Josef EggerEin Wunderwerk der Technik

Josef Egger, “Ein Wunderwerk der Technik”: Frühe Computernutzung in der Schweiz (1960-1980), pp. 9-12, 191-210, 211-226 (Zurich 2014).

Background

The text of Josef Egger begins with a quote from 1959: «Als Nichtfachmman steht man staunend und voll Bewunderung vor diesem Wunderwerk der Technik, deren Siegeszug unaufhaltbar scheint» (translated: «As a layman one stands astonished and full of admiration at the miracle of technology, of which its success seems unstoppable»). On 30 May 1959 the Winterthurer Landbote (translated: «Winterthur Country Messenger») published an article about automation in the company Rieter, which had just successfully introduced its electronic data processing machine. As is seen today, the success of technology and, in particular, of computers has been «unstoppable». Rieter is the world’s leading supplier of systems for short-staple fibre spinning. Based in Winterthur, Switzerland, the company develops and manufactures machinery, systems and components that are used to convert natural and manmade fibres and the fibre blends into yarns.

At the end of the 1950s, computers became increasingly more noticeable in Switzerland. While Switzerland today is probably considered to be one of the strongest computerised countries worldwide, there is still little research about its history in Switzerland. Josef Egger’s text offers a most welcome contribution to the understanding of Swiss computer science. The text devotes itself to a time when computers gained major importance; however, for a good portion of the population, technology remained invisible. Swiss companies have been early and significant users of the spreading computer technology.

Josef Egger is of the opinion that a broad presentation of the early development of computer use in Switzerland is still missing. As the real beginning of computer use in Switzerland was in 1969, Josef Egger describes the integration of mainframe computers in major companies between the end of the 1950s and the arrival of the personal computer in the 1980s. For his survey Josef Egger researched the archives of different large companies such as ABB and Nestlé.

Josef Egger worked in the IT department of Swissair for 17 years. Between 1986 and 2000 he was head of the IT department of Swiss Federal Railways. Between 1996 and 2001 he acted as chairman of the board of directors of Sunrise, the second-largest telecommunications operator in Switzerland. His practical experience gives an interesting perspective from a practitioner’s viewpoint.

Summary

The summarised text is based on two extracts: «Menschen im Bann des Computers» (translated: «Human Beings under the Spell of Computers») and «Der Computer im Unternehmen» (translated: «The Computer in Enterprises»). In these texts Egger analyses how, during the given time frame, people were affected by computers. Assessing a job advertisement in the in-house newspaper of the Zurich Cantonal Bank of December 1972, he noted that at that time the IT profession was divided into «executive professions» and «planning professions». He regrets, however, that an education for computer specialists as such was not available at that time. The education, far into the 1970s, was done by computer producers; they mainly taught the use of the products. The situation improved in later years. The (few) electronic data processing (EDP) specialists were usually together in an organisational unit, which was led by the head of the EDP. One of EDP’s main tasks was to establish contacts with computer suppliers; they had to maintain a good partnership. Those who worked in an operational function were either the victims or the beneficiaries of the computer use. During that time period when computers were still very new, employees were often anxious about using them.

In general, Egger’s text states that the progressive use of computers for dealing with administrative, planning, executive and controlling functions drastically changed the working environment in both the private and public sectors. Computer use had far-reaching consequences with regard to the internal organisations; business processes had to be reworked, hierarchies were flattened and the decision-making powers centralized. Although these changes were foreseeable, they turned out to be a preliminary phase introducing the forthcoming personal computers, networks and the Internet. During this period, the subject of workers losing their jobs was prevalent in the workplace.

As a consequence of the emergence of computers, many technical magazines wrote articles about the capital budgeting of IT projects. These articles were often limited to general statements that gave little assistance for their practical implementation. For example, the Swiss Bank Corporation estimated that the introduction of real-time banking would result in job losses for 800 employees. However, after the company had calculated the additional implementation costs, it would have an annual savings of 30 million Swiss francs.
Between 1960 and 1980, many Swiss companies ran the EDP to an important instrument of the business processes. This assessment is supported by the fact that many Swiss delegations visited relevant factories in the United States. In those days the companies in the United States focused on a mixture of data and transactions; however, for the Swiss professionals the qualitative arrangement of the computer applications was very important. The variety of functions, the exactness of data and the integration of uses, as well as the efficiency and reliability of the computer centres, became significant as the Traffic System of Swissair or the mentioned real-time banking of Swiss Bank Corporation were evidencing in practice.

The projects in Egger’s text are thoroughly described, showing the intensive work Egger must have done in the companies’ archives. In an age of social media and the Internet of Things (IoT), most people are not aware of how the whole computer industry has evolved. Therefore, Egger’s text provides a most welcome journey through the different steps in computer technology from the 1960s onwards.

Further developments

A newly published comprehensive text by Herbert Bruderer with the title «Milestones of the Computing Technology», published in 2015, covers similar areas as Egger’s work. Herbert Bruderer presents selected masterpieces of computing technology. His text is a contribution to the history of mathematics and informatics. The text is not aimed at a systematic or complete presentation of the historical developments; the focus lies on the technical achievements, but not their effects on the economy and society.

An interesting part of the analysis concerns the assessment of invention capacities. Herbert Bruderer states in his text that Heinz Rutishauser (ETH Zurich) is the inventor of the automatic programming. In addition, Rutishauser is one of the «fathers» of the programming language Algol. Therefore, Rutishauser is known as the most important Swiss pioneer of the early days of computer science. Together with Ambros Speiser, he worked as a research assistant for Eduard Stiefel at the ETH Zurich. In 1951 Heinz Rutishauser, Ambros Speiser and Eduard Stiefel published an important text regarding «Programmgesteuerte digitale Rechengeräte (Elektronische Rechenmaschinen)» (translated: «Program-controlled Digital Computing Devices (Electronic Computing Machines)»). According to Bruderer, this text provides–probably for the first time in German-speaking countries–basic knowledge on the newly discovered field of expertise.

In the context of the program-controlled calculating machines, Bruderer mentions Konrad Zuse as another important scholar. The German civil engineer is one of the inventors of the computer machine. His Zuse Z3 (1941) is regarded as the first program-controlled binary arithmetic machine with floating-point representation. He also created the first high-level programming language called «Plankalkül». Josef Egger states in his text that one of the first program-controlled computers based on a relay used in Switzerland was the Zuse Z4. In addition, Zuse was looking for customers who were interested in using his device and managed to have the ETH Zurich finance the maintenance and expansion of his machine. In 1950 Eduard Stiefel used the Zuse Z4 for tasks in mathematics.

Herbert Bruderer also makes public that at the end of 2013, two very rare – over 100 years old – loga computing rollers with a scale length of 24 metres were found at the ETH Zurich and in UBS AG Basel. According to current knowledge, these rollers are most likely the world’s largest and most accurate computation rollers. Until summer 2013, only three 24-metre rollers had been found; 15-metre rollers are much more frequent.

Herbert Bruderer is a retired professor at the Department of Informatics at the ETH Zurich and is also a technology historian. He has written numerous books on computer science and is the winner of various prizes.

Text

You can find a scan (PDF) of the original text here: Egger – Ein Wunderwerk der Technik.