Early Computing in Business and Organisations

Hollerith in World War Two

The Australian Red Cross Archives held at the University of Melbourne Archives contain detailed records of one of the earlier applications of a pre-digital computer system in Australia. During World War 2, the Red Cross used a Hollerith punch card system to record enquiries about missing soldiers from their families at home in Australia.

These cards record the distress of many wives and relatives who submitted enquiries in the hope of news of the whereabouts of their loved ones. A document in the archives titled ‘Outline of War Service during World War II’ says that the Red Cross received over 15,000 enquiries during the war period.[1]

The Missing, Wounded, and Prisoner of War Enquiry Cards are available to researchers through the University of Melbourne Archives digitised collections.

Office workers calculating POW capture cards using a Hollerith Machine, one of six owned by the ICRC. 2016.0081.00003.

Early Computers in Business

Like at the Australian Red Cross, the first computing systems to be used in businesses were Hollerith punch card readers and sorters. The Shell Historical Archives contain material that demonstrates one company’s approach to systems management and the increasing computerisation of the workforce in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Without accurate and prompt information, Management is groping in the dark. 'Way Back in 1798' (October 1957) Shell House Journal, Shell Historical Archives, 2008.0045 unit 293.
The first computer program used by National Mutual Life Assurance on SILLIAC
(Sydney University) in 1956
2012.0199
'You can Tel-e-Voice anywhere!' (August 1957) Shell House Journal, Shell Historical Archives, 2008.0045 unit 293.

The Shell House Journal published several articles on new and established technologies in the Shell Australia offices during this period. One article gives a history of the Hollerith System and describes its use at Shell in 1957:

As the tempo and complexity of modern business increases, the problems of handling clerical work become more acute. The only solution to such a problem is to introduce machines, which will handle the tremendous volumes associated with large business and thus eliminate the drudgery of repetitive work. The nett effect is the up-grading of the type of work done by people, who can be trained for the more important task of interpreting results. 'Way Back in 1798' (October 1957) Shell House Journal, Shell Historical Archives, 2008.0045 unit 293.

Another early telecommunications system used in business was the Edison Televoicewriter. A machine by which dictation could be recorded onto a vinyl disk, replayed, edited and finally typed up by a typist who listened to the tape through headphones. The Shell House Journal published an article in August 1957 which praised the ease and convenience of the Televoicewriter to their offices: ‘It’s as easy as A.B.C.’ [4]

You can Tel-e-Voice anywhere!' (August 1957) Shell House Journal, Shell Historical Archives, 2008.0045 unit 293.

1960s Shell Adopts the Computer

Shell began introducing punch card systems in accounting and management in 1955. By the early 1960s however, the Shell Board was looking into investing in a new, digital computer. The Shell archives contain a report titled, ‘A Study to Determine the Feasibility of Using an Electronic Digital Computer’ dated July 1962.[5]

In order to justify the introduction of a new computer system, the report outlines the systems available and ranks their performances in: size and speed of processor, performance of tape deck, speed of card-reader and ability to operate more than one programme simultaneously. The report is conclusive in arguing for the purchase of a Leo computing system, as it is faster than the Honeywell and IBM models that were also on the market at the time.

Interestingly, the report also contains an ‘announcement to staff’ which addresses the future of the nature of their work once a digital computer is introduced to the company. They assure their staff that any training required will be conducted at company expense. It also appears that Shell management was aware that some staff were concerned they would be replaced by the computer:

...assurance [is] given that no one will lose his or her job as the result of the installation of a computer.

Whether or not this guarantee was fulfilled is unknown, as the end of the notice to staff does leave some room for interpretation:

...there is a requirement to maintain the continuity of existing systems until the computer is able to take over the work [...] in general terms it is considered that normal wastage will take care of redundancies.

Teething Problems: National Mutual

The University of Melbourne Archives house Geoffrey Brown’s Corporate History Project, conducted from 1987 to 1988.[6] Browne interviewed many ex-employees of National Mutual Life Assurance, including Alan Brown, who was among the first group of computer programmers to join National Mutual in 1962.

