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Click 1950s Computer – Large image to view an enlarged version of the image above.
Yesterday and Today
On June 15, 2010, Apple began taking orders for its new iPhone 4. By now, humans should be used to new technological tools. Yet, we continue to feel “the excitement of the new.” Fifty years ago, the men in the photo above might well have felt the same flush of excitement that an iPhone 4 purchaser feels today!
The Bendix G-15
The image above is undated, but it was probably taken during the last half of the 1950s. The Michigan State Highway Department offices would seem the likely setting. (The words “Department of Transportation” are stamped on the reverse side. The Michigan State Highway Department is a predecessor agency of the Michigan DOT.)
A logo reading “Bendix Computer” appears on the machine. Having conducted some research, this author believes the computer to be a Bendix model G-15. Paul E. Cerruzi, in his book A History of Modern Computing (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998) notes that Harry Huskey developed the Bendix G-15 at Detroit’s Wayne State University in 1953. Cerruzi notes that the G-15 “was regarded as difficult to program, but for those who could program it, it was very fast.” He adds that the first models were delivered in 1956, at a “basic price of $45,000.”
The Ozaukee County (Wisconsin) official web site includes a 1955 Bendix G-15 ad (Click Bendix G-15 ad to view this.). The ad boasts of the machine’s small size, noting that it takes up “no more space than two filing cabinets.” It also notes that “the computer can be used as a tool for such calculations as the analysis of origin and destination surveys, of construction and maintenance costs, traffic accident reports, personnel statistics, road life studies, road inventories, status of highways, traffic flow and control…” From this, it would seem that Bendix deemed highway planning and construction officials main users of the device.
“An Astonishingly Fast Calculating Machine”
Michigan State Highway Department Engineer Marion W. Landon wrote an article on computers for the April 1958 issue of Hy-Lighter (The Michigan State Highway Department began publishing this magazine in the 1940s.). In the Archives of Michigan, a copy of Landon’s article was filed with the photo above.
Landon refers to the “electronic computer” as “an astonishingly fast calculating machine.” He adds that “in the vernacular of the trade, it is referred to as a piece of hardware.” Within its interior, writes Landon, one could see “miles of wiring and hundreds of electronic tubes and transistors.” He cites the computer’s speed as a definite advantage, but also notes that a program for the pertinent problem type has to be “prepared and properly coded” before use. According to Landon, such a program can take “anywhere from two man-hours to six or ten man-months, depending upon the type and complexity of the problem involved.”
Was the Bendix G-15 worth that sort of effort for highway engineers? Landon acknowledges a lack of available data. In 1958, this technology was simply too new. He notes, though, that “the cost of initial programming and getting the computer installation into production should…be amortized over a period of years.” (Once a program for a problem type is finished, of course, that same program could be used again and again.)
“Here to Stay”
Landon concludes that “the electronic computer, as an engineering tool” is here to stay. Certainly, he was correct about this. One wonders if he ever foresaw a time when virtually every person owned a personal computer – or carried a telephone in his or her pocket!
Much has changed in fifty years. Imagine what we might behold in fifty more!