off by the retrofit tape cleaners (that looked like the shaver foils from an electric razor). *really* I imagine the only people happy with GE supplied tape were the GE bean counters -

    I should have mentioned the tape packer arm - to try to solve the "cinch" problem. The different wraps of tape on a reel would sometimes slide over each other, creating sharp wrinkles at 90 degrees to the side of the tape. This crinkle or "cinch" would set in the plastic of the tape and create a little line of tape that couldn't be read later. Adding to the seriousness of the problem, about one in 2^7th cinched records would pass the hardware checking, but not contain all the data originally written.)

    Years later I found that the IBM 729 tape drive we were competing with had the same problem. :-| Apparently this was a generic magnetic tape problem caused by torquing the reels.

    I had forgotten why we were so busy -

    Yet Another Tale :-(( - Our Test & Diagnostics group received a specification (and budget) from GE hardware engineering for a magnetic tape upgrade to 556 bits per inch (bpi) (the next higher density). The specification also included all new op codes for use when using 556 bpi rather than 200 bpi. We were appalled - all the user and GE programs would have to be recoded to use this next higher density :-(( (We were sure other manufacturers were at least more internally compatibile.) Then we started hearing that the "floor techs" (who made the systems work before shipment) were doing a "boot-leg" project, on their own time, to make the mag tape hardware controller also operate at 556 bpi - with out really major hardware and software changes ;-)) Eventually hardware engineering adopted the "floor techs" ideas for the new 2-density controller. :-|
    See this GE manual, page 2, for the Model 690 with added switch to change between 200 bpi and 556 bpi (555.5 bpi).

    Also see Ian Upton

    Reginald W Oldershaw, who later worked at Ampex, mentioned the following Ampex oriented web pages
        - Ampex Virtual Museum and Mailing List
        - Preliminary Guide to the Ampex Corporation Records, ca. 1944-1999 Online Archive of California, Stanford


  3. Later (on the GE-625) Decca tape drives were imported from England. They used a "scramble bin" instead of the tape columns that IBM used, or pucker pockets that Ampex used.

    • But the tapes needed 25 foot leaders and trailers to properly fill the scramble bins -
          instead of the usual industry standard 8 foot leaders and trailers. (Interesting compatibility problems with other machines - even other GE machines. Customers had to patch on 20 feet of tape onto the leader and trailer of any standard tape they wanted to use on the G.E. Decca tape drives. How could G.E. engineering "management" be so $%^&*( stupid ??)

    • If there was any fault, a *pulse* was emitted from any of a number of sources to a latch that lit the blue failure light and shut down operations. There was generally no way to determine where that fault pulse came from. C. T. Winter (RIP) tried to get peripheral engineering to make more user friendly electronics - Ha -

    • The systems containing DECCA drives had much more than the usual tendency to stretch and break mag tape - I don't know if it was the English electronics or the added GE electronics. The GE hardware people claimed that the fault was the COBOL SORT, and convinced GE Phoenix management to have the software folks examine the sort generated by COBOL for situations which could cause commands to the tape controller to break tape - I kid you not!!

    • (From the above point) Until GE Phoenix eventually hired an IBM guy (John Haanstra), management had little clue about the realities of data processing. Unfortunately John was killed in a private plane crash after a few months :-(( The GE mantra was that "a good manager can manage anything". Maybe if the product is as simple as a motor or a transformer or a light bulb - but in the complex conflicting arena of data processing, GE managers were only bean counters with no computer industry knowledge to keep them from silly blunders.

    Eventually a new general manager (?Haanstra?) correctly called the DECCA drives "boat anchors" and consigned them to the appropriate place. I have no clue about what drives replaced the Ampex and DECCA drives -


  4. Early Disk drives - "35 million decimal digits" - M640A - "Mass Random Access Data Storage Unit"
    - OK lots of folks had troubles, but I contend "we" likely had more trouble. As I was leaving the field for Headquarters, there was a team going from site to site with automobile polish to slick up the disk surfaces. Unfortunately, any extra polish tended to slowly build up on the flying heads, destroying their ability to fly. This cure was worse than the original problem.

    People running the current "Winchester" technology are totally spoiled!

    And of course, GE had to make a cost improvement that caused a lot of grief for a few months.

    Robert Ollerton has this 31 inch diameter disk which he was told was from a GE-225 system.


  5. Printers from Anelex
    Two major problems:
    1. The usual vertical dispersion problem rather than IBM's less obvious horizontal dispersion problem.
    2. And the usual user hostile GE controller - If you ran out of paper, the printer controller would reset, destroying the next data line already sent to it. To get that lost line printed you had to re-run the job.

    IBM went to the extra trouble of sensing out of paper *after* the last line on a form. The just completed form could be removed and the next form inserted just below the print hammers, and life was easy.

    GE and most others sensed out of paper about 6 inches below the print hammers and life was tough.

    Really tough when running say payroll, billing, etc. Where several boxes or more of expensive multipart forms were getting printed in one run - customers had to prepare the expected numbers of boxes of paper, tape the beginning and ends of the boxes together into a continuous stream, and start out. "Been there, done that"

    Also see Ian Upton


    And expensive, unused logic in the controller -
    G.E. wanted the 225 to compete with the IBM 1401, which had a Format instruction primarily used for "check protection" - an example being:
         "$******43.21"
    another option being
         "$$$$$$$43.21"
    for the dollar amount
    which used a programmer defined control field to format the above example.

    To compete with the IBM 1401, the GE 225 printer controller had a little control memory and considerable logic to do the equivalent formatting.

    Unfortunately, G.E. COBOL did the formatting in software, ignoring this very complex printer controller feature. The expensive hardware logic was rarely if ever used by G.E. customers. The formatting logic was not tested by "diagnostic tests" used in the field.


  6. And the later High Speed Card Reader
    - This reader actually worked quite well - but was hell on cards. The cards were separated by an air-blast to get individually vacuum picked, transported by speeding belt past photo cells for reading, then stopped in the output section by impacting (smashing) them into a block of steel.

    The result was that the cards got limp rather than retaining their stiffness - and after about three passes through the High Speed Card Reader you were well advised to reproduce the deck with say an IBM 514 card reproducing punch. A deck going through the GE High Speed Card Reader say ten times was guaranteed to give jams of one nature or other.

    Years later I used a Control Data 504 High Speed Card Reader using the same principle - but with a block of plastic to stop the cards instead of a block of steel - and the cards lasted "forever".

    In "fairness", the card handling technique was very similar to the quite successful Pitney-Bowles document handler (reads checks at banks) that GE used, then manufactured. BUT,
       - the documents went through the machine only once per bank/distribution point
       - were much thinner and not supposed to be stiff
       - and were much lighter and I presume slowed a lot from friction in the output hoppers.

As I was leaving, G.E. tried to make/market a head contact disk, plated with rhodium which was to provide lubrication for the contacting head, that was supposed to be a break-through - well, it just cost G.E. another black eye, lost time, lost money, lost customers, ...

Customers came to hate many GE peripherals, and hardly ever selected GE computers more that once. As much as some folks hated IBM's high handed marketing and prices, at least their equipment worked well and was maintained well.

Customers were caught between the Devil (GE) and the Deep Blue Sea (IBM).


The Document Handler for handling checks was OK.

A video showing Potter document handlers attached to a GE-210 - starting at minute 5.
The 1200/minute G.E. "Document Handler" for handling bank checks was really quite good, could usually run all night with no problem. (Banks run their checks at night, after collecting from the branches, to get the processing done before about 5 AM to get them into "The Fed" - or face stiff fines !!

