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Meeting of the
Los Angeles Chapter of ACM

Wednesday, January 8, 2003

"Von Neumann versus Watson Senior"

Dr. Herbert RJ Grosch
noted computer pioneer and a former ACM president

The speaker installed and directed computing at the IBM lab at Columbia, where he did backup calculations for von Neumann and Los Alamos [1945-46]. That lab was part of IBM's Pure Science activity, along with their first giant electronic machine, the SSEC [1948-53], and both were conceived and paid for by Watson.

Dr. Grosch will contrast the contributions of these enormously important figures, as he saw them and worked with them.

A COMPUTER PIONEER still active at the policy level, and very much concerned about futures in the computer field, Dr. Grosch is known for the relationship between speed and cost which he discovered in the early Fifties. He worked twice for IBM, twice for GE, and twice for the Federal government - the second time as director of the Bureau of Standards institute which was charged with improving the overall effectiveness of government information processing.

He lived and worked in Europe for many years, and consulted for companies there, in North America, and in Japan. Many years ago he was active in celestial mechanics and in optical design; later, before becoming the first manager of IBM's space program, he was president of the major aerospace society. He was a charter member of the Association for Computing Machinery, and is a former president and council member of that 84,000-member organization.

He has been a contributing editor of DATAMATION, was on the editorial board of MANAGEMENT TECHNOLOGY, and for some years was editorial director of COMPUTERWORLD. He travels and speaks widely, both to technical and to popular audiences; in his speeches as well as his writings he is renowned for his insights and notorious for his frankness.


LA ACM Chapter January Meeting.
Held Wednesday, January 8, 2003.

The presentation was "Von Neumann versus Watson Senior" a presentation by Dr. Herbert RJ Grosch, the noted computer pioneer and a former ACM president. This was a regular meeting of the Los Angeles Chapter of ACM.

Herb Grosch started out by showing a photo of some navy brass, John Von Neumann and Thomas Watson Senior, Wallace Eckert, and Herb Grosch at the dedication of the NORC Navy Ordnance Research Calculator in 1954 at Newark Center. This was the first computer designed to be a super computer over and above the IBM 700 series and Univac 1 and 1103 coming into mass production.

About 50 years ago people in LA started to join the Eastern Association for Computer Machinery. There was no chapter structure, just a few thousand people, mostly academics. Westerners wanted people from the east to talk to them. Herb Grosch was the first speaker out here, and here he is again after 51 years.

Astronomers were the first to use automatic computing machinery for technical calculations other than statisticians. He showed his first publication in 1936 of calculations performed on a Munroe calculator. Alan Maxwell was his mentor in entering the computer business.

He showed an IBM ID card with his picture. He was the first North American IBM employee with facial hair. Beards and mustaches were not allowed by IBM, at least in North America. He also showed the operating code for the IBM 701 and the punch card code.

Watson was a very strange man. A great leader, popular with his own people and customers. He was in favor of science. Actually he was in favor of advanced development and technology as he really did not know what science was.

Watson kept his eye on what was going on in the world. He was positive his punch card machines would sweep the country and the globe. During World War II things were specified by the government and punched card machines were in great demand then. He was still thinking about science and the future of IBM.

At that time Grosch was a young astronomer at the Naval Observatory. He was working with a strange telescope that was not very popular because of its unusual optical characteristics. Across the hall was the world's first permanent rent paying technical card machine put in by Wallace Eckert.

In World War II in New Mexico in a place commonly called Post Office Box 571, Santa Fe, New Mexico but now called Los Alamos was started up using punch card machines. Von Neumann, Oppenheimer and Feynman (later a Nobel prize winner) were working there designing the first atomic weapons. There were six IBM punch card machines, multipliers that did 600 multiplications per hour. Feynman persuaded IBM to design two of machines so they could divide. They wanted more machines. Watson saw a chance to move IBM ahead and he appointed Wallace Eckert as the head of the pure science department of IBM. The first person Eckert hired was Herb Grosch he installed machines and did calculations for the atomic bomb. He had 14 machines, none of which did division.

There was an assortment of brilliant people at Los Alamos. Grosch ran calculations and sent them, unlabeled for security purposes and mailed them to Von Neumann. The pure science department hired I. I. Rabi another Nobel Prize Winner. Wallace Eckert began the design and the analysis of SSCE - a huge vacuum tube computer and the second of its type. ENIAC was the first. The second large IBM computer, the first was the electro-mechanical Mark I. Grosch noted that one of the junior people was Edgar F. Codd famed for Data Base relationships. Another new person was John Backus of Fortran fame. Herb Grosch was teaching them numerical analysis. There was a picture of large computing equipment with 12,000 vacuum tubes. Grosch showed us punched tape the width of an IBM punch card and the second issue of Computer World with Herb Grosch on the cover. Von Neumann was invited to join the computer association but declined as he had decided that things had not matured to the point where it was needed.

