UNIVAC in Pittsburgh 1953-1963
Unisys History Newsletter
Volume 1, Number 1
September 1992 (revised 1999)
by C.J. "Sam" Huston
After the end of World War II, I went to work for Remington Rand in its punched card tabulating division. This equipment was manufactured in Ilion, New York, and I went there for training. This was funded with the G.I. Bill, but we had to pay our own room and board. The training center was run with military precision by a former Army colonel: each Friday there was a test, and the students who didn't score high enough flunked out. When I completed the training, I went to Pittsburgh, where there were over thirty Remington Rand tabulating customers, who used the equipment for various business functions. One project I worked on was the dividend accounting for Wheeling Steel Company. I left Remington Rand and worked at two other companies for several years. At the second one, I was in charge of the punched card accounting section, which used Remington Rand machines. When the first UNIVACs came out in 1951 and 1952, I decided that I wanted to work with computers. I returned to Remington Rand in 1953 and in 1956 became the computer SE manager for the Pittsburgh region, a position I held until 1963.
By the late 1950s there were four major UNIVAC customers in Pittsburgh: U.S. Steel, Westinghouse Electric, Alcoa, and Pittsburgh Plate Glass. U.S. Steel had a UNIVAC I on the 14th floor of a downtown office building. In the spring of 1959 it was replaced by two UNIVAC IIs in a converted warehouse outside of downtown. U.S. Steel used the UNIVACs for accounting, statistical, and engineering tasks. I spent a lot of time at U.S. Steel, programming in C-10 code, which was just a step above machine language. Toward the end of 1958, I was part of a team which converted U.S. Steel's pension fund from an IBM 650 to the UNIVAC I. We used the new FLOW-MATIC programming language, which was being developed by Grace Hopper's group in Philadelphia. Since the UNIVAC was busy most of the day running production work, the only time we could get for our testing was one or two twenty minute shots between 2 A.M. and 6 A.M. This made life difficult, because whenever we encountered a problem, we had to wait until 9 A.M. to call the FLOW-MATIC group and then stay around, hoping they would call back with a fix. The conversion was a success, and other applications were developed using the new language. I believe that we were the first commercial user of FLOWMATIC.
Remington Rand decided to centralize its UNIVAC sales and technical support resources in New York City. This created problems for those of us out in the field. To get formal training, we had to go to New York or the factory in Philadelphia, or else catch one of the classes offered at a new customer's site. I went to the UNIVAC I programming class which was taught for Alcoa at its New Kensington plant near Pittsburgh. We wished that training was more readily available. In 1959 our shortage of skilled people was eased somewhat when the company hired two ex-Air Force men. They had a good bit of UNIVAC I programming experience, but very little concept of how businesses used computers. It was also hard to get current technical information. All too often, customer employees returned from the national users group meetings with new information which was unknown to me or the other local Remington Rand staff.
The UNIVAC I and II were almost fully program compatible: just two or three instructions had new features on the II. After the pension fund conversion, we started using FLOW-MATIC and COBOL (when it became available) for some of our programs. The UNIVAC III was Remington Rand's large scale transistorized computer, and U.S. Steel bought one, which was delivered in the fall of 1962. The III was not program compatible with the I and II, but U.S. Steel chose it on the basis of its capabilities and a feeling that conversion to it would be easier than switching to another vendor. The COBOL programs were moved without too much trouble and the C-10 code programs were rewritten. At U.S. Steel the III replaced both IIs. Ten years later, UNIVAC had no third generation successor product for the III. The 9200s and 9300s were not program compatible, and they were smaller machines. U.S. Steel replaced the III with IBM computers.
I did not have much direct involvement in the UNIVAC III installation, because I was concentrating on the new UNIVAC 490s at U.S. Steel and Westinghouse. The real-time and communications capabilities of the 490 opened up new uses for computers. U.S. Steel used the 490 to schedule the operations of its National Tube Division mill. This had formerly been done by a cumbersome system using tabulating card machines and manual tub files. At Westinghouse, the 490 ran a centralized accounting system for all of its various divisions. I taught a class on the 490 to people from Westinghouse's accounting section. The 490 greatly reduced the delays in their month-end accounting process.
In the days of the vacuum tube and transistor computers, machines were categorized as being scientific or business. Yet, the 490 at Westinghouse was used for a "business" function. This illustrated the flexibility of the computer: it could be used for just about anything when the programmers put their minds to it. I encountered two more examples of this flexibility with customers who used the UNIVAC 120. The 120 was a small computer, not that much above a card tabulator, with the programming done entirely by plugboard. It had twelve 10-digit words of vacuum tube memory. The U.S. Bureau of Mines experiment station in Pittsburgh had a 120 and did all sorts of things with it. Besides the expected payroll and inventory, they used it for statistical and mathematical work, including curve fitting and solutions of simultaneous equations. The other place was Wheeling Steel Company, which had two 120s, primarily for accounting. One of the engineers also used them to work out theoretical problems in metallurgy, some of which were left over from his graduate school days: he couldn't solve them back then, because the computations were far too lengthy.