The design was from Potter Instruments, and the first Document Handlers sold/leased by G.E. were from Potter. These worked quite well. G.E. had procured them under an agreement that if Potter couldn't make enough handlers, or other problems, G.E. could manufacture the handlers itself.

Indeed, soon G.E. was manufacturing the Potter design, with G.E. external sheet metal. We in the field suspected that the G.E. management had just screwed Potter. G.E. manufactured the handler controller (not shown) so that the customer could sort documents off-line.

There was a G.E. design flaw that demonstrated that the designers had no clue about field conditions. The large ventilation/cooling fan was under the unit, sucking air and floor dust into the handler. If there was a problem, and documents (checks) started flying around the room - or an operator dropped a tray of documents, the cooling fan would suck the documents into itself, shred them, and blow the shreds into the machinery. Field people quickly reversed the fan rotation to stop that effect !!

The succeeding generations of G.E. computers couldn't operate these machines well - and G.E., which had 1/3 of the world's banking business - abandoned the banking business - go figure -


Why the Krappy Peripherals?

Introduction - BUSINESS Machines
I think Thomas Watson got it right - in 1924
    Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (C-T-R)
changed its name to
    INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS MACHINES
(Robert Garner says "International Business Machines was the name of a CTR subsidiary in Canada the renaming folks adopted back in '24.")
I think the "BUSINESS" in the name focused IBM people.

As a (mostly) outsider, I admired the focus of that name.
A battle flag for the troops to follow !!
"International" - you bet, think big !!
"BUSINESS" - you bet, no light weight Rube Goldberg here !!
"Machines" - Yes, we sell hardware, reproducible economy of scale, makes money !!

Business relies on RELIABLE machines, not something that the engineers and management got tired of playing with and shipped.

  • IBM employees could easily focus on the importance of RELIABILITY.
  • IBM was justly famous for going to unusual lengths to get a customer's machine up and running, in a timely manner.
  • IBM only leased its machines (until "pressure" by the U.S. government). Maintenance of its leased machinery was by IBM, and unreliable machinery cost IBM money in maintenance and repair costs. Highly reliable machinery saved IBM money and was a design and manufacturing issue.

The above paragraph introduces "business computing", where there are hard deadlines.

  • If you don't get payroll out on time, the resulting mess is memorable !!
    Additionally in some states, employees are on over-time until paid !!
  • If a bank doesn't move its checks out to the Fed by 6:00 AM, it is fined !!

Most non-IBM people just do not understand the business real time requirement -
    - nothing bad happens if a scientific problem crashes and is a day late
    - student exercises can be a day late with little official grumbling

Most non-IBM people just do not understand the business data integrity requirement -
    - a bad bill upsets a customer, you may lose that customer.
    - correcting a bad bill or payment/pay-check is labor intensive, costly.

On the other hand if a student or scientist sees a screwy result
    - they can check their input and re-run the problem with little upset

The above student or scientific acceptance of delays or errors is unacceptable in a business environment!!

IBM customers paid "through the nose" for unusual up-time and accuracy.
    - the IBM 1401 card reader had two read stations, with consistency checking
    - the IBM 1401 card punch had a read station to verify the punching
    - the IBM 1401 printer had special circuits to verify that print hammers moved

For instance, if an operator makes a mistake and puts cards with holes in them into a 1401 card punch, the checking circuitry will detect faulty output (extra holes).


For instance, at the Philadelphia National Bank, which had a G.E. computing system, customers would disappear from tape records. This is not regarded as a good thing !!!
After long and painful research two main factors were identified:
    - the poor quality tape sold (and "warranted") by G.E.
    - defective adjustments of G.E. tape drives recovering from write errors.
Philadelphia National Bank (and most others) did not order G.E. computer equipment again.

The real world of business data processing
I know that our managers didn't know the real world of business computing. The only exception was John Haanstra, hired from IBM, who died after a few months in a private plane crash. :-((
(G.E. proclaimed that a good manager could manage anything. You send someone to G.E. Management School in Crotonville, NY, and they are ready for anything.) One of our General Managers had headed up G.E. Chemicals. My boss (System Test and Diagnostics) had worked in G.E. Light Bulb accounting.
a Dilbert cartoon ;-))

local copy
I contend that some management positions require industry specific knowledge to help avoid listening to "the wrong people" and making silly/stupid decisions.

I think few computer manufacturers outside of IBM expected high reliability. If a scientific computational run, or the usual student run, crashes - OK - lets re-run it - a couple of minutes - no big problem.

In commercial data processing, payroll and other events *had* to be on time or there were expensive, costly, embarrassing consequences.
If payroll crashes after say 1/2 hour,
    - you have printed up maybe 1000 serial numbered checks
    - on a restart, unless you have planned ahead, you print maybe 1000 redundant checks
    - you might miss the pay day for your employees -
    - - Some states, i.e. New York, finally said that you pay overtime until the employees are paid
    - your operations people will likely screw-up and miss pay or double pay a few people
The business consequences to *business* data processing tend to be ignored by new engineers and managers right out of college or working into the scientific market.

"Recommendations"
HQ engineers/managers should occasionally visit the real world of customers !!

It is relatively easy to:

  • make some lash-up that works OK in the lab for a while,
  • manufacture it, and ship it.
  • Then after a few months the complaints roll in !!
  • and the customers start leaving.
It seemed to me that IBM engineers were (usually) creating products for the real world of users.
OK - I'm bigoted - I think managers and engineers ought to have "real world" experience.

The Lockheed Denver fiasco
Lockheed Denver - as many others - "had had it with IBM" - so they started buying from GE as a more humble, economical computer vendor. :-))

They had purchased:
    - a GE-225 with high speed card reader and tapes for media conversion
    - ???
and finally a GE-625 system intended to replace their IBM-7090 type machine

For what ever reason Lockheed Denver became REALLY irritated with GE
    - I wish I knew the particulars -
In any case, they became REALLY hostile and actively tried to make GE look bad.
    Apparently one person full time power cycled the high speed reader
    - trying to cause it to fail.

Phoenix reacted, sending all kinds of experts to rectify the complaints. Returning experts said they were well along resolving the problems - but -

Lockheed Denver threw out everything with a GE Computer Department logo -
    even equipment they had not complained about -

The word gets out - the world is very small -

Granted that G.E Computer Department was chronically short of money - so is everyone, even the U.S. congress (which spends to buy votes).
Somehow, IBM seemed to get reliability right (with a few exceptions, like DataCell ;-))

   
The above "Why" section thanks to pressure from Karsten Lemm, a reporter for "stern", a German news magazine, who was not satisfied with my answer to "why GE shipped krappy peripherals".


And let's not forget "cost improvements"!!

The GE Computer Department was basically a bootleg operation - GE Headquarters had issued an edict that GE would *not* get into the general purpose computer business, which was exactly what GE Computer Department leadership was trying to do !!

The results were that GE Computer Department did *NOT* have the deep pockets of the GE Corporation - although many employees assumed and acted as though the pockets were very deep indeed. (Another story for much later.)

In any case, GE Computer Department was always strapped for cash, and tried to make up for it by emphasizing "Cost Improvements". OK, how can such a good idea go wrong? Well, make the proposed "improvements" without checking with designers or knowledgeable people !!

False (very expensive) cost improvements were the rule, not exception. The slightest quick check with designers could have prevented many/most of the disasters. Unfortunately the "cost improvement" program was badly administered. Groups were rated by the number and estimated dollar saving of "cost improvements" they made. If the group checked with a designer or competent person, the "cost improvement" might be shot down before being counted - so there was a negative reward for checking. :-((

Where to start in this sad list?


