After being hired as Director of Systems Programming at UNIVAC,
I decided to begin my tenure with a tour to the four programming sites
under my jurisdiction:
I called all together at each site and told them what I expected. And I
gave them two warnings:
- The New York operation, largely support and documentation, although
I added some research capability later, in the form of Al Paster,
Bill Burge. and Peter Landin.
- The Blue Bell (PA) site, where Grace Hopper had held sway for so long
(she was still there), and where the UNIVAC III was coming out as
the business computer,
- St. Paul (MN), where the former ERA people were producing the 1107 for
the scientific market,
- El Segundo (CA), where the Numerical Control people operated under Dr.
At the St. Paul site I was surprised to find that one of my new
employees was Julian J. Goodpasture, my very first manager in the
computer business. I was assigned to him at the RAND Corporation, and
knew him very well.
- I knew that the former occupiers of my position had lasted 6
months on average, but they should not count on it in my case.
- I was a programmer like they were, so they should not count on
fooling me as they had fooled former managers.
The Blue Bell site (outside Philadelphia) had pretty much female
management, which was fine by me (I had made a precedent at Marquardt
by paying women the same as men for the same work). But they were
juggling the attendance records for each other like a matriarchy, which
it was not. I asked for the back records, substantiated the charges, and
sacked the top manager on the spot. This got their attention like
nothing else might have. I appointed a David Meredith to take over.
Somehow I fortuitously inherited as an assistant one A. R. (Dick)
Shriver, who understood the heavy politics of UNIVAC, and kept me
from traps. And traps there were in plenty. I had never before
experienced such company-disloyal infighting, and so was too naive to
see the subsurface machinations. From Dick I got continuous and good advice.
He later went to ICL in England, but when there were problems there he
returned to the US without any money. I gave him an advance, mostly to
redeem his laundry. and then rehired him. Later we rejoined at GE in
Phoenix, and later still he was managing editor for (my) Honeywell
My first major problem was on the software for two new computers -- the
"commercial" UNIVAC III, out of Blue Bell, and the "scientific" 1107,
out of St. Paul. As both Blue Bell and St. Paul software were described
to me, neither seemed to afford a striking advantage against IBM, the
main competitor. There was an alternate way to go, having to do with CSC
(Computer Sciences Corporation). It deserves a story of its own on this site.
And there is one.
An Attempted Coup
When I started with UNIVAC, we had not yet moved into the new Sperry
Rand building uptown on the so-called Avenue of the Americas, but
inhabited a very old building on Lexington south of Grand Central
Station. Each day I was afraid that the wrought iron elevator cage
was going to fall into the basement. It was there, early on in the CSC
effort, that C. L. McCarty (who had inspired the CSC link) conceived
a scheme to serially:
Robert R. Hengen was Manager of Programming Field Support, based in New
York City, and reporting to me. McCarty wanted him for his coup d'etat,
but a very loyal Bob Hengen refused to join in, and (somewhat
uncomfortably) told me of it one morning. I fired McCarty and had his
gear out of the building before noon. He was not to find another job
for 18 months! Until a man from Diebold Associates called me at home in
Weston, Connecticut. I was pretty worried about him by that time, so I
told the Diebold man that they couldn't find a man better suited to
their company. He did not ask me why that was so, and I did not
volunteer an explanation. And so McCarty was employed again.
- Form his own company, taking key programmers from UNIVAC.
- Convert the CSC contract to his own, and then
- Sell that software to UNIVAC at a considerable markup.
Bob Hengen saved me another time. Jacques Stern was visiting UNIVAC.
Yes, he who later became in charge of the Compagnie Bull, in France.
We rode to lunch in a taxi -- Stern, his assistant, Bob Hengen, and
myself. While in the taxi, Stern talked to his aide in French, and to me
in English, quite unaware that Hengen was fluent in French even though I
was not. And what he told the aide was how gullible I was being about
his proposal. M. Stern must have been quite surprised when I declined
Because software is how the user sees the computer, I had to be sure of
the hardware as well. IBM had a Service Bureau where we could buy some
time. I had someone write a program to exercise the full range of
floating point numbers. We ran it in this equipment, and then we ran
it on the 1107. The IBM machine worked from 10 power -38 up to 10
The 1107 worked up to 10 power +38 at the high end, but it mushed out
at 10 power -22 at the low end. This was unacceptable. A competitor
had to be able to get the same answers to problems that IBM did! So
I called St. Paul Engineering, finding that this was due to underflow
in the more significant part of the number. I then issued an edict
that it had to be changed to underflow only on the less significant
Then came a strange and complaining phone call from the wife of
Tom somebody who had done the design. She insisted that her husband
had done it right. I allowed that perhaps he had, but I still thought
that we needed to get the same answers that IBM did.