The Solid State computer was one of UNIVAC's successful products of the late 1950s. It came in two versions: one handled Remington Rand's 90 column card, while the other used IBM's 80 column card. I thought that Remington Rand management had gone too long trying to pretend that the 80 column IBM card wasn't dominant, so I was glad to see the Solid State 80. We were still having problems getting timely training: just two weeks after I went to a class on the Solid State 90, I had to teach one on the SS 80 at Bethlehem Steel. The class was huge: 42 students--and some of them had never even seen a punched card or imagined a magnetic tape. I persuaded the Bethlehem managers to withdraw the novices and get the class down to a manageable size.
In 1963 I took advantage of a chance to go to work for Westinghouse Electric. At first, I dealt mainly with their Burroughs computers. Westinghouse became the largest commercial Burroughs user in the world, with seventeen installed; primarily 2500s and 3500s, but including 5500s in Pittsburgh and Sunnyvale, California. A few years later, Burroughs was very late on an important delivery for a new Westinghouse plant in Virginia, delaying its opening. After that, Westinghouse stopped getting Burroughs machines. The B5500 in the Pittsburgh research laboratory was replaced by a UNIVAC 1108, and another 1108 was installed at the plant in Baltimore. The 1100s never really caught on in Pittsburgh. The 1108 at Westinghouse and one at Carnegie Mellon University (which was used by the engineering and physics people, but not by the computer science types), both installed in the late 1960s, were the first ones. There weren't many more.
I had a little more involvement with Westinghouse's 490, namely trying to find a buyer for it after we had upgraded to a 492 or a 494. I couldn't find anyone, and UNIVAC said it would charge $25,000 to remove the 490. Finally, one of the CEs bought it for $1.00 on the condition that he didn't have to remove it right away. He dismantled it in his spare time and made over $30,000 selling it as repair parts to other sites.
UNIVAC had a strong start in Pittsburgh with the three UNIVAC I installations, but the company was not very good at supporting us with technical help and program products. The slowness in bringing out newer computer models in the late 1950s and early 1960s hurt a lot, too. Too often, we just couldn't capitalize on the opportunities we had. UNIVAC I, II, and III, the Solid State, and the 490 were all fine machines. Of course today's desktop computers are more powerful than any of them, but we had to learn to walk before we could run. It has been an amazing change from the days of punched card tabulators.
Note from the Editor
An collection of oral history interviews is available from the Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota. The scholarly journal, the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing has published many historical articles. But both the oral history and journal efforts necessarily tend to focus on the better known figures in the history of computing. Many people may feel that what they have to tell doesn't justify the effort of a recorded interview or a scholarly article. So, they tell nothing, and then their experiences are lost. This newsletter is intended to serve as a forum for the exchange of historical information on UNIVAC, Burroughs, and Unisys computers. We need to have information from our readers: either short narratives, such as the one in this issue by Sam Huston, or bits of old documentation. Mr. Huston regrets that he no longer has his UNIVAC I programming card, but perhaps others still have one. The questions to be answered are endless. What was it like moving from the first generation computers to the relative sophistication of the UNIVAC 1107 and B5000 operating systems? Why did companies get a computer which wasn't made by IBM? And, what prompted companies to give up on UNIVAC or Burroughs and switch to something else? If we address these sorts of questions, this newsletter will be more than a compilation of anecdotes. When we put together these bits and pieces of history, we can find patterns in the past and provide ourselves with a guide for making decisions in the future.
What Do We Want To Know? (Starting Points)
- UNIVAC I and II: What was it like to program these early machines, and how many sites ventured into those pioneer higher level languages such as FLOW-MATIC and MATH-MATIC?
- Burroughs 204, 205, and 220: These vacuum tube computers had a small, but devoted, group of users during the late 1950s. What features made them so well liked?
- UNIVAC 1103 and 1105: The 1103 was the first "scientific" computer, and its users established USE as an organization to share software. What did they produce? Who, besides the Census Bureau, had an 1105?
- UNIVAC FILE COMPUTER: Northwest Airlines tried to do reservations on it; what applications did it run at other sites?
- UNIVAC III: The III was apparently a very sophisticated machine, incorporating much that UNIVAC learned from the LARC, but nowadays it is hardly ever mentioned. What software did it have? Who used it? It is said to have been overpriced; is that true?
- Burroughs 5000: The B5000 was very innovative. What customers were bold enough to buy it and program in ALGOL instead of FORTRAN?
- UNIVAC 1005: The 1005 went to war: at least one was used in South Vietnam, and another was in the Pentagon. What did the Army do with it?
- UNIVAC 418: It is said that a few 418s remained in operation until the early 1990s California is still running 418 emulation on its 1100--there's an interesting USE paper on that.
- Burroughs 5500: The 5500 was a 5000 that really worked. Some 5500s were used for years and years. How did people keep them going?
- UNIVAC 1108 and 1106: For a time, they were giant killers: replacing IBM machines. How did that happen?
- The BC/7: Who bought them and what did they switch to?
- NU ALGOL: This fine ALGOL compiler on the 1100s came from Norway (NU = Norwegian University). Was it ever used much in the U.S.?
This scarcely begins to address the range of topics. There is the story of the 9000 series, ancestor of today's System 80: what was its early development like? What about the V77: Sperry's ill-fated acquisition from Varian? The UNIVAC 1050 is now known as one of the machines which the Air Force replaced with 1100/60s, but why did the Air Force get the 1050s to begin with?
UNIVAC, Unisys, and FLOW-MATIC are registered trademarks of Unisys Corporation. Copyright 1992, 1999 by George Gray