In summary - the GE Computer Department "Cost Improvement Program" had many high profile failures - due (I contend) to management ignorance, inattention and blunders. I cannot imagine that the successes out weighed the failures by a high ratio.

I imagine the bean counters counted the saved paper clips and re-used typewriter ribbons, and missed the more complicated, embarrassing costs - bean counters are paid to make management look good :-)) :-((


Long Live Dilbert!!
- How can Scott Adams get it
(his cartoon strip) so right??

I figured G.E. would not continue to sustain its losses of hundreds of millions of dollars per year.
And I didn't want to be in Phoenix with a house to sell when G.E. closed its doors.
So I quit to work on IBM's TSS effort at Mohansic Labs where some of my friends had gone. (Manny Lemas - where are you?)

(Would you believe Manny saw this request - probably googling for his name - and responded :-))

That is a much happier, more interesting story from my viewpoint. :-))
But like the media, who want to write or read good news?

Cheers

Ed Thelen - ed at ed-thelen dot org :-)) November 14, 2005 - updated occasionally


"Buy GE policy"

and a little story
After the GE Computer "Department" got started, word got circulated within General Electric to "Buy GE" which included of course, Buy GE Computers.

Fortunately, or unfortunately for the GE Computer "Department", many General Electric divisions had "automated" early, with IBM. The GE divisions were already demanding and sophisticated customers. They were already using IBM computers as business machines and knew that computer equipment could be quite reliable. So when GE bought GE Computers, GE had high expectations of reliability. When it became evident that GE computing equipment was considerably, painfully less reliable than the previous IBM equipment:

  • Word got around GE about the UN-reliability, and there was very high resistance, internal to GE, to buy "our" equipment
  • There was considerable high level internal "bad mouthing" of the GE Computer "Department"
I presume that the above, and the continuing high losses at GE Computer "Department" caused the much higher than usual general manager turnover dictated from GE Corporate. But short term higher management turnover at the GE Computer "Department" did not solve the general problem (as I see it) of unreliable equipment causing no repeat or upgrade business.

And I presume that the many unhappy customers spread the word to other potential customers, making the work of sales even tougher.

There was an "urban legend" while I was at GE of a general manager of some GE division who got fed up with his GE computing equipment. He flew to Phoenix, presumably un-announced, looking for satisfaction.

According to the tale, he stormed up to office of GE Computer "Department's general manager - Harrison Van Aiken at the time - breathing fire. When advised that Harrison was in a staff meeting, the other general manager stormed into Harrison's staff meeting demanding "Who has the highest horsepower in here?"


G.E. Computer Department Marginalized by the IBM 360

Answers.com defines "Marginalized" as "To relegate or confine to a lower or outer limit or edge, as of social standing."

General Electric Computer Department started as a bootleg business in 1956 after winning a bid to build the ERMA machines for Bank of America. I contend that IBM out thought and out performed the rest of the industry when they announced the code compatible computer series called "360". This reduced their costs of sales, training, ... and left most of their competitors largely in the dust. IBM took the large middle part of the computing world, and unwilling left the low end to say DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) and the high end to Control Data Corporation.
IBM - "Snow White" - left most of the "Seven Dwarfs" in the dust.

The environment at the time was that computer manufacturers in general produced a number of (incompatible) product lines to woo different types of customers. The largest manufacturer by far was IBM (International Business Machines) which had probably the widest range of product lines - here are a few that are easy to remember:
    - 1620 - various inexpensive versions very popular with small colleges
    - 1401, 1410, 1440 somewhat compatible decimal variable word length business machines
    - 1800 - process control
    - 701, 709, 7090, 7094 somewhat code compatible scientific machines
    - 704, 7040 - somewhat code compatible business machines
    - 7030 - "Stretch" - maybe the first "super computer", not compatible with anything
    several others which don't come to mind.

So IBM had to provide documentation, manufacturing specifications, training, sales and technical support of various kinds, software of various kinds, ... to this wide range of machines. And of course, each product line had its protective management, sales force, ...

And this practice was hard on customers who wanted to upgrade to newer, faster, ... machines. Very expensive to develop programs had to be recoded or recompiled and adapted to the different somewhat compatible or totally incompatible new machine. Operation manual re-written, ... much trauma.

And salesmen hated it because the stress often caused good customers to look at competing vendors for computing solutions.

The above provides an idea of the environment that the General Electric Computer Department was operating in - with more or less success. And General Electric Computer Department USA had three product lines:
    - 225, 235, (and for cheap customers) a slow clocked 225 called the 215
    - 415, 425, ?435? for business customers
    - 625, 635, 645 for high end and scientific customers
    - DataNet 30 for digital communications
    and some European systems designed, manufactured, sold and serviced there -

Actually the 400 line was supposed to provide a wide range of solutions but G.E. could not make a fast version of the 400 and so imported a non-compatible high end design from G.E. Military in Schenectady, N.Y., and made it into the 600 line.

So - General Electric Computer Department was following the standard business practice, a number of incompatible product lines. I was working in the "Test and Diagnostic" group under Bob Decker, and we provided manufacturing and field test programs for the above US product lines. Lots of interesting work. Something always happening :-)) :-((

We of course got to know some of the 400 product line designers and engineers, who were very bent out of shape about the loss of their high end product to the new 600 product line. They felt that with sufficient push, their high end machine would be a winner. We heard of their dreams of the glories of a single code compatible line of computers and peripherals for all customers.

But we in "Test and Diagnostics" had lots of fish to fry and didn't pay much attention to the complaints of some of the 400 line guys and their truncated dreams.

Then one day in 1964 (must have been April 7th according to IBM) we heard that IBM had introduced their rumored new system, now called the "360". We were all curious, but had no details. That evening, while working late, I starting hearing strange wailing, and curses, and shouts, and pounding on desks - very unlike the usual engineering environment!! What was going on? - I went to see a furious friend. He had a thermofax (pre Xerox) copy of the 360 family of specifications - and he was hopping mad. IBM had announced a dream line of code compatible machines rather similar to the 400 line - but much wider in performance that the truncated 400 line!! And IBM had announced that in the future all of their machines would conform to the 360 "architecture" - and be code compatible.

My friend was so mad he was almost crying - unlike Dilbert. And there were still shouts and moans of frustration from others going on all around - I had never heard/seen any thing like that before - nor since.

I didn't think of it at the time - but a perceptive person would have recognized that the computer battle had taken a serious turn toward code compatible product lines - and poor G.E. missed the turn. Its sales force would have to continue to try to field customer questions about how to migrate their programs from say the 400 line to the 600 line. The obvious answer is "re-compile" but the customers knew that different environments and operating systems made another level of complexity. And if a customer had a 400 in one location and a 600 in another location - might as well been made by two different manufacturers. Not convenient for G.E. not convenient for the customer!!

So poor G.E. was out maneuvered and had more sand thrown in its face.

And IBM was doing record breaking business - people were placing orders for the 360 so they could sell their delivery date to someone in a hurry.


LaFarr Stuart - lafarr at zyvra dot org - says that IBM wanted a "second source" for its "360" and selected RCA (Radio Corporation of America) for that function. IBM provided RCA with design documents, concepts and facilities documents, and others early and made a considerable effort to assure that RCA seemed a viable alternative. RCA announced its product line largely mirroring IBM's product line - but RCA with its crummy peripherals and unsatisfactory/horrible reliability soon fell by the way side.

