The Computer, as Seen from 1955

Modern Mechanix has the full text of Time Magazine’s 1955 article on the emerging computer industry, centered around an adulatory interview with Tom Watson Jr of IBM.

I mentioned the interesting backstory on this article in comments at my review of Watson Jr’s excellent autobiography. The magazine had assigned a reporter named Virginia Bennett to find out about “automation in America.” She went to see Remington Rand, whose UNIVAC product was then the epitome of computing coolness…but, “fortunately for us, they weren’t very forthcoming that day.”  Walking back to her office, she passed the IBM building, saw the “Defense Calculator”  (IBM 701) in the window, and decided to see if IBM would be interested in doing the interview. When she asked the receptionist who she could speak with, the receptionist was smart enough to say, “Well, the head of this company is Mr Watson. He isn’t in the building today, but his son Tom is the president and you can certainly see him.”

The resulting article was very powerful publicity for IBM, and surely no help at all for Remington Rand’s relative industry standing.  If the receptionist had greeted the reporter with the all-too-typical bureaucratic approach (“The Watsons are very busy men, you’ll have to call Public Relations and make an appointment.”) the outcome would likely have been quite different.  Tom Jr notes that his father considered the receptionist position very important, and always chose those women himself.

In comments to my review of Tom Jr’s autobiography (see link above), I quoted an Israel general who asserted that “there is no substitute for the alert and intelligent infantryman” and noted that this is also true of the alert and intelligent front-line employee.

9 thoughts on “The Computer, as Seen from 1955”

  1. Tom Jr notes that his father considered the receptionist position very important, and always chose those women himself.

    I worked several years for a wealthy individual. I considered him to be a good boss- just do your job and make sure that when you talk with him, that you don’t waste his time. He was also very skilled at coming up with the best questions to get at the essence of what I had been assigned.

    I learned that from a receptionist’s point of view, he could be a high maintenance type when my Spanish language skills got me drafted into calling a hotel in Guatemala to make reservations for Christmas vacation for him and his family. His requirements were, shall we say, a bit detailed and stringent. The hotel reservations project was no skin off my back, because I was getting paid regardless, but it showed me how it would at times be difficult for a receptionist to hide feelings of irritation at all his demands/requests. [Turned out the vacation in Guatemala got cancelled.

    He fired one receptionist at 5 p.m. Friday afternoon- don’t come back to work next week- after she had been working for him for several years. I suspect she was unable a time or two to hide her irritation at his high maintenance requests [such as buying his wife or child presents.] The new receptionist was very skilled at dealing with him. No, it was not a low-skill job to tactfully deal with such a high maintenance person and keep your job.

  2. Amen … and yes, I have worked as receptionist – mostly in conjunction with being the office manager, but now and again as a temp. The receptionist is the first person that people meet, coming into the office – he or she represents the company. First impressions and all of that. Knowing who, and what, and all of that … it calls for considerable skills in diplomacy. Which usually aren’t valued enough – except by the very wise.

  3. The receptionist is the gatekeeper and as such all important. keep too many people away and the boss doesn’t know what is going on out there – let too many in and the boss is inundated.

    As an aside I remember some astute prediction from circa that year – that the total market demand for computers would be about 100 – I think that was Watson Sr.

    BTW I would think – shopping for he boss of picking up dry cleaning shouldn’t be in the job description.

  4. There are no unimportant employees. Consider the janitor. How would your customers react if your premises smelled like sewerage?

  5. Robert – *giggle* exactly. There was a job which I interviewed for – admin/office manager/secretary – at a startup in a company just a little too far away for me to consider a daily commute, so I didn’t really mind not getting the job. The enterprise was operating out of a converted warehouse, in an industrial park – and a very down-at-heels one, at that. I had driven over to it, with my nice suit coat and silk scarf on the passenger seat, since it was a hot day, the AC on my car was a distant memory, and I wanted to look cool, collected and professional when I appeared for the interview.

    I looked around when I parked in front of the place, and realized even so, I was a bit over-dressed. The front office was a pit – water-stained ceiling tiles (which I didn’t mind, really – these things happen) but the carpet in the office was just covered with fluff and crud. At the end of the interview, the prospective boss asked me what was the first thing I would do, if he hired me – and I said, “Bring in a vacuum and clean up this office.”

    Didn’t get the job – naturally. And didn’t mind.

  6. I would say the article is a parable in how important PEOPLE are to the success of an organization.

  7. There was a great book on what makes successful companies….successful. They profiled companies as big as IBM and HP and small ones – and they all had one thing in common – listening to their employees – “empowering” them (to use a worn out cliche these days – but they could make changes without having to go to the top all the time.

    Look at Toyota – and how they revolutionized car production – any employee, if seeing a problem, can stop the entire assembly line.

    So yes, people are everything :-)

  8. After I left the surgical group, I set up my own office with the help of a long term employee who did not get along really well with my other senior partner. She was just a little abrasive but very efficient. She set up my office and things went well. A few years later, she told me that her husband, who was an engineer, was being transferred to San Diego and she would have to live down there, closer to his work which had been in Irvine for years. I was going to Vienna to give a paper at a surgical meeting so I invited her and her husband to go as a thank you. A few weeks later, she came to me and said she had been looking for a job near San Diego and, “They don’t pay as well as you do.” I replied that I knew that. She said, “If you won’t take back the trip, I won’t quit.”

    It was a deal even though she was willing to drive an hour each day each way to me office. I got her a company car and we soldiered on until I retired.

    My other employee was a great receptionist. She was friendly and knew every patient well. A surgeon’s office is very dependent on good relations with, not only patients, but other doctors’ offices. Any call could mean a large surgery with a lot of money involved. At an earlier time, we had an informal employment agency run by our office manager. She saved applications from people we didn’t hire and had a file that eventually included most of the community’s other doctors’ staff members. Sometimes she would get a call from another office from a girl who would say, “Put my file back in the active list.” She was ready to quit. After a few years, most of the primary care doctors’ office were staffed by people who got their jobs through our office. Who do you think they called when a surgeon was needed ?

    When the typical slow payment season was present, every fall near the end of the fiscal year for insurance companies, the staff would spend extra time calling receivables. If they did good, I would send them with their boyfriends or husband to Hawaii or some other vacation. I ran an office with a monthly billing about half of my former group. They had five surgeons and 14 employees. I had two surgeons and two employees.

    That, of course, is now all gone as we are in the era of industrial medicine with Obamacare. Personal relationships, not just between doctors, was very important. Now it will be power trips with administrators who hated doctors’ independence. I hear the stories every week now.

  9. I was always a fan of HP -the HP Way. That is before Carly Fiorina ran it. Some of the changes she made – maybe were necessary, but who knows? Merging with Compaq was a dud.

    Point was with the old HP – pre-Carly – they used to serve donuts every Friday. It was an HP tradition for who knows how long.

    The donuts were, like your nice trips, just a way for the company to connect with the employees. When the employees know that the company cares, it is powerful.

Comments are closed.