Looking Back at the Computer Symposium - GE - W.L Murdock
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Looking Back at the Computer Symposium




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The sense of the symposium seemed to be that the standard component or building block idea of engineering computing equipment is to be adopted by General Electric. I should like to comment on some of the results of this decision as I see them.


Ken Geiser expressed the opinion at the symposium that we would be able to design the building blocks with their properties and impedances so completely specified and standardized that application engineers would be able to assemble them in the field into a particular system for a particular customer. This seems critically important to me. Otherwise, Engineering would be heavily involved in most customer orders and costs would be high. On this point, I believe, hangs the clear competitive advantage of this equipment philosophy over the general purpose machine idea. Some special packaging, such as is done in the Specialty Control Department on welding controls, will be necessary but Engineering will not have to organize a special effort for the great majority of the orders.

It will be of interest to see if the engineers will be able to make the basic building blocks correspond to the elemental functions of communications: counters, multiply circuits, divide circuits, buffers, additive storage units, standard relay circuits, negative and zero balance devices, etc. The interest derives from the fact that each customer will have his own special combination of needs but these needs can all be served by such elementary operations. Not only will building more complex special logical units tend to increase the special engineering but it would also imply that the customer will have a greater problem if ever he wants to change or add to his system. I believe that we can assume that the customer will want to add to and change his system continuously. Ford Dickie expressed the opinion that the majority of customers will not ask for high speeds in their equipment. I believe that the customer will tend to prefer equipment which is just adequately fast, very reliable, easy to repair, easy to add to and modify and understandable in terms of his business operating functions. Optimization of speed and cost with regard to any particular function, such as matrix multiplication for production control and costing, will not impress him if it implies a rigid system which has to be reconsidered by the equipment factory whenever he wants to make a change.


It would seem that product planning would be simpler if we are able to design compatible building blocks in terms of basic functions.



If we must design whole complex logical units then Product Planning has the chore of analyzing the systems of customers in the markets chosen and coming up with widely marketable units. Of course, even customers with much experience in automatic data processing cannot tell us what they want in the way of real time equipment. The burden is on our own Product Planning. But the problem is much simpler in terms of the dozen or so basic arithmetical and logical operations. If we can design in terms of the basic function then the problem is one of providing the application engineers with components so designed that they can devote their attention to the customer's operating system with a minimum of attention to compatibility and requirements between components. The application engineer needs to be able to write schematic diagrams which faithfully portray the customer's needs but with nearly all the compatibility and impedance problems which the schematic implies presolved for him in the integrated design of the line of basic components. Perhaps a symbolic notation, a sort of operational calculus, will be developed which will readily allow him to string equipment together, paying chief attention to the customer's system.


A major question here is to know in what terms the application engineer and the customer will communicate. The ordinary procedures chart which identifies piece of paper and machine is not sufficient. All information must be completely described as to the kind and number of characters, timing and frequency. All arithmetical and logical operations must be completely and precisely described. Operating business people are not used to stating their procedures in these terms. The application engineer must be able to extract this information from the customer without an undue amount of time on the customer's premises. For one thing, this seems to mean, that he must understand the logical and arithmetical aspects of, say, production control or order service, as business functions, to an unusual degree. This suggests the wisdom of our marketing effort picking out certain markets, such as manufacturing control, which

it will thoroughly understand and leave others, such as retail store communications, to another time or Department.


Herb Grosch brought out the disadvantage of salesmen who can speak only in general terms. These men should understand the logic of the customer's need and the systems designed by the application engineer. Clearly defined markets, thoroughly exploited, will permit a sales effort of refreshing depth of content to the older customer of data processing equipment.

Since the basic building blocks are s0 universally required and since the characteristic of the product is in the system designed for, by or with the customer, it may be that a single component manufacturing organization could serve a number of systems design and sales organization each of which are pointed at a different area of application.



I believe the Engineering work which lies ahead is more clearly apparent than is the marketing work. Planning for the latter seems more difficult and more obscure. A good way to gain evidence would be to carefully follow at regular intervals for several years the usage by customers of delivered equipment.

We in Services are seeking more ways for the "customers", in this case General Electric Departments, to use presently available equipment to improve communications. One promising approach is to teach standard punched card equipment, not machine by machine, but rather to teach the basic components: counters, selectors, comparing units, card feeds, etc. of which any particular punched card machine is just a particular combination. Information flow charts with all logical and arithmetic operations specified, integrated card designs, card programming techniques, whole business planning of machine procedures, are aspects of the approach. The natural advantages emerge in the ability to relate the counters and selectors (relays) in the machine directly with business operating functions requiring arithmetic or logical choice whereas it is not clear what a particular machine, say the IBM 407, has to do with a business activity, say Order Service. But speak in terms of selectors in the machines and in terms of a specific business function, like charging 2 per cent tax in Idaho, on the other and it is possible to establish a direct connection. It will be recommended that managers learn what selectors, counters, and several other components are, that procedures people have a complete functional understanding of all components and timing of the machines and that technicians and board wirers be upgraded to a more professional level. Integrated punched card procedures are uncommon and component usage (not machine usage) is typically quite low due to a great abundance of too simple machine runs.



(Editors Note:  This title does not really match the table of contents... exactly, why?  we do not know, perhaps the  table was done and the paper submitted at the last moment....ed-)

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