Data Proccesing

On December 10, 1997, John W. Alden, Vice Chairman of United Parcel Service addressing the faculty and students of Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management, said, in part...
"In 1965, there were no PCs. Those of us who crunched numbers had Comptometers on our desks -- bulky mechanical adding machines that lasted forever. In fact, their lack of "obsolescence" utimately led to the downfall of the company that manufactured them."

We can overlook the UPS executive calling the Comptometer an "adding machine" and his focus on corporate fortunes. Clearly, this was simply a passing remark to future managers but it highlites just how late in this century the Comptometer was used in business. In fact, it continued to play a role for another ten years.

But we'll need to look further back for perspecive on how all this came about. Depending on one's view, "data processing" is as old as the pyramids or as recent as electronic computers. Arbitrarily perhaps, we'll begin with the arrival of the pen and ink bookkkeeper, the Bob Crackets of the early nineteenth century rather than the scribes and stone cutters of ancient Egypt.

As Cochran reports, America in 1800 was essentially rural...

"Not one in ten lived in a town of 1000 inhabitants and most were farmers. They grew food for their table, made their own clothes, blankets, candles, soap, furniture, rum and cider, cut their own logs, built their own fences, barns and houses. Infrequently, they visited in town where the blacksmith, cobblers, coopers, dryers and tanners had a virtual monopoly on services and the general store was the only source of sugar, coffee, salt, guns, gunpowder, glass, textiles and the like."

As America expanded her boundries westward, the population began the slow evolution from a rural agrarian society to one of urban manufacture, finance and commerce. The new trails and rivers and, later, the canals and railroads, permitted travel and shipment over longer distances and larger urban centers gradually came into being.

Urban industrialization was being born. By 1821, Cochran continues...

"a new class was arising.. of artisans, mechanics, teamsters, factory operatives, and --perhaps more important-- bookkeepers, salesmen, clerks, tellers, mercantile and steamship agents... More complex business techniques and much larger office staffs had become necessary to maintain the new pace... ...there appeared the urban white-collar worker."

Between that time and the start of the U.S. Civil war in 1861, very little change took place and the burdens of record keeping went unrelieved. Coincident with the war, the era of interchangeable parts had arrived but would be limited to weapons technology for the "duration".

Following the conflict around 1870, inventors were able to design machines that could be manufactured to tight tolerances AND benefit from interchangeability. Mechanically workable calculators were now possible and patents were issued for several novel designs. But their usability was, for the most part, nonexistant.

In the mid-1880s, truly practical office machines began appearing. The typewriter, the check protector, time recorders, etc. arrived. Edison, having invented sound recording, was convinced that it belonged in the office and exploited only the dictation machine market, while ignoring the phonograph until the turn of the century.

In the same decade, John Ritty designed his first practical cash register, Herman Hollerith invented the tabulaor, Wm S. Burroughs invented the adding machine, and Dorr E. Felt invented his Comptometer. While Hollerith's tabulator was originally a sorter-counter, the rest were machines to "add up" values. They were all attacking the problem of record keeping, a major office drudgery of that era.

Burroughs' "adder-lister"s and NCR's cash registers were primarily "front office" or "counter" machines where the combination of mechancial addition and printed list were clearly essential. NCR dominated the retail market and went on to challenge Burroughs' hold on the banking business.

Hollerith's tabulator and Felt's Comptometer were "back office" machines where there was less need for listings and a great need for efficient, reliable counting and totaling. Its a little known fact that the tabulator and the Comptometer were roughly equal rivals for this data processing market over the next 50 years.

With all the many improvements that IBM and Remington Rand would bring to the tabulator during this period, they were unable to achieve true dominance over the combination of the trained Comptometer operator and her beloved machine. It remained for electronic computers and calculators to finally retire these vintage data processing systems.

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