Emerson Pugh says in his paper Technology Transfer (local copy) that the RCA Spectra 70 was a copy - and does not mention the idea of "second source" at all.


I bumped into code compatibility later at Control Data doing sales support to the government. IBM was offering a product line of military computers called the "System/4 Pi" - which was a militarized 360. (A circle of 360 degrees has two Pi radians - a unit of angular measure).

In any case, customers could compile and debug large parts of the code for the "System/4 Pi" on their IBM 360s, and wanted to know if Control Data had any similar compatible capability between the CDC 6000 line and Control Data's military computers. We dodged and wiggled and squirmed, but our answers were unsatisfactory, and generally the prospects wandered off - presumably back to IBM. :-((


Blame Game??

- Who/what caused the failure of the GE Computer Department
A symptom would be that no one reordered from us.
Exceptions
It has been about 30 years since the GE Computer Department disappeared into Honeywell, and 40 years since I left - but still Department veterans meet - and soon start to discuss "What Happened?"
( August 2015, reunions seem to have stopped. )

But oddly the discussions are not finger pointing sessions - all groups seem to look inward, seem to feel guilty. They all point to successes of their group, but somehow that was not enough -

  • The hardware engineers point to their early attempts to form a broad range of code compatible machines, the 400 line -later truncated, their successful implementation of associative memory in the GE 645, not long after the Manchester Atlas, and the mysterious Burroughs, about four years before industry leader IBM.

  • The software engineers point to the very successful GECOS that did spooling of card reading and printing I/O associated with jobs at least 5 years before IBM finally got it partially right in their 360 series software. (The IBM JCL still required the user to preallocate disk space for years and years. GE and many others allocated disk space as needed.) The G.E. TimeSharing business. Their efforts on Multix, ...

  • Sales and marketing point to their individual and collective successes, clever financing to close the sale. ...
I have gone to about 5 local reunions and about 5 national reunions - and never have heard one group imply that another group failed to perform satisfactorily. Having lived my share of years, I regard the above as unusual -

I have basically quit going to reunions as there seems nothing new, and the national reunions are dominated by sales and marketeers - who tend to look down on techies - a good salesperson can sell anything, who needs techies.

In any case, I am very alone in blaming crappy peripherals as the basic reason that expenses were so high and there were so few repeat customers. It is like spitting up wind -

But then again, management is ultimately responsible for the crappy peripherals
   - G.E. Corporate figured "that a good manager can manage anything". Dilbert again
    - G.E. Corporate *really* did not want to get into the computers
    - - - which compete with their best commercial customer, IBM.
from ERMA
To everyone's surprise, the General Electric Computer Department, which did not exist, won the$31,000,000 Bank of America ERMA contract. General Electric corporate headquarters didn't know of the bid, and didn't know of this new "department". The same day the contract was signed, the bid team received a stern letter from G.E. president Ralph Cordiner stating "Under no circumstances will the General Electric Company go into the business machine business."

Maybe the fundamental problem involved the Computer Department founders, who defied and tricked Corporate.

Or Corporate which allowed all of the above -

A very good article - added July 2014
A friend sent me this article "A Further Look" by John A.N. Lee & George E. Snively.

My addition to the above paper would be why almost no one re-ordered from General Electric Computer Department.

Early GE Time Sharing - a side view ;-))
Not yet checked by Don W Fry, Albuquerque, "Don Fry" < dwfry @ tritel . net > maybe the only other surviver of our group ??
There is a VERY interesting YouTube video on 'The Birth of BASIC - Dartmouth Time Sharing, which reminded me that I had a view of Dartmouth Time Sharing too ;-))

After two and a half years fixing GE-225 systems, I was brought into the "Diagnostic Test" section at headquarters at Phoenix. (OK, I was fairly well known in the NorthEast, and a class mate friend had a friend ;-)) One of my first tasks was to gather/create tests for the DataNet-30 which was having severe reliability problems at the time.

I had never seen a DataNet-30 (DN-30) before that. This was an 18 bit machine with a special macro instruction to check/input/output all of the up to 127 serial serial channels much more quickly than could be checked in a programmed loop.

The programmed loop could be taken literally, the program input device for a DN-30 was a punched paper tape reader ;-)) The punched Mylar based paper tape could be fed from one waste basket to another to avoid knotting and tearing. There was a hand held wind_up machine based on a motorized paper eraser used by draftsmen.

Then I heard that recent production DN-30 computers were sick - but that the early Dartmouth Time Sharing DN-30 was rock solid. ? What is Time Sharing ?

So "Time Sharing" - the story I heard was that Jerry (Ezekiel) Weiner (Manager of GE Computer Advanced Systems) had been involved.

"Jerry" had been apparently unconventional - When the Dartmouth Time Sharing system was on the GE factory floor for integration and testing, the night shift floor techs were suspected of swapping suspect boards and parts from their own systems with circuit boards in the Dartmouth system. "Jerry" reacted by wrapping thick chains around "his" Dartmouth bound system. The plant manager was called in and chastised "Jerry" for this unseemingly behavior.

Several more senior people I knew claimed to be on good terms with "Jerry" had a strange tale - apparently on a Sunday "Jerry" had been called into the the GE plant (on Deer Valley road - now a shopping center). He was met by the General Manager and a security person - and told to clear out his things - today - now. My friends said that management was worried that "Jerry" was so popular and well thought of that he should not be fired when folks were around.

Later, when GE wanted to commercialize the Dartmouth System, George Fraine, a friend was given the task of adapting the software to commercial purposes - different log-ins, ... And apparently the Dartmouth system occasionally lost a user program - fix that too !! After an extended struggle George found that the fixed size file allocation program had a weird bug. If a user program was almost at the 3,000 character maximum, and just the right number of characters were to be appended, the update overwrote part of the NEXT header, destroying access to that other innocent file. The DN-30 had three characters/word, and someone at Dartmouth had mis-coded one particular situation.

At one of the time sharing conferences announcing GE's entry into Time Sharing, which I wasn't invited to, I was on speaking acquaintance level with half of the presenters. What a ego boost ;-))

Later I went to work on IBM's TSS effort.


My views on the often pooh-poohed BASIC

  1. One should remember that the machines of that era used very expensive (and "slow") core memory. The maximum directly addressable memory range for the GE-225 (and later GE-235) was 8 K 20 bit words. The memory cycle time for the GE-225 was 21 microseconds.
         The language you specify had better be simple, or you will be compiling or interpreting all day.
  2. The language was intended for beginners and amateurs. If you want to spend 6 months explaining "symbol scope", "multiple inheritance", "pre-processors", ".h files", "objects" with their creation/destruction/quirks, ... - be my guest - I don't have the mental memory to mess with C++.
         - I think most people writing in C++ have to use it daily or lose it.
         - Granted, I would rather not write a compiler in BASIC.
         - But I don't write that many compilers ;-))
  3. OK, you can make "spaghetti code" with "GoTo" statements -
    But "GoTo" is great for exception and error handling !!!
    BASIC has the recommended flow control, such as SUB, WHILE, ...
  4. Granted the original BASIC had statement numbers - and "RENUMber" -
    That limitation (great for a quick TTY editor) was soon eliminated.
  5. BASIC didn't offer "memory_leaks", "garbage_collection", "uninitialized pointers", and so many other programming hazards so dear to programmers using modern languages.
    (While I was at Landis&Gyr years later, doing process control for electric power companies and the TVA, we were shipping fancy terminals that had "a memory leak". We had to instruct the power company operators to "re-boot" each of these fancy terminals once a week or it would freeze/halt. The terminal vendor went out of business before it found the code that "leaked memory".)


