Thursday, February 24, 2005


Old IBM Was Grand!

Ten Years in IBM (1960-1970)

Introduction. There were six major areas that I worked in during my ten years at IBM Federal Systems Division: 1) database systems for intelligence customers; 2) consultation on site for a major intelligence organization; 3) the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) space program; 4) the Army TACFIRE system design; 5) coordinating ground applications for the military computer line 4 Pi; and , 6) Managing the yearly redesign and redevelopment planning for militarized computers.

While each of these areas was a terrific learning experience, the two most important to me were the MOL and TACFIRE programs. Since the intelligence programs carried a classification, I will not discuss them here, even if the time limitations are long over. The military computer line was a fun thing to do, but it did not involve me in actual design and development.

Computer Design and Development. The main reason I joined IBM was to get intimately involved in the design and development of advanced machines. I was soon disabused of this notion once I showed up for work. The FSD did some work on computers to extend their capabilities for special customers, and the Owego, N. Y. facility did the airborne and space computers. The main developments occurred in the commercial divisions up in Poughkeepsie and Glendale., N. Y.

Our division, then located in Bethesda, Maryland, concentrated on large-scale ground installations for intelligence and command and control systems for the government, and used the commercial processor line to the maximum extent possible. There was a “Priesthood” for design at that time, including such luminaries as Fred Brooks and Gene Amdahl. In I came, with something that few in IBM had, and that was hands on both hardware and software design and development. No matter, if you weren’t on the inside, in one of the N.Y. plants, you simply didn’t count, especially if you were from FSD!

However, I did get to spend four or five months studying the two proposed new lines of computers in about 1962. These were the 8000 series, and a newer design dubbed the 360. Two of us were appointed from FSD to evaluate whether these designs were acceptable for our applications. Our findings were presented to the design board, and right off I got into it with Gene Amdahl about several high speed design aspects. I was rather pleased that Fred Brooks stepped in and agreed with my position, as did others in the room. We recommended the 360 design with certain speedup improvements, which were accepted and incorporated. That was the height of my contribution to the main product line!

The MOL Program. The Manned Orbiting Laboratory was the Air Force program to prove out manned military missions in space. This was in parallel with the NASA APOLLO program for man in space. There were five defined missions to be tried out over 6 launches of a laboratory space vessel. There were to be a total of 8 launches, with the last two a set of the best man and equipment configurations we could come up with for an operational space vehicle.

IBM/FSD teamed with Douglas Aircraft Company, and we in IBM were designated by Douglas as the On-board Systems Manager, Ground Control Manager, and Ground Communications Manager. Under our overall IBM manager, I was appointed to be the On-Board Systems Manager. We had to write a proposal to the Air Force, and then conduct a paid preliminary contract design phase in competition with a Lockheed team (as I remember).

The five missions, as best I can recall, were: 1) gathering intelligence from space in real time on missile launches and missile tracks; 2) engaging ballistic missiles in space with weapons, such as laser beams, and 3) guided missiles; 4) testing the endurance and physical parameters of men while performing their roles during the spacecraft missions, and 5) acquiring, identifying and tracking spaceborne and ground or sea targets.

We had to do the majority of the work at the Douglas Santa Monica plant, which was enjoyable to me, since we were housed in a motel right on the beach. In fact, during the effort, we had to rent out the whole motel. My on-site staff had grown rapidly to about 35, and we had another 40 or so scattered all over the US feeding us information. One thing about IBM at that time was, if I needed a man with a Ph.D. in molecular chemistry who lived in Texas, and was a computer guy, no older than 35, the personnel system would come up with exactly the right man! That isn’t much of an exaggeration!

If I had stopped to marvel at what was going on, I would have been paralyzed by the enormity of the task. It was a physics tour de force, an engineering challenge of the first magnitude and an information gathering exercise from every research and industrial facility in the country. With a group of people all around, in my staff, and in the rest of the project, most of whom had their doctorates, to direct and keep happy with being away from home for long periods, it was at times hilarious!

One fellow came to me indignant as hell and said he had to move out from the beach motel. I asked why? He said, “I am being attacked by women coming up to my beachside door at all hours, banging on it, asking to come in and I am a married man! I can’t keep on fending them off!” So I helped him move inland!

To make this shorter, our team won the contract definition phase contract, and proceeded to go into great detail on the entire system. We were told that we were the winners of that phase also! But, there was a delay. LBJ pulled the rug out from under the MOL that December of 1965, I believe it was. The people I had hired for the job were found other places in IBM, and I turned to the next program—TACFIRE.

(To be continued later)


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