The 1050 Computer
After joining UNIVAC, the first new machine to come along was the 1050,
a quite small system, for which Eric Clamons (later designer of the TEX
language) was the product planner. Due to our former cooperative work
on code standards, the 1050 was the first ASCII-based machine, one of
the few until PCs arrived.
The building of the PAL assembler for the 1050 was given to a new man
(I cannot remember his name) in Blue Bell. Several of us gave advice,
and when it arrived for use it was great. I called the man and told him
he was about to get a 25% raise for doing such good work. His boss's
boss, David Meredith, who reported to me, said to me that he would not
process such a raise, as the man had been with UNIVAC for only 3 months,
and could not be considered for review until at least 6 months! I said
he would process it, or I'd be finding somebody new for his job that
would! He did. That's how we got good software in the early days, folks!
The man called to thank me, and said "I'll work even harder now".
Many people were pleased by that assembler. I think it increased sales
greatly. Paul Nowak of Honeywell's Federal Systems
Division sent me this E-mail in 1993:
"Bob, my first language was PAL on Univac 1005/1050. It was actually
possible to execute a RASD - Read And Score Drum ... I dropped the
heads on a FASTRAN drum by feeding drum commands to a drum macro
labeled with the name of the tape macro."
For the manual, I commandeered two top managers at Blue Bell, told them
that the manual was to be for software-hardware combined, and was to be
THE single representation of the machine to the customer. I then moved
them to a New York hotel for 30 days. Each day I took their copy home
to Connecticut on the train, editing in both directions, and returned
the markup to them the next morning. When I had the manual I wanted, I
had their wives up for a weekend on the town at UNIVAC expense, after
which they were allowed to go home. Customers loved that manual!
It is possible to make decisions about obsolescence in the
computer business. During my tenure at UNIVAC, I went to Pres Eckert (he
of the ENIAC, then a VP there) and said that we just could not afford to
keep on making and selling cards with round holes in them when IBM was
using cards with rectangular holes. He agreed, and we passed our
decision on to the President, Dr. Louis Rader. UNIVAC cards used
rectangular holes from then on. We wiped out an entire product line! It
was a lot easier than accomplishing the same via an X3 standards
This may seem a trivial, if somewhat expensive, action to take, but it
had a profound effect later. When Eric Clamons was running the ASCII
committee in X3 he found almost insurmountable opposition from IBM.
He solved it by linking ASCII and EBCDIC to each other via the punch
card hole representations, quite independently of their differing binary
encodings. This one-for-one relationship allowed IBM a certain amount of
face and independence.
And -- because every ASCII character was linked uniquely
to an EBCDIC character via a standard punch card code that each now had in
common, IBM was able to build a chip that translated in either direction
between ASCII and EBCDIC. Today, friends, this is the basis of your
being able to use ASCII PC terminals connected to EBCDIC mainframes!
Aren't you glad I took that initiative?
The 418 Computer
One Lee Johnson was the Vice President for Federal Systems for UNIVAC,
and therefore headquartered in Washington, DC. It was said of him that
his usual method for getting agreement to his proposals was to provide
plenty of coffee and then lock the doors to the meeting room. His was a
naturally overbearing personality; most of us ascribed it to what 1990s
people call "being vertically challenged".
It happened that the St. Paul engineers had come up with a design called
the 418 computer. They proposed in a meeting that my groups do the
software for it. My argument against that was that we had not enough
manpower to add that to the workload we already had, which would suffer.
Moreover, I estimated the software costs at $3 million. At this point,
Lee said that, to the contrary, it was not a large task, and he had
programmers that were virtually standing around in Washington with not
much to do. They could polish off the 418 software suite in short order.
Buying Lee's argument that the software could be done for a song, Dr.