Mail Bag

Jim Phillips - card reader - December 2005
Ian R Upton - mag tapes and printer - Feb 2006
Ed Thelen - mag tape noise - March 2006
Stan Heinz Canadian Banks - July 2007
Mike Robinson Australia - Feb 2010
Paul Boisvert Somersworth N.H. - Feb 2010
Fred Beazer Virginia National Bank - Sept 2010
Chuck UrmsonThe French - March 2013


from Jim Phillips - December 2005
Hello Ed

...
On GE Comp Dept and Elliot Card Reader- My first field assignment as Product Sv Eng was to Woods Hole Institute, Woods Hole MA in Feb 1963. This was a pure FORTRAN scientific research (number crunching) shop. The installation had a 225 CP, Elliot Card Reader, Card Punch, Flt Pt, DSU 204 disc, DN 15, and mag tapes. I was the only GE person on site. I served as Sys Rep and Field Eng. $144 a week I think.

The day I walked in, the GE Installation people were finishing up. The customer had not signed for machine. As I walked into the room there was 4 or 5 people standing in front of the CP. They were pointing and laughing and talking about - guess what?- the Elliot Card Reader. If you think about it, the visual impact of the 225 and assorted peripherals is good. Or it was in 1963. But, the Elliot sitting up front in plain view destroys the image. It also invites questions. Like- what is it? Does it work? How can it read cards? How does the card get from there to there. Your kidding. First impressions- one is all you get.

The WHOI Computer mgr was a good guy. He knew more about computers and the computer industry than we (GE) did. He had worked in computers for Lockeed in Glendale for a number of years. I walked up to intro myself as he was saying- and I will NEVER forget it- he said pointing at the Elliot, "GE can't be player in this industry if they think this is a card reader". Not a bad start, huh.

Well to make the story short, I was there a year and the ONLY problem I had was the Elliot. The humidity (building was 30 feet from the Atlantic ocean) was a big problem. The scientist (users) would carry their object deck around in their back pocket. The WHOI Comp mgr understood, to a point. He and I became good friends. Drinking buddies even. We had many discussions at the Lee Side bar in Woods Hole. We concluded that the Elliot was a symbol of GE in the computer industry. A symbol that GE did not understand the industry or was GE being GE. Whatever. Over a beer at the Leeside my friend told me the story of how GE beat out IBM for the 3 yr lease. My boy had a grant from the National Science Foundation for a three yr lease and change to run computer center for same 3 years. IBM was the favorite, of course. The current installation at WHOI was a Bendix LPG?. I forget the sys IBM was going with (1440?). Anyway IBM was at $14,000 a month for 3 yr lease. The sys GE recommended (see above) was $14,000 a month. However after getting 8000 finance people from Phoenix involved, we said we would let them have same sys for $8000 a month. GE salesmen could not sell/lease computer without 8000 people from Phx finance, contracts adm, etc being involved. The Phoenix GE PEOPLE loved to get on airplanes and fly to anywhere to help "close the deal". So, we called it an Education discount. IBM said if they matched that price they would lose money.

Hope I don't sound jaded. As you now I stayed with GE/Honeywell for quite a while. I grew up, married and raised a family while working for GE. But, I never became a GE PERSON. Now George Snively (sp) is a GE PERSON. And will be forever. I think you know what I mean.

...

Jim

from Ian R Upton - Feb 2006
Ed,

Somehow I stumbled across your site and it's history of GE and the 200 line of computers.

I commenced work on them in 1964 in Australia and certain aspects of the system are burnt into my memories for ever:

The Elliot card reader, what a challenge to keep them going.

The Ampex mag tapes. You buy some long hose and mount the vac cleaner fans under the floor to cut down the noise. I liked it when all the thyatrons fired and the tape was stretched or one lot fired on and then would not come off so you had 2400 feet of tape in the door.

I got so involved with my tirade I forgot mag tape noise suppression. They were so loud that folks got fatigued. And ear plugs were probably not appropriate for the G.E. representative.

I also did the long hose and vac cleaner trick under the floor. I thought I was the only one that did it. I guess the bank sites in the area were in larger rooms and already had rather noisy document handlers - so the mag tape audio noise was rather lost.


Oddly, of all the many troubles with the tape drives, those 2D21 thyratrons did not give me any trouble. I regarded them a really sweet little tubes, remembered fondly. Maybe later production designs/runs introduced more noise on their grids??

Now if you want to get me going we could talk about the open air contacts associated with the tape buffering and drove those big electric torque motors that drove the tape reels. And the silly little contact damper mechanism with the adjustable air hole that seemed impossible to adjust correctly.

The 1200 LPM printer and the rotten mechanism for keeping the ribbon aligned. Also the clutch mechanisms which slowly wore giving all sorts of problems.

Other faults I forgot - the list gets so long that after a while you worry that no one will take you seriously.

Indeed - the left side of the printer ribbons - about 14 inches wide and rather expensive - would be pounded more and get de-inked much faster on the left than the right hand side. The de-inking caused the ribbon to shrink and pull to the left. There were no ribbon tracking aids such as installed on the IBM 1403 printer. The shrunk side would pull to the left and eventually pull over the restraint, leaving the right side of the paper with no ribbon or visible printing. Talk about irritated customer if the operator didn't check the ribbon condition almost hourly.

Imagine doing payroll with half of the dollar amount not printing - and missing that fact until after the checks were distributed !!

To tell the customer to replace the half worn ribbon was difficult. He would talk about design flaw and how much better IBM was than G.E. The alternative was to take the ribbon out, re-spool it a half twist end to end to get the direction right on the spools, and re-insert it with the half worn ribbon on the right - No fun and I refused to do it. Life is just too short to get all that ink on your hands. What a gross mess.


Oh - Indeed, that printer paper advance magnetic clutch - we had basically two steel plates rotating against each other - and when you want to advance the paper you energize an electromagnet which locks the rotating plate with the non-rotating plate, which advances the paper.

And of course the rubbing steel starts to squeal and squeak, like some automobile disk brakes. If you lubricate the assembly, the paper does not move or may just drifts up slowly. And the friction and the squealing causes circular ridges of wear - and then strange things can start to give the above mentioned strange problems. Fortunately I was dealing with new equipment - leaving the field before the printers got really daffy.

We had one system which suffered from "stress corrosion", something in the air from the air conditioning, the plating on the transistor legs and they way they were soldered. An engineer slammed the door on the printer controller one night and some transistors fell off (mainly the 11g11 board), Woops you just had to touch them and the leads broke so we replaced thousands of them over the entire system,

Unlike you I stuck with GE, Honeywell, Honeywell-Bull, Bull, Wang and Getronics before they laid me off about 6 years ago. Worked in Australia, New Zealand, the USA (Phoenix mostly), France and Japan. Worked as a hardware and software person on the GE 225, 265, GE400, GE600/6000/DPS90, GE58, GE 140, 115.

Do you have any old prints or other documents. A number of us are beginning to help Al Kossow expand his already ENORMOUS web site. We can scan documents here and send them back - or we are thinking of having remote Kinko outlets scan the documents to .tif files to CDROM.

I lurk about the very large Computer History Museum, and we have *NO* GE or BULL machines :-(

And there appear to be none anywhere to try to get. I go to GE Reunions, and ask and nothing ... Were they all ground up to get the gold from the contacts??
Other totally missing vendors include RCA.

Still working in the business but it is not quite the same as the heroic early days of computing,

Regards Ian Upton.

PS: Somewhere you mention getting $145 per week, around the same time I was getting $60-70 (Australian) per week.