The original publication of Grosch's law was in 1953, although he had developed in 1950, that said economy varies as the square root of the speed. It was the primary pricing mechanism of the 50's. Grosch said that the companies used his law for their pricing which helped in keeping it true. Grosch views these two men, John Von Neumann and Thomas J.Watson, Sr. as leaders. Watson was a leader and salesman. Grosch revered as leaders, Thomas Watson, Sr., Werner Von Braun and Gerhard Neumann, the founder of jet engines at General Electric. Grosch admires Watson very much. Von Neumann was a science pioneer, not a leader except in the sense of being an intellectual pioneer. Von Neumann, in spite of enormous mental capabilities, Grosch did not admire. He believes Von Neumann put everything they had at the service of the military. Grosch thought Von Braun was different. Werner Von Braun wanted to walk on Mars and he would have worked for anyone who would have advanced that.

Why does he admire Watson so much? He pushed the concept of stakeholders - Share owners and customers. Watson loved the customer and wanted to make certain they were treated well. Another shareholder was the work force, it was attractive to be an IBM employee. Watson didn't know the term "stakeholder" but he acted that way. Watson was in favor of the future; science, novelty, advancement and he wanted IBM to divide the returns with the shareholders, customers and employees. Von Neumann wanted to understand things. He gave famous lectures that were seminal in the understanding of computers. The thing he was given credit for, called the Von Neumann architecture was really the Babbage architecture. Grosch said he doesn't believe Von Neumann claimed his architecture was original, but others gave him that credit. Von Neumann kept bringing up an enormous number of ideas that were very important in advancing the knowledge of how to use computers.

Watson Sr. was responsible for the rapid spread of computers and the art of computing around the world. It spread with enormous efficiency and the impetus lasted beyond his death. Von Neumann was the great explainer and studier and the founder and proliferator of Computer Science departments. Grosch referred to much of computer science, including artificial intelligence, as scams. Von Neumann and Watson made the computing world that we have today possible, in their very different ways. Watson was keen on education, he educated his own people and his customers.

Why were you fired from IBM? "For telling Red Lamont, the number 3 man of IBM, that I knew better than he did how to use Stan Rothman's services. If you insist on getting Rothman then you will lose Rothman and me." Lamont told Grosch to get lost. Grosch said that the first firing was probably justified. This was not so the second time. Grosch was made the first head of IBM's Space Program. He went to a meeting by Lee DuBridge at CalTech. Louis Ridenour had just been made head of Lockheed Electronics, in 1959 and he criticized the missile program as a waste while other human needs on earth were not met. Grosch said the fact that we could have a discussion like this was the swan song of a dying culture. Ridenour's opinions were attributed to Grosch by the New York Times, which reported that an IBM scientist was accused of saying the missile program was the swan song of a dying culture. Grosch was fired even though DuBridge verified that Grosch had not made the remarks attributed to him. He was offered a publications job at IBM if he agreed to keep his mouth shut, but that was unsatisfactory to Grosch.

Many years later Grosch was made editor of Computer World and he got an invitation from McGovern, the person behind the "for dummy's books" for a lunch at IBM's Armonk headquarters. At the lunch Grosch was given a duck decoy by Thomas Watson, Jr. as Grosch was the wild duck of the space program. Grosch spend 6 years at the National Bureau of Standards. IBM announced a new series of computers known as System 3. It was as non-standard as it could be compared with any previous uses. Grosch wrote a letter to the General Services Administration stopping all government procurement of IBM System 3 computers. A short time later he was fired. In a sense he was fired by IBM three times. There is a lot of resistance to standards. Grosch proposed that the government order Cobol compilers that would run all of the Cobol standard and nothing else. He had only two supporters at a large standards meeting. The Cobol standard didn't come out too bad because of Grace Hopper. We don't understand how things have happened in recent years and there should be a greater effort made to get all the details of the early years.

This was the fifth meeting of the LA Chapter year and was attended by about 25 persons. This was a great meeting with one of the few remaining founders that made the computing profession what it is today. It was a wonderful session with one of the most controversial and interesting figures in the field.
Mike Walsh, LA ACM Secretary


The February 2003 meeting will be on Wednesday, the 5th. There will be two speakers, Seth Schoen and Cory Doctorow, who are with Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and will discuss issues related to the emerging "locked-down" of personal computer hardware and operating system architectures. This is a Joint Meeting with the IEEE Computer Society.
Join us

The Los Angeles Chapter normally meets the first Wednesday of each month at the Ramada Hotel, 6333 Bristol Parkway, Culver City. The program begins at 8 PM.   From the San Diego Freeway (405) take the Sepulveda/Centinela exit southbound or the Slauson/Sepulveda exit northbound.

5:15 p.m.  Business Meeting

6:30 p.m. Cocktails/Social

7:00 p.m. Dinner

8:00 p.m.  Presentation



To make a reservation, call or e-mail John Halbur, (310) 375-7037, and indicate your choice of entree, by Sunday before the dinner meeting.

There is no charge or reservation required to attend the presentation at 8:00 p.m.. Parking is FREE!

For membership information, contact Mike Walsh, (818)785-5056 or follow this link.

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