Rader succumbed and signed off. The next day the Washington newspapers
were full of ads for programmers! After I left, Milt Bryce had carried
on with our software production control, and sent me a sample of the
printouts. Perhaps inadvertently the sample was about the 418 software,
which was then up to $3.5 million, substantially more than I had claimed
it would cost. A very high-priced song!
The periodic meetings of UNIVAC equipment users were sometimes
difficult. One such meeting drew a lot of complaints about our FORTRAN
processors (for both 1107 and UNIVAC III). I was called to the meeting
to hear them. Rather than attempt to answer them there, I asked them to
send us all such complaints in writing, together with the source program
that caused the trouble (either error or slowness). I would assign
someone to run their program(s) and report to them directly on the
We received exactly two programs. One had faulty source code, which we
pointed out to them. The second actually caught a small design flaw,
which we fixed.
Programmer Peer Ranking
With anything over 50 technical people in your purview, it is hard to
know their relative capabilities. This was particularly so at St. Paul.
I conceived of a peer ranking, everyone evaluating all others. Results
were a little disconcerting:
I argued for a substantial raise for the first. Again, local management
tried to stick to the handbook. "But what if someone finds out and
offers a large increase to go with another company", I asked. "Would
not the real loss to the company be greater than the raise amount?"
- Second-ranked was a programmer whose salary was quite low.
- Ranked last was a man with 5 children and a fairly high salary.
In the second case, I argued that the man was so ill-suited to his work
that we were doing him a disservice by not prodding him to look for a
position where he could really contribute and grow.
Milton S. (Milt) Bryce was one of my direct reports. He and I got to
thinking about how to make software production a proper business.
We started out simply. Each major manager was required to identify the
software units he was required to produce, together with the identity of
interconnecting units. An estimate was required for number of
instructions and completion date. These data were put on punch cards,
with space for successive (dated) estimate revisions. Also for
signatures to these estimates! Managers were told that we would plot
progress from these, and justification must be submitted for major
deviation. They were also told that if plausible progress did not occur,
they would be going back to being just programmers until they could get it
This was the genesis of the Software Factory,
developed more fully at GE.
My publication output while at UNIVAC was at the lowest rate of my
career, reflecting the magnitude of the job and the amount of travel
entailed (266,000 miles in less than three years).
The first approach about my leaving UNIVAC came from a headhunter in New
York City, on behalf of RCA, who apparently wanted me to head their
programming operation. Perhaps this was because RCA, in Cherry Hill,
was attempting to clone IBM systems, and I knew the IBM story.
Actually they tried twice. On the first time my wife and I were given a
fancy lunch at the recruiter's office. Blazing shrimp and excellent
But my wife's good friend was Joan Rinaldi (secretary to Y. P. Dawkins,
VP of Marketing for IBM's Eastern Region) who was dating Ed Donegan, who
ran the RCA effort. From this I knew that cloning would not work for
them (although Gene Amdahl managed to pull it off later). I have
learned, from other memoirs of people working there then, that I chose
well in refusing.
My actual departure from UNIVAC was initiated by Dr. Rader's
announcement that he would be going back to General Electric, a move
that he frankly admitted was due in part to his wife's wishes. Thus I
was deprived of my mentor and several layers of protective armor. I
then reported to Fred Raach, who was not able to withstand pressure from
Lee Johnson, who had very good cause to dislike me. First Julian
Goodpasture was brought in to assist me, on the theory that I was not
managerial enough. Here's an example:
Dennis Hamilton once sent all software management a piece of very
clever code, claiming we could not improve it. I worked on it while
commuting, and after two days sent Dennis a slightly better
solution, copying the same people. Apparently it was beneath
managerial dignity to do so. But I always believed that managers
should understand what the troops were doing, although this
opinion fared no better in my future GE employment.
With one action and another, I was eased out. Lee Johnson's software
man was imported from Washington, and he held the position for many
years. Fred Raach was of the opinion that a VP title should satisfy me,
but I had invested too much of my professional honor to accept this.
Around Christmas of 1964 Dr. Rader invited me to a GE management
conference in Clearwater, Florida. There he introduced me to H.
Brainerd Fancher, who was to run the Bull GE operation in Paris.
Because Fancher was a little short on knowledge about computers per se,
I was made a very good offer to help him, and you can eventually find
five vignettes about that period.
Back to History Index
Back to Home Page