Alan Brown’s entertaining account of his training describes some of the teething problems early computer systems had when introduced to organisations with little to no previous experience with computing. He describes how his training commenced before the computer ordered by National Mutual had even arrived in Australia.

‘The people who were conducting the training had, for the most part, never seen a computer in operation. The very first training session on an actual computer was quite memorable. This was in March 1962, and about nine months before the computer was delivered (from New York). We had an expert from America who had actually seen the machine & knew what he was on about. In that first morning session he taught us how to manage the input-output to the computer. We worked out the size of the assembler code used to handle our input-output control language [...] took up half the total memory that had been ordered. By the time we got to morning tea we were quite certain that we had ordered insufficient memory. By lunchtime we had a revolt on our hands & as a result Eric [Mayer] had to make representations to the Board to alter the order for our machine by doubling the memory. All this came out in our first lesson. We would never have survived if the machine had arrived as originally ordered.’

This first computer Brown worked with was an IBM 1410. In the same interview he described it as ‘very heavy’ and looking like ‘very large jukebox.’ The IBM 1401 was one of the first computers programmed to run RPG (Report Program Generator). Specifically designed for use in business and finance, RPG made this IBM model highly popular and it was the first computer to sell over ten thousand units.[7]

It stood about 5 or 6 feet tall, weighed at least half a tonne, & was driven by a pneumatic pump which moved the disk drive around. The pump itself was enormously heavy. And it also made a lot of noise! Alan Brown

Technical Difficulties: Computing in the 1980s

Although most businesses and organisations embraced computing as the new frontier of clerical and management work, technical difficulties with these systems did not subside. Records held at the University of Melbourne Archives show that computer malfunctions, errors and breakdowns continued through the seventies, eighties and beyond.

The material relating to the Australian Red Cross held at the University of Melbourne Archives tells of correspondence in 1985 between their National Headquarters and Datacraft Office Systems. The Red Cross’s recently purchased computer system cost $33,971 ($94,443 today) with 20 MB disk storage, but it was frequently breaking down. One report says:

‘The whole system in the Tracing area seems to be suffering from a ‘jam’ which puts the three machines and the printer out of action. The Technician has been called on 2-3 occasions and unlocked the jam only to find it recurring a few minutes after his departure. The discussions on the subject with Datacraft both in Melbourne and Sydney have been most unsatisfactory, as the endeavour to give [...] instructions by telephone. Pauline quite rightly objects to insert a screw-driver into this highly complex mechanism when she does not have any real knowledge of its structure and complexity.’[8]

It appears from other records that Datacraft failed to fix the problem, with one letter from a systems consultant requesting ‘urgent’ attention:

A service call by Datacraft serviceman, J. Duds on 1st August to solve a high pitched scream coming from the PS-20 system has revealed that the main bearings in the disk drive are failing Letter to Mr. Ron Stephens at Datacraft Office Systems, Burwood Rd Hawthorn, from Ian Gaudion, Principal Consultant, IBIS-DH&S in regards to the computer issues at ARCS National Tracing Agency (19 August 1985)' in 'National Headquarters - Office Equipment - Computer Systems (1985),' Australian Red Cross Archives, 2015.0033.05222 unit 581.

Other letters outline the ARCS’s frustration with ‘over the phone’ computer support, especially when the phone support from Datacraft was moved from Melbourne to Sydney. The frustration experienced by the management staff at the Australian Red Cross Headquarters due to computer failure in 1985 demonstrates just how integral these early computer systems had become to organisations and businesses over just a few short decades.

A memo for office staff outlines correct posture for computer use (1985). The diagram tells staff to take a ten minute break every hour, and that their eyes should be 610-710mm from screen to avoid negative effects of screen 'flicker'. It also says that pregnant women should not use the computers.

Youth and Computer Games in the 1990s

For the first time, the 80s and 90s saw youth driving the market for computer technology, both domestic and specialised, for education and for entertainment. The Australian Red Cross National Youth Committee lobbied the Head Office in 1987 to update the promotional media to suit the changing times. They argued that the old VHS videos being used in primary and secondary schools across Australia to promote the services of the Red Cross ‘was produced in 1979’, and therefore out of date and no longer engaging. The Youth Committee continued:

...60% - 70% of South Australian primary schools use computers, all high schools have at least one computer [...] this suggests that computer usage is seen as an integral part of the education system. The opportunity to utilise these facilities would enable us to capture the interest and imagination of students.
Brochure from Canon Printers shows fonts available in software package with Canon Bubble Jet Printer BJC600 which the ARCS purchased for $490 in 1993.