I am associated with a restoration of an old IBM 1401 computing system

http://ibm-1401.info/index.html
and we got one of our IBM 729 tape drives working (mostly), at least enough to load/forward/rewind tape. There were comments about the unfortunate noise the drive made when it loaded tape into the buffer columns.
> Glad you like the noises!  ;-)
> 
> Robin thought the tape drive sound (the vacuum "fart" when the    
> tape loads)
> sounded like an ER surgical procedure!  ;-)
> 
Indeed, the IBM 729 tape drive column suck in noise is a bit gross!!

But at least it doesn't ruin your hearing.

I serviced G.E. computing equipment which was competing with IBM. Our early tape drives were made by Ampex. They were different from the IBM tape drives - avoid IBM patents??
For buffering the very quick tape starts and stops, they used two methods:

a) a swinging tension arm with fingers threading the tape
(silent but a little too much inertia)
assisted by
b) "pucker pockets" which could buffer about 5 inches of tape

This is a related Ampex tape drive. Likely a FR200 series - . This was used on the G.E. ERMA system, and has a tape width of 3/4 inch instead of the later very popular 1/2 inch width. "Pucker pockets" were added to later versions of 1/2 drives that we used to reduce the effects of fingers bouncing, moving the tape in unexpected manner - and causing "crap in the gap" - unexpected magnetic flux changes in the inter-record gaps. - The write heads were turned off after the tape was expected to have stopped. If the tape moved unexpectedly between records, before the write heads were turned on again, previously recorded fragments could be in the inter-record gaps. Not good - actually very bad! Hmmm - yes - Phoenix sent me 4 new drives with the new pucker pockets and vacuum motors. Then had to send new pucker pocket swinging doors because the cold air of the north cracked the aluminum/glass interface and the glass because of differential expansion.
- I could go on with tales like this all night :-(( Talk about weeping in your beer!!

The pucker pockets pulled in the tape, and had a slot on the side to provide variable tension

(so the tape did not go to the bottom of the pucker)
A vacuum from vacuum cleaner motors pulled on the tape into the pucker pockets via the side slot.

The air being sucked into the slot made a loud whistling/shrieking noise.

And you know how loud a vacuum cleaner motor is when it is housed in the vacuum cleaner.

Well, these vacuum cleaner motors were in the open bolted onto the frame of the drive.

The vibration of the motor shook the frame similar to the strings of a guitar shaking the sound box, making the vibrations louder (coupling them to the air better).

And the typical G.E. Computer installation consisted of

4 to 6 of these howling whistling shrieking drives.
You could hardly hold a conversation near by!!

Many maintenance people unbolted the motors from the frame and using longer hoses they purchased, placed the cursed things under the raised floor.

If there was no raised floor, you could hang the motors from strings which helped some.

The slot shriek was unpreventable -

you just had to live with it. :-((

I soon got into software and a better life !!

- that IBM tape drive farting suck-in sound is a small price to pay.

Cheers --Ed Thelen


Canadian Banks - July 2007

From Stan Heinz - also see Pictures and more comments
Stan had said that his company, a bank, had re-ordered G.E. Computer Department equipment - upgrading from a GE-225 to GE-415. This was the second re-order I had ever heard of - and asked for more details :-))


I was with the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in Canada. We ran IBM and GE (later Honeywell ) equipment across Canada. Montreal and Vancouver were using GE equipment. We had GE 225 with a 900 LPM printer, 6 200 Bit per inch-75 inch per second tape drives. This was back in 1963-1965. Regarding the cheque sorters we only had with the GE 225. Later when we went to the GE 415 we still had 2 sorters but different models and then added a third. The tape drives and printers were faster as well the printers being 1100 LPM models.

Over the years we upgraded further, ending up with 3 GE 435's running DPS (Disk Programming System) and 3 sorters. By then we were running in-house On-Line Banking Systems with 2 GE Datanet 30 (GE 225) communications processors for the GE 435's and Olivetti Banking Terminals. For a short period We also had a Bull (GE 115).

We ended our usage of GE equipment in 1976 when we started to convert our systems to IBM 370. I started in the Bank in branches for 1 year and then transferred to the Data Centre in Vancouver in 1964. I ended my tenure as Manager Computer Facilities when I resigned in June 1987.

By the way, I don't think we ever tried to run more than two cheque sorters on-line at any one time and you are correct, the sorters ran off line much of the time to do general cheque sorting prior to shipping them back to the various bank branches.

As I recall, the 435's were fast for their time at about 40,000 operations a second. I seem to recall a memory cycle time of under 4 micro-seconds on a 24 bit word with 4 BCD 6 bit bytes per word.

...

Later and regards.................Stan


I've had a quick look and am amazed at the info provided. You brought back some vivid memories when I read some of your stuff on the GE 225.

  1. Our GE 225 system actually was an 8 k word memory system (24 K Bytes)

  2. I really remember the terrible desk mounted card reader and how it used to chew up our program cards decks, we always had two spare decks for each program and a ton of backup bootstrap loaders (I believe it was 3 cards).

  3. I thought the printer was ok for the time but remember taping the start of one box of preprinted forms to the end of the other. I still have one segment of the GE print drum made into a desk paper weight.

  4. yeh, the Ampex tape drives were useless, our longest batch job was about 4 hours long and it was always agony waiting to see if the job would complete without an error.
One of the things I remember is that some times if we got a tape parity error, we would display the record on the console lights and then toggle in a command to reposition the tape and then write a valid record. Then we would write a note to the bank branch to check the specific account, validate and correct the information manually. This sometimes could prevent a complete rerun of the batch job.

Those were fun days!!

By the way I seem to remember that an IBM 1401 could only do about 2000 operations (instructions?) per sec. I believe I have this info somewhere.

Stan

Mike Robinson Australia - Feb 2010

Hi Ed,

I worked on the second GE-225 installed in Australia in the early 1960s. The first was the installation at Queensland University, Brisbane, which you have referenced in your entertaining article about the quirky peripherals attached to the early 225s.

The second installation was at Carlton and United Breweries in Melbourne, and I was a programmer at that site. Ian Upton, who commented on the Elliott card reader, was a maintenance engineer at the site. I remember him well.

The third installation was the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority, and the fourth site was the Bank of New South Wales in Sydney. I think that was the extent of 200-series sites. Subsequent GE machines in Australia were sourced from Machines Bull in France or Olivetti in Italy. A GE-600 was sold to the Australian Department of Defence in about 1968, but the sale was later abandoned on instructions from headquarters in Phoenix Arizona, much to IBM's delight.

I was stationed in Phoenix in mid-1967 doing benchmarks on the 600 series for the Australian government, and vividly remember how easy it was to change a machine from a 615 configuration to a 635 configuration. The operator pulled a wire out of one socket and inserted it into another socket, and presto! the machine took off like a rocket.

I recall seeing an experimental cathode ray tube connected to a machine on the factory floor in Phoenix. It was a precursor to today's monitors, but back then there was no software to drive this type of peripheral. I also recall the many evenings when we abandoned scheduled production runs because of the lightning storms that raged around Phoenix in the summer months.

Australian General Electric had service bureaux in Melbourne and Sydney, from which the company serviced many important customers, including banks and government agencies. Both centres had document readers for processing checks. Ironically, all the banks that used the service bureaux bought IBM machines, and the Bank of New South Wales followed suit after the Honeywell merger.

