Anecdotes Web Extras

Computer Memories

James T. Humberd

Ten years ago I wrote a 60-page story about my computer experiences, for my grandkids, so when IEEE asked for some stories, I submitted a couple, they asked for more, so I submitted the whole thing.  I had no idea they would select more than a little of this and a little of that, but it's been fun to see what they selected (nearly two-thirds of the original story).

I had only two complete years of high school, then received my diploma via a GED test while serving in the United States Army in 1946-47. For a few months I attended college on the GI Bill, but I had to drop out because of problems with my eyes.

My brother Johnny returned to Cove High School in Martinsburg, PA as the District Superintendent. Just for fun he looked up my records and told me that when I took the GED test to go from 8th grade into High School, I had the highest score of anyone in the district, that year.


I am a "generalist." not a "specialist." I was more than good enough to carry my workload most of the time, but astute enough to know when to call in a specialist, and bright enough to know which expert to call.

I knew an awful lot about a very wide variety of subjects, but was not necessarily the final authority in any one of them. That was very useful, both for me and for those I worked for. At one company, for example, I could do more different jobs than most people, and do them very well, and that's why they kept me on the payroll, after my boss and hundreds of others I worked with, were laid-off.

Need it be added that being a generalist, rather than a specialist was an important attribute for a designer of a production control system utilizing IBM Electronic Accounting Machines (EAM), and later computers, especially since no one had ever done that before.


When I lived in Akron, Ohio, I went to High School in the daytime and worked evenings at the newspaper, the Akron Beacon Journal. All Saturday night, we stuffed the Sunday paper with advertisements and special sections. Occasionally they would let me push the START button on the huge presses, but mainly I kept supplies of wire available for binding bundles of papers, and delivered the first dozen copies off the press, to various offices.

On the corner across the street was a building with a simple sign that said "International Business Machines." 

One day, while having a bite to eat at the diner on another corner, I sat on the stool next to a well-dressed man who said he worked for IBM. He told me about 100 words or less about what they did, but that was all it took to get my interest.

Later I was stuffing Sunday papers when Wendle Wilkie died. We went on coffee break while they put the story in the paper, and when we returned I noticed an error that seemed to say he died before he had the stroke, or whatever he had. They said, "Keep the presses running while we make the change," so many people received the paper with the error.

I also grabbed a stack of papers from the press (with the permission of the head pressman), and went to the street to sell the paper announcing Franklin D. Roosevelt's fourth election as president. Since I did it without his permission, and without the required "bribe," I later found the "big man" (both physically and as a "boss") was being very kind to me when he let me off with a warning, rather than the busted head other people said I should expect.


During my brief time in college, I had heard there was a class called "Introduction to IBM Equipment held in the "IBM Room," but it was unavailable to freshmen. Using my experience in Akron as a wedge, I talked my way into the class, and learned a little about IBM Machines, enough to make me anxious to learn even more about them.

I determined that if I could get a job in an IBM Department somewhere, I would be in an office environment, but would not need to strain my eyes, as would be necessary in so many desk jobs. And as time went on, I found I was right.


While I worked as a diesel engine repairman at International Harvester, I visited the IBM office in downtown Chicago, to see what I could find out. But they followed a rule that they would not help anyone get a job with one of their customers, if that person already worked at another IBM customer, so they would not talk to me. I didn't want to quit my job without some idea what this was all about, and before I found out anything, I was called back into the Army during the Korean War.

The main thing I remember about that visit, was that while walking through the stair well on about the 8th floor, two men were pushing an IBM machine of some kind past the stairs when one of the legs collapsed, and the machine tumbled down a flight of stairs. No one was hurt, and that didn't discourage me at all.


I was called back into the Army in November 1950, and was to be sent to Ft. Monmouth, NJ.  I wanted to get into the IBM business, but didn't really know what it was. At the Army induction center in Chicago, I met a Master Sergeant who was a Supervisor in an IBM Department somewhere in Chicago. He suggested that each time someone asked what I did, I was to say, "I'm an IBM man," and when I met someone who knew what that means, tell him the truth.

That is exactly what happened. When I arrived at Fort Monmouth I told everyone who asked, that I worked with IBM machines, and no one, including me, knew what that meant, but everyone knew it was important, and knew they were not to assign an IBM man to any other job.

After a week or so, I was sent to an interview with Ted, the man who ran the IBM Room on the Fort. I admitted I knew nothing about IBM, and Ted said, "That's OK, I want someone who can read a Morning Report." That's a special US Army report that I knew most everything about. I had typed them as an Army clerk the first time I was in the service, and as a Battalion clerk, had proofread thousands of them.

We got along very well, and Ted gave me a key to the building so I could spend nights and weekends learning to run the machines. The IBM repairman said he knew to come there first thing every Monday morning, without waiting for a call, to replace all the fuses I had blown over the weekend. The machines included a sorter, a 077 collator, a 513 card punch, a 405 tabulator, the 601 calculator, and the brand new 026 Printing Keypunch.

Whenever the Army had the nerve to assign me some other task like KP, guard duty, or to march in a parade, Ted would sign any paper I prepared, telling the powers that be that I was too important for that, as I had to "IBM that day!" And it worked, every time.

By this time, I was 23 years old, married, was raised on a farm; had worked as: a diesel engine repairman; spot-welder; lugger of 250 pound bales of rubber in a warehouse; operator of a metal band saw in a locomotive manufacturing plant; a milkman delivering milk early in the morning in Chicago and in small towns in the coal mining area of Pennsylvania. I had sailed in the Merchant Marines (my 18th birthday was spent on a troop ship in the harbor of Singapore, on the way from Manila to Calcutta); and had served in the US Army twice. I knew I didn't want to do any of those jobs for the rest of my life.


When I was discharged from the Army, I returned to International Harvester (IHC) in Chicago, and got a job in the IBM Department, rather than on the diesel engine assembly line, where I had worked before being called back into the Army for the Korean War. I remember the pay as $82.50 a week, a whole two dollars a hour: a fortune in those days.

In those days, if you worked with IBM equipment, you were in the IBM Department and in the IBM business.

My job at IHC was on the second shift, so in the daytime I worked part time for Statistical Tabulating Company (Stat Tab) in downtown Chicago, running various IBM machines, learning all I could about them, and incidentally, earning money to support my family.

Stat Tab had one of the first IBM 603 Calculators without any lights on an outside panel that could be used to step through a wired program to see what was happening. I seem to remember that the IBM repairman could open the door and see lights on the inside, but that was a slow and laborious process. IBM took the hint, and designed the 604 with an exterior light panel that was helpful in seeing what the wired program was doing, or in most cases, was not doing.


A year or so later, after being "snowed in" during Chicago's winter months, we moved to Fort Worth, Texas where I worked for an Insurance Company. A year or so later we moved to Dallas, and I worked at Chance Vought Aircraft, using IBM EAM equipment at both locations. I remember some of my colleagues being upset with me, because I spent many evenings at the local IBM office, attending classes on various subjects. One man said, "You damn Yankee, you're just trying to get ahead of us local boys." He was correct!

At Chance Vought Aircraft, I soon discovered that I was the only person around who had experience both in a factory and in the IBM Room, so I was uniquely positioned as the person to help design the production control system for the F-4-U, and the F-8-U fighters, and the Regulus Missile systems.

I had the opportunity to create, with the help of others, a production control system using IBM cards and EAM equipment. In 1952-1953, Chance Vought built 90 of the gull-winged F-4-U Corsairs, famous from World War II days, for the French Navy to use in Vietnam. They also built the Regulus Missile System, and the F-7-U and F-8-U fighter jets.