Sunday, September 16, 2007

Army-Navy and in between: RCA Spectra and Univac: mainframe history


Theoretically, my two years of Army service, 1968-1970, where I “volunteered for the draft” for “enlisted for two years” and wound up with an RA number (RA11937256) and took that 95% chance of winding up in infantry, the queen of battle. Well, my MOS out of Basic (even given a few weeks of STC – Special Training Company) was “01E20” – Mathematician. I spent the summer of 1968 – three months – in the Pentagon, and, after a mysterious transfer, the rest of my hitch at Fort Eustis, VA (“Fort Useless”) with the Combat Development Command Transportation Agency (USACDCTA) in that “white building” that no longer stands.

There, in theory, should have provided computer experience. That was minimal to say the least. At the Pentagon, we coded sheets classifying units as Combat, Combat Support (Engineers), and Combat Service Support (CSS). At Fort Eustis, we coded a library cataloguing system (on coding sheets) called SPIRAL. That kept me out of the rice paddies, a morally controversial ploy in its day. It got a chance to study and read about a simulation package called SIMSCRIPT.

In the middle of 1969 I started researching what my first job would be. Companies would respond with form letters in fancy letterheads, but some of them bit. I got flown to an interview with Rand in California (Rand would write the million dollar unheard proposal in 1993 on how to lift the ban on gays in the military) because of my Simscript background. I was flown to Syracuse in December to interview GE Heavy Military Equipment, to New Jersey for Bell Labs and for RCA Labs. In those days, companies paid the interviewing expenses for people with graduate degrees (I had the MA in math from the University of Kansas).

Rand and GE lost some budget with Nixon’s cutbacks, already taking hold. But Bell Labs and RCA came through with offers. With both interviews, I had to give technical talks on my Master’s Thesis (“Minimax Rational Function Approximation”). I wound up taking the RCA offer, the Operations Research Training Program at David Sarnoff Research Center in Princeton NJ, near the Princeton Junction station, on Route 571, a few miles from the University. (I understand that this Center now belongs to SAIC.) I lived in an apartment in what was then called Cranbury and is now called East Windsor. (RCA also had an MIS training program, where programmers roomed in a motel while being trained for ten weeks in COBOL and assembler, something that conjures up ideas of how EDS used to train its systems engineers during that era).

Operations Research conjures up ideas of linear programming and optimization. It does include these. However, at RCA, the program consisted of a few “assignments” at various RCA locations. After three months at the labs, I was sent to Indianapolis, to a television manufacturing plant. I was supposed to complete a dynamic programming model to optimize production lines. The model was written in Fortran and to be run from punched cards on an RCA Spectra 70. At the time, Spectra was pretty much a clone of IBM. It had the same assembler and languages. The system was totally inadequate for processing the algorithm. Today, there would probably be nothing to it and I suspect that there are dynamic programming algorithms to solve this kind of problem in java libraries.

I also worked on a manpower allocation model at Cherry Hill, NJ. We would work on TTY terminals (with paper roll output, no CRT) and diddle around with the data.

This did not result in an offer. RCA television sales and other sales dropped off in 1970 and I was laid off in February 1971. That was my only layoff until December 2001 (thirty more years). Luckily, I knew someone in the Navy department, and that would lead me to Univac. So I went back to work for the military as a civilian, working on Fortran simulations on a Univac 1108, with “Exec 8” which was a command-like JCL that resembles Unix or Linux, and the Naval Command Systems Support Activity, NAVCOSSACT, in the Washington Navy Yard, now unrecognizable with all of the development. I used to park on Water Street, not too far from the new Nats Stadium. .

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