Regards,
MJR


Paul Boisvert Somersworth N.H. - Feb 2010

Tremendously enjoyed your GE225 stories. I started programming these guys in GAP and sometimes in "octal" via the front panel in a pinch.
I still have lotsa parts (including a complete front panel) in my barn. I love talking to younger people about what it was really like to work with computers in 1970. I worked for GE in Somersworth N.H. until 2001. We used our GE225s and GE235s until the late 1980's.
Paul Boisvert


Fred Beazer Virginia National Bank - Sept 2010
about nobody re-ordering GE computer equipment

"We went from 21/4 [225} to 400 to 435, hot stuff in those days. Working in that environment was actually fun for a bunch of us young guys fresh out of high school."

This makes the 3rd site to re-order GE computer equipment. A very poor record in my viewpoint.

Chuck Urmson - The French - March 2013
> Honeywell still exists but I believe all its computing business was taken over by Bull in France.

Oh God - dealing with the French -

French "GE Bull" was contracted by GE Phoenix to develop something -

The money was being sent to France, but no evidence of progress was coming back.

A minor official I knew was tasked with finding the French engineer in charge of the project
and finding out what was going on -

After confirming an appointment in Paris, our minor official took the plane for Paris -
unfortunately, when he arrived, he found his contact had been called to some other city -

Acquaintance calls back to HQ, what to to?? Follow the French engineer -
Acquaintance follows contact from this town to that, always a day behind -
- or maybe contact was in Paris the whole time, having a good laugh -

After about 2 weeks, HQ gave up and called my acquaintance home.

The French had won ( in their own way ) again.


G.E. Computer Time Line
grossly stolen from
http://www.gecomputerdeptalumni.org/timeline.html June 2011
GE COMPUTER DEPARTMENT Event (Time) Line