The Red Cross National Youth Committee proposed that an educational video game be produced and distributed among Australian primary and secondary schools.

It is considered that a creative teaching simulation game about Red Cross would be an excellent self teaching package. 'Agenda Item 11.2 - Computer Games (27th-28th July, 1987)' in 'National Youth Committee - Computer Games,' Australian Red Cross Archives, 2015.0033.06427 unit 593.

Software Piracy

Another new issue developing in the early '90s was software piracy. Some businesses and organisations were unaware that a licence must be bought for each computer operating a software program, and others deliberately avoided buying multiple licenses to save on costs. The archives hold fliers asking businesses to inform the Business Software Association of Australia of software piracy within their industries. They offer a $2500 reward for any information on pirates.

‘90s Desktop Operating Environment

"Become part of the future" DOE (Desktop Operating Environment) 1994/5,'
Shell Historical Archives, 2008.0045.3652 box 185.

By the 1990s, the individual desktop computer terminal was commonplace in businesses and organisations. With the increasing individualisation of the computer in the workplace, as well as the rapid changes in software, standardising computer systems was vital to maintain technological compatibility and effective workflow.

A document from the Shell archives titled ‘Become part of the future’ (1994/95)[12] introduces a standardised Desktop Operating Environment (DOE) to its employees. In this document, Shell Management say that they are experiencing ‘inadequate version control of software, multiple configurations requiring differed printer drivers and set-ups, cumbersome data backup and software purchasing loopholes’ and the new system will help to relieve these issues.

The document includes FAQs about the new Desktop Operating Environment, including: ‘Can I still choose my own colours, wallpaper and screensavers?’ The answer: yes.

FURTHER READING

footnotes

  1. Outline of War Service during World War II,’ Australian Red Cross Archives, 2016.0054.00004.
  2. ‘Way Back in 1798’ (October 1957) Shell House Journal, Shell Historical Archives, 2008.0045 unit 293.
  3. ‘Way Back in 1798’ (October 1957) Shell House Journal, Shell Historical Archives, 2008.0045 unit 293.
  4. ‘You can Tel-e-Voice anywhere!’ (August 1957) Shell House Journal, Shell Historical Archives, 2008.0045 unit 293.
  5. ‘A Study to Determine the Feasibility of Using an Electronic Digital Computer, July 1962’ in Shell Historical Archive, 2008.0045.4490 (Box 185).
  6. Geoffrey Brown’s Corporate History Project, 1994.0052 (94/52).
  7. Information on the IBM 1410 can be found at http://www.columbia.edu/cu/computinghistory/1401.html
  8. ‘Memo Randum: Points made during the discussion with those members of staff involved with computerisation (12 August 1985),’ in ‘National Headquarters - Office Equipment - Computer Systems (1985),’ Australian Red Cross Archives, 2015.0033.05222 unit 581.
  9. ‘Letter to Mr. Ron Stephens at Datacraft Office Systems, Burwood Rd Hawthorn, from Ian Gaudion, Principal Consultant, IBIS-DH&S in regards to the computer issues at ARCS National Tracing Agency (19 August 1985)’ in ‘National Headquarters - Office Equipment - Computer Systems (1985),’ Australian Red Cross Archives, 2015.0033.05222 unit 581.
  10. ‘Agenda Item 11.2 - Computer Games (27th-28th July, 1987)’ in ‘National Youth Committee - Computer Games,’ Australian Red Cross Archives, 2015.0033.06427 unit 593.
  11. ‘Software piracy (c. 1990),’ in ‘Australian Red Cross Society, National Office,’ Australian Red Cross Archives, 2015.0033.08503 unit 754.
  12. ‘“Become part of the future” DOE (Desktop Operating Environment) 1994/5,’ Shell Historical Archives, 2008.0045.3652 box 185.