1948 GE's Electronic's Laboratory, Syracuse, NY, builds OARAC vacuum tube computer for Wright Patterson Air Force Base.
and a little extra - from ?Radio & Television News? October 1953 & BRL 1961 The OARAC (Office of Air Research Automatic Computer) was delivered to the Aeronautical Research Laboratory at Wright Air Development Center in February 1953. After physical installation it required about two weeks for electrical installation and checking. Consequently, good computing time began the latter part of April.
1952 Homer (Barney) Oldfield1 opens the Advanced Electronics Center (AEC) in Ithaca, NY, as General Manager; Walker Dix2, Engineering Manager. PING putter designed by AEC engineer Karsten Solhein in his garage.
1953 Heavy Military Electronics Department (HMED), Syracuse, NY, awarded contract for development and production of the Radio Guidance & Tracking system for the Atlas ICBM, with Dr. Lewis Neelands as chief architect of the overall system. The"information processing. sub-system was named MISTRAM (Missile TRAjectory Measurement), with John Couleur as lead architect.
1954 Barney Oldfield founds the Microwave Laboratory at Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA.
1955
Spring
George Metcalf's Report on the future of the Electronics Industry. Chapter on "Electronic Computers., authored by Clair Lasher, predicted that, believe it or not,"Electronic Computers. would become commercially feasible and the fastest growing segment of the Electronics Industry.
1955
Summer
Claire Lasher, assisted by George Sively and others, under the auspices of the Technical Electronics Equipment Department prepared a business plan to go into the Computer Business. Claire asks Oldfield to check into the SRI ERMA project for him. The plan was returned from Ralph Cordiner with a big "No RJC." scribbled across it with an orange crayon.
1955
Fall
Ralph Cordiner follows up his "no" with a letter stating: "UNDER NO CIRCIMSTANCES WILL THE GENERAL ELECTRIC COMPANY GO INTO THE BUSINESS MACHINE BUSINESS. HOWEVER, SOMETIME IN THE FUTURE, IN SUPPORT OF OUR HISTORIC BUSINESS IT MAY BE NECESSAY FOR US TO GO INTO THE PROCESS COMPUTER BUSINESS".
1955
October
Bob (Dr.Robert R.) Johnson transfers from the Syracuse Electronics Lab to the Microwave Lab as its Engineering Manager. Bob and his associates play a major role in the ERMA proposal and in the early design and development of the ERMA machine. He later transferred to Phoenix as the Computer Deprtment's Engineering manager.
1955
Fall
Dr. Baker approves B of A Letter of Intent for $30 million of ERMA (Electronic Recording Method of Accounting) systems as a "process computer" and authorizes $50,000 to write a proposal and negotiate contract. (Final contract not signed until shipment of the last ERMA system, by which time the contract value had increased to $50 million total.)
1956
February 3
ERMA proposal submitted to B of A, negotiations begin. Cordiner wanted no part of this business. In fact, it's believed that the only reason Cordiner let Baker's group make a bid was because Cordiner was assured by his staff that IBM would win the contract hands down.
1956
May ?
Ken McCombs opens Computer Department payroll account for himself, Owen Lindley and George Snively. (Barney Oldfield on Microwave Laboratory and later transferred to the Technical Electronics Equipment Department's payroll. Not added to CD payroll until fall 1956.)
1956
June 28
Industrial Computer Section holds Computer Symposium at Electronics Park in Syracuse. Barney Oldfield shown as General Manager, Computer Department, reporting to Harold Strickland, Industrial Electronics Division. Geiser, Lasher, Barclay, McCombs & Newman shown as sub-section managers. Barney Oldfield interviews Dr. Herbert R. J. Grosch.
1956
July ?
Office opened in Lee Lee Building, above Wittig's Ice Cream Parlor, on East Gennesse Street in Syracuse. Ray Barclay, Art Newman & Ken Geiser added to CD payroll.
1956
August ?
Site selection team formed.
1956
September
NCR Contract signed for development of the ERMA check reader.
1956
November 2
Herb Grosch calls a press conference in Tempe, Arizona and prematurely announces that he has selected Phoenix and the rest will follow. He announces a computer center to be established at Arizona Normal (later State) University with an IBM704 computer (which he diverted from the Jet Engine Department in Evendale, Ohio, and which had a military priority!)
1956
November 5
Site team selects Phoenix as the site. Barney Oldfield prepares a $5,000 Appropriations Request for a sales office in Phoenix to liaison with B of A. Will hand carry to Harld Strickland's office to try to get approval.
1956
November ?
GE signs option on 1,000 acres accumulated from John Jacobs, (?) Eaton and one other, on Black Canyon Hwy at Thunderbird Road.
1956
November 17
Barney sends Manufacturing people (Stan Brown, Earl Kittle, Don Reed and wives) on the road to Phoenix with orders to call in each night to receive instructions as to whether or not to keep proceeding.
1956
November 20
Strickland signs $5,000 appropriation. Oldfield calls the Lee Lee building and the engineers in the General Engineering Lab in Schenectady and tells us to get on the road to Phoenix. He will be unavailable after he hangs up.
1956
November 26
Manufacturing people procure office space on the 5th floor of the new First National Bank of Arizona at 401 North Central Avenue, Phoenix, AZ. Sign on door read "GE Computer Department".
1956 Installation of the first Atlas Radio Guidance system begins at Cape Canaveral, Florida; Walker Dix, Site Manager.
1957
January ?
Additional space acquired on the 2ndfloor of the KTAR building on North Central Avenue.
???? ERMA project moved into facility on Charleston Road in Moutainview, CA.
1957 Computer Department leases ASU's new Engineering building.
1957 ? Eaton builds 5,000-sq. ft. facility on Peoria Ave. to lease to Computer Department.
1957
October
Product Scope meeting creates charter for a"Computer Department.
1958 Deer Valley plant built.
1959 February First ERMA shipped. Upon delivery, Ronald Regan hosted the press event.
1959
April
Cordiner fires Oldfield following the ERMA dedication ceremony at the B of A. Claire Lasher appointed Acting General Manager with orders to complete the ERMA and NCR 304 contracts and to get out of the"Business Machine. business and concentrate on process computers. Next 18 months spent planning the"Big Look. in an attempt to get Cordiner's decision reversed.
1959 Decision to launch the GE-225, a 20-bit computer, designed by Arnold Spielberg4 and Chuck Prosper, based on the GE-312 and GE-412 process control computers.
1960 HMED receives Cordiner's okay to market a militarized/hardened version of the "MISTRAM" information processor. as the the M-236 ("M" as in military, "36" as in 36-bit) computer.
1960 Decision to launch the Mosiac line, a family of 24-bit computers, as the GE-400 series.
1961 Spring Claire Lasher gets OK to implement the"Big Look. from Cordiner.
1961 May Second First Annual National Sales meeting at Superstition Hotel in Apache Junction, AZ, kicks off the"Big Look. (The"First Annual. meeting was canceled when Claire didn't get an earlier meeting with Cordiner.)
1962 Start of the design of the GE-235, a faster version of the GE-225.
1962 CD commences design/development of the"Y-series. computer as the high performance upgrade of the GE-400 line.
1962 HMED commences development of the M-2360 as a high performance upgrade of the M-236.
1962
July
First sales pitch by John Couleur for M-2360 versus the Mosiac"Y. machine.
1963
1Q
An evaluation team, led by Dr. Don Shell, manager of the Mathematics Department, GE Research Lab, reviews the design and status of the Computer Department's"Y. machine and HMED's M-2360. The team recommends the latter as the next large scale computer to be offered by GE (as the GE-600 Series.)
1963
February
Clair Lasher replaced by Harrison Van Aken as general manager of the Computer Department.
1963 CD's Advanced System Lab and Dartmouth College begin development of a time-sharing operating system, including the Basic language, running on GE-235 and Datanet-30 hardware. The system became operational in 1964, and the software became the Dartmouth Time Sharing System (DTSS).
1963 Ralph Cordiner retires; Fred Borch selected as his successor.
1964 First shipment of the Datanet-30, a data communications mini-computer,designed by Bill Bridge5 based on the GE-312 process control computer.
1964 First shipment of the 24-bit GE-400 series.
1964 Discussions with MIT's Project MAC group, led by John Couleur, re modifications/additions to the GE-635 architecture to address Project MAC's time-share needs; start of development to implement such changes in a new product designated as the GE-645.
1964
March
Lou Rader re-hired from Univac as VP, Industrial Electronics Division
1964
June
Announcement of the GE-600 line, based on the Syracuse M-2360 hardware, with GECOS (General Electric Comprehensive Operation System) developed in Phoenix.
1964
November
Formal take-over of Bull by GE.
1964
August
Contract signed with MIT (for Project MAC) for a GE-645. The software, a new paged time-sharing system named MULTICS (MULTiplexed Information and Computing Service), to be developed jointly by GE's Cambridge Information Systems Laboratory (CISL, reporting to Phoenix), MIT and Bell Labs.
1965
April
First shipment of the GE-635 prototype, with GECOS I software.
1965 Introduction of the packaged GE-265 system, consisting of the GE-235 and Datanet-30 hardware (235+30=265) and the DTSS/Basic software, achieving fame as the first fully integrated commercial "time-sharing system" and the backbone of GE's Time-Sharing business.
1965 Licenses negotiated with Toshiba and Nippon Electric Co. (NEC) for manufacture of the GE-600 line.
1965 November First release of GECOS II.
1966 January H. Van Aken replaced by Lou Wengert as general manager.
1967 January GE-645 delivered to Project MAC.
1967 GE-645 hardware group transferred to HMED, Syracuse, reporting to Walker Dix.
1967 First release of GECOS III, with an embedded time-sharing sub-system (TSS).
1967 Development started for the GE-655, a new design with integrated circuit modules, liquid cooling, 2x the speed of the GE-635, and start of construction of a new manufacturing facility at Deer Valley to produce the new IC modules.
1968 First release of the IDS (Integrated Data Store) data base software for the GE-600 line, one of the first database management systems; developed by Charles W. Bachman6.
1968 GE creates a new Computer Division, consisting of the Large Systems Department (LSD), the Medium Systems Department (MSD, The Small Systems Department (SSD) and the Special Information Systems Department (SIPD). The Computer Division grew into the GE Information Systems Group, with 25,000 employees and $1.5 billion in installations.
1968 Transfer of the HMED engineering sub-section responsible for the M-2106 development (largely intact, and tagged with "The Syracuse Mafia" moniker ), along with the recently transferred GE-645 group, to Phoenix as the nucleus of LSD's hardware engineering staff. Walker Dix appointed Engineering section manager.
1968
December
Stanford Smith is replaced by Hillard Page as VP Information Systems Group; John Haanstra appointed Information Systems Equipment Division Manager.
1969
Jul-Oct
Shangri-La seminar at Hollywood-by-the-Sea, Florida, to formulate a plan for a new GE Advanced Product Line
1969
August
John Hanstra dies in his private aircraft crash; John Burlingame named in replacement.
1970
Oct
GE's computer systems business, less the time-sharing business, is sold to Honeywell, Inc, and becomes part of Honeywell Information Systems (HIS), consisting of the facilities and personnel at Phoenix and Oklahoma City (GE) and at Bellerica and Foxboro (Honeywell), and presided over by Clarence (Clancy) Spangle as one of two major groups of Honeywell, Inc. Norman Feldman named VP of the Phoenix Computer Operations (PCO), reporting to Lee Sheenam, VP of the Computer Systems Division (CSD); WalkerDix named as PCO Director-Engineering.
1973 May Honeywell announces reorganization of CSD reorganization, with four operations reporting to Lee Sheehan: The Computer Systems Division Operations, headed by VP Norm Feldman, responsible for assisting Lee Sheenan at the divisional level in the general management of CSD; the Phoenix Computer Operations, headed by VP Norm Feldman (Acting), responsible for the Manufacturing, Quality Control, Finance and Employee Relations functions at Phoenix, Oklahoma City and San Diego; the Boston Computer Operations, headed by VP Lee Sheehan (acting), responsible for the same functions at Billerica and Foxboro; and the Engineering Operations, headed by VP Walker Dix, responsible for all Engineering functions across CSD.
1973 First shipment of the GE-655 as the Honeywell 6080.
1988 Honeywell Information Systems, Group Bull and NEC form a new entity named Honeywell Bull.
1991 Honeywell Information Systems sold to Groupe Bull. The new entity is named "Bull HN".

Compiled by Walker Dix, 23 April 2009
Revised 23 May 2009

Footnotes:

  1. Computer Pioneer Award, 1997, for "Pioneering work in the development of banking applications through the implementation of ERMA, and the introduction of computer manufacturing to GE".
  2. GE Cordiner Award, 1963, for "Contributions as Program Manager for the Atlas/MISTRAM program in acquiring and executing the US Air Force MISTRAM contract, valued at $200+ million".
  3. GE Cordiner Award, 1963, for "Contributions as the leading architect in the conception and implementation of the MISTRAM information processing system".
  4. Computer Pioneer Award, 2006, for "Contributions to real time data acquisition and recording".
  5. Computer Pioneer Award, 2001, for "The marrying of computers and communications technology in the Datanet-30".
  6. ACM Turing Award, 1973, for "his outstanding contributions to database technology"; elected as a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society, 1977, for his pioneering work in database systems"; listed in the Database Hall of Fame.
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